Seeking Refuge: In Denmark, chill deepens toward accepting refugees

Some critics of tightening restrictions worry that others in Europe will take inspiration from the Danish example. 

Jens Dresling/AP
Lars Loekke Rasmussen, head of the Liberal Party, waved at his supporters and the media after the result of the election became clear June 19 at the Parliament in Christiansborg Castle in Copenhagen. Denmark's center-right opposition won a parliamentary election after strong gains by an anti-immigration party that wants to limit the European Union's influence over the small Nordic country.

As soon as they passed through the black iron gate of the Sandholm asylum center 20 miles north of Copenhagen, a century-old former training barracks for the Queen’s guard, the 15,000 foreigners who applied last year for legal refuge in Denmark received accommodation, clothing, and food, as well as social and medical care.

"We tell them hello, and welcome,’’ says Michael Ehrenfels, head of the center, which is managed by the Danish Red Cross.

Mr. Ehrenfels’s natural warmth as he has greeted the refugees – families, unaccompanied teenagers, and abused women who mostly come from Syria and Eritrea – is what one might expect in Scandinavia.

But anti-immigrant sentiment is rising here, and the newly elected government announced in July that it will slash refugees’ welfare benefits and may change laws around family reunifications. That would put Denmark in opposition to 25 European Union states that pledged in July to share the burden of relocating up to 60,000 people and would set a precedent at a time when the humanitarian crisis is growing and right-wing parties in Europe gaining support.

Denmark approved 5,480 asylum cases in 2014, according to European Union statistics. That compares with 30,650 for Sweden, the neighboring country Danes usually gauge themselves against.

"Denmark, Sweden, and Norway used to be a united front in terms of supporting international development,’’ says Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, director of research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. "It is very clear that Denmark has left the Nordic club, particularly in terms of asylum and immigration.’’

The country’s coolness toward immigrants is irrevocably linked to the emergence of the Danish People’s Party, whose charter says that "Denmark is not an immigrant-country and never has been. Thus we will not accept transformation to a multiethnic society.’’

The DPP took 12 percent of the vote in 2001, six years after its founding. It became a key ally of the governing center-right alliance of the Conservative People's Party and Venstre from 2001 to 2011, during which time it had a key role in writing strict immigration laws that came in to effect in 2002.

New rules introduced for foreigners

In 2010, further rules demanded that permanent residence applicants have a work history, Danish language skills, savings, and debtless financial independence for the previous three years. In June 2011, the government tightened family reunification conditions, extending points-based eligibility criteria and an immigration test to the foreign spouse. In June this year the government introduced a requirement that foreigners should live in a “reasonably sized” house before bringing over their overseas family,  and in July it halved benefits for asylum seekers. 

"Things have changed now,’’ said Fateh, a 27-year-old refugee who arrived in Denmark last year from Syria and asked not to use his last name. He obtained temporary residence and his status will be reviewed in five years, he said. "The new government is trying to say to every potential refugee that they are not welcome. We are worried which new rules they may introduce. It makes life a bit stressful.’’

June’s general election propelled immigration once again to the forefront. A strident anti-immigrant rhetoric took over speeches and televised debates, with even center parties appearing restrictive on the number of foreigners that should be welcome. Former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of the Social Democrats used a New Year’s speech to tell foreigners to work, speak the local language, and “meet and mix” with Danes. 

Its message resonated: The DPP garnered 21 percent of the vote, from 12 percent in 2011, becoming the second party in the country and helping to cement an anti-immigration agenda as a pillar of Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen’s administration.

To some, the change has been dismaying. "The People’s Party has kidnapped politics in many aspects,’’ said Mads Bjerregaard, a communications student in Copenhagen. "Denmark should be doing more. When it comes to immigration policies, at this point I feel ashamed of being Danish.’’

Will Denmark be blamed?

It’s a matter of time before European partners start pointing fingers at Denmark, too, argues Mr. Gammeltoft-Hansen, as the tide of asylum seekers strains other nations’ capabilities. Greek and Italian cities are struggling with thousands of newcomers, with authorities often too overburdened to check their status. Hungary is building a fence along its southern border to stop new migrants, and in Calais, France, a shanty town has formed with as many as 5,000 stranded people living in degrading conditions as they wait a chance to reach the UK.

Asylum applications in the 28 EU members topped 600,000 in 2014, from about 400,000 two years earlier. The Syrian civil war has swelled the number of migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea to about 140,000 in the first six months of 2015, with at least 479 dying or vanishing from January to March, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

To respond to the crisis, European Union governments agreed in June to relocate 40,000 applicants currently stranded in Italy and Greece and resettle 20,000 displaced people who are outside the union over the next two years. Neither plan binds Denmark, which has held a unique opt-out clause for Europe-wide legislation covering judiciary and home affairs since the 1990s. 

In a European Agenda on Migration last May that was drafted to lay the ground for urgent action, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, criticized unnamed countries who "offer nothing’’ to help with the resettlement of overseas people in danger. Accusations have also been flying between Sweden and Denmark. The People’s Party founder, Pia Kaersgaard, was quoted saying Swedish cities were filled with ‘’clan wars, lynching and mass murders’’ because of foreigners. Swedish politicians have responded by saying Denmark should stand up and show solidarity for people in trouble. In Sweden, the populist Sweden Democrats hold 14 percent of parliament’s seats and are in opposition to the left-wing government.   

Fateh, the Syrian refugee, is seeing the contrast play out in his own family, noting that his brother has recently applied for asylum in Sweden, where residence and family reunification appear more certain. "I don’t like to say, 'I would have done this or I would have done that,’ ’’ he says. "I want to live in Denmark, but if could bring time back, I would be in Sweden, not here.’’ 

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