Generosity of `Big-Hearted' Danes Is Tested by Influx of Refugees
With Britain and France closed and Germany shutting the door to refugees, Denmark is grappling with ways to meet a growing burden
COPENHAGEN — ON a landing of Copenhagen's inner harbor, not far from the sleek ferries that will soon carry thousands of summer vacationers to Sweden and the ports of Central Europe, a stark white structure that looks like a floating apartment block is home to 1,000 Bosnian refugees.
Called a "flotel," the four-story building that formerly served as housing for an offshore oil platform in Saudi Arabia now helps house some of the thousands of asylum-seekers who have knocked at Denmark's door from the former Yugoslavia in recent months.
"We wanted to go to America, but America does not like us; they wouldn't let us in," says Phillip Kajinic, who along with his wife, daughter, and brother, came to Denmark in December from Zenica, a town northwest of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Having decided to flee their war-torn homeland, the Kajinics learned that only Denmark and Sweden remained open to them. After a bus trip to Poland, they took a ferry for Copenhagen. "It's not so bad here," says Phillip, motioning from his family's cabin to a view of sun-warmed central Copenhagen. "The Danish people have a big heart." Strained generosity
The limits of Danish largesse are being tested. Hundreds more refugees, mostly Bosnian, arrive here each week even as larger European countries like Britain and France keep them out.
Although still very rare, several anti-refugee acts have shaken the country in recent months as calls to slow the incoming flow have increased, and local communities have stepped up resistance to new refugee centers.
"Sometimes we're criticized as thieves in the night, because we come in and set up a new center without local approval," says Rasmus Nielsen of the Danish Red Cross, which is responsible for housing asylum-seekers. "But our main problem is to make sure everybody has a bed."
What until 1991 was still a trickle has multiplied as the Balkans situation has deteriorated. Denmark, with a population of 5 million, now hosts nearly 60,000 refugees and asylum-seekers; as many as 2,000 new asylum seekers arrive each month.
The 16,000 who came to Denmark last year are few compared to the 440,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany, or the 83,000 who went to Sweden. But Germany is taking steps to stem the numbers of refugees arriving. And a recent poll in Sweden showed three-fourths of the respondents supporting sealing off the borders.
The growing numbers are forcing Denmark to develop new ideas for accommodating refugees while avoiding problems with the Danish people. Denmark's traditional generosity is beginning to show some cracks as its homogeneous people become increasingly unsettled by the foreigners among them.
"From my perspective, most of the Danish are supportive, but we have to be careful," Mr. Nielsen says. "That could change very fast."
The Red Cross is spreading new refugee centers around the country rather than concentrating them in larger cities. And this year, 14 "villages" will be built, made up of modular wooden housing and serving 5,000 refugees.
"One idea is that when these people go home they will be able to take these houses with them," Nielsen says. The Red Cross distributes a newspaper entitled "Visitors in Town" to the neighborhoods of new centers.
The newspaper reminds local readers that refugees are not allowed to work - and thus are not an employment threat - and that unemployed Danes often get work building or servicing the centers. And Red Cross officials often remind a new center's neighbors that the money the refugees receive for food and other needs is spent in local shops. Humanitarian urge
No such "sell" was needed for the flotel moored in Copenhagen's progressive and cause-oriented Christianshavn district. Nearby churches are active in helping out, a local radio station grants air time for a refugee program, and sports organizations have opened their teams and playing fields to the new arrivals.
"In this part of town, if people say `yes' to something, they support it," says Ralf Kopke, a flotel manager. "Just [one mile] from here they tried to put refugees in a neighborhood with 40 percent unemployed, and it took a long time to make any progress."
With the radio playing Whitney Houston in the background, the Kajinic family discusses their "good fortune" in arriving in this "very humane neighborhood." They insist they can never go back to Bosnia.
For one thing, Phillip is a Croat and Christian while his wife, Aida, is Muslim. "Where could we go back to?" asks Phillip. "I don't intend to go back," Aida adds. "There must be some place in this world where I can just live normally with my husband and child."
As they see doors to the West closing to refugees, the Kajinics also express relief that they left their homeland when they did.
Referring to recent German moves to pay eastern neighbors like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia to keep more refugees and to beef up their border controls, Phillip's brother Alojz says, "The rich may pay the poor to take care of [us], but that's not going to solve the problem."
Refugee workers here acknowledge that it is the prospect for continuing hostilities in Europe that is challenging the openness of countries like Denmark.
"In the back of people's minds, they're thinking about Russia and what instability there would mean," Nielsen says. "We can handle 50,000, but 500,000 wouldn't be possible. What has people uneasy is they aren't sure when this is going to stop."