In egalitarian Denmark, tide of refugees challenges 'social contract'

Despite the Danish government's overt rejection of migrants, many Danes would welcome refugees. But they worry that newcomers would undermine the country's Nordic model.

Soeren Bidstrup/Scanpix Denmark/Reuters
People demonstrate to show their support for refugees after the Danish government tightened rules for asylum seekers, in front of the Danish Parliament at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Monday.

When the wave of refugees surging across Europe’s borders rose to new heights over the summer, Denmark's newly elected conservative government thought it knew just how the public would want it to respond. 

Having ridden into power in June on a pledge of no more migrants or refugees – and having watched the nationalist, anti-immigration Danish People’s Party become the country’s fastest-growing political force – the government just said no to the thousands knocking at Europe’s door.

The refugees could transit through Denmark to Sweden or other destinations, officials said, but they would not be allowed to stay. The government even took out full-page ads in Lebanese newspapers to spread the word of Denmark's “no vacancy” sign. That’s what the Danish people wanted from the government, right?

Not exactly.

As it turns out, Danes are torn between two powerful forces. They worry about an eroding Danish identity and the challenges migrants pose to the country’s generous welfare state. But they also feel driven to harbor the world’s most threatened and vulnerable and provide them with the benefits and tools to prosper in Denmark.

'The Danish people have changed'

Right-wing anti-immigration parties have surged in recent years not just in Denmark but in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. At the same time, the largest refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II has prompted fresh outpourings of sympathy and welcome.

Many Danes were horrified by their political leaders’ response to the human misery and desperation on Europe’s doorstep. More than 30,000 demonstrators marched on the parliament building in Copenhagen. Some held signs declaring "Welcome!" to refugees; other signs expressed a sense of "shame" over the government's response. 

“What we in Denmark have witnessed in recent months is a kind of clash of two parallel discourses – one that says Denmark is threatened by ‘others’ and expresses a fear particularly of Muslim immigrants, and a counter-current of those who say we need to be part of the solution and to share equitably with the EU [European Union] the accommodation of the refugees,” says Bjarke Møller, director of EUROPA, a European affairs think tank in Copenhagen. “But over this terrible summer, the Danish people have changed.”

Recent polls show growing majorities here favor more receptive policies towards refugees and closer cooperation with the EU. The pendulum has shifted, says Mr. Møller, towards "equity and fair burden-sharing in this crisis.”

Enabling refugees

That sense of burden-sharing is evident in Allerød, a suburb north of Copenhagen known for its concentration of iconic Danish furniture designers like Wegner and Arne Jacobsen.

A wealthy community of mostly single-family houses, Allerød isn't a natural destination for Denmark’s immigrant populations. The town was largely untouched by a wave of refugees in the 1990s that included many Muslims from the Balkans.

In the eyes of many Danes, Mr. Møller says, that influx of foreigners was considered a failure because it created ghettos of unemployed non-Danish speakers.

But then a few years ago the government approved a new integration policy that required all of Denmark’s 98 municipalities to house and educate their fair share of the thousands of refugees allowed to enter Denmark each year. Last year the total was 15,000, of which 7,000 were Syrians. Allerød’s slice of the national pie was set at 75 refugees a year.

“At first there were a lot of questions, people were scared by the groups of young foreigners they had seen walking around together in other places, and they feared they would not fit in here,” says Jorgen Johansen, Allerød’s mayor. “But now it’s different, I can feel that the attitude of the people of Allerød is changing.”

Short on housing, the town put up eight modular housing units on a vacant lot next to an elementary school. It’s now considering building apartments to accommodate more refugees. The town maintains a refugee counseling and tutoring center that shares space with a daycare center.

“I like to call them our new citizens,” says Mayor Johansen, “and I would say that they are doing well here. They are in Danish classes, our companies are coming forward to offer them work.”

Maintaining society's balance

But Johansen worries that the other impulse in Denmark – the anti-immigration sentiments behind the Danish People’s Party – could grow again if Danes decide the new wave of refugees is not fitting in and is overwhelming the country.

Others say many Danes will view the new population of refugees through the prism of past immigration experience that was widely judged to be a failure. What will trigger an anti-immigrant reaction faster than anything, they say, is a perceived danger to the Danish “social contract” that trades a high, equitable standard of living for work and high taxes.

“Denmark is a small country of 5 million people, it is homogeneous and fiercely egalitarian,” says Peter Nedergaard, a professor of political scenic at the University of Copenhagen. “The Danish people are very proud of a system that has delivered one of the lowest inequality quotients in the world, but now they fear it could be under threat."

Professor Nedergaard says it’s a mistake to view the rising Danish People’s Party as simply racist or anti-immigrant. “They’re not,” he says. Instead, “It’s a working-class party of people who fear that immigrants won’t learn Danish, won’t be able to get a job, and so will weaken the social contract,” he says.

The risk, he says, is that as more refugees come to Denmark, “People are going to be tempted to think, ‘We’ve come a long way in reducing the underclass, and now suddenly we see new people coming, and making up a new underclass.”

In Allerød, Johansen worries that if the wave of refugees continues and the Danish people are asked to do too much, the “welcome” of towns like his could change to “stay out.”      

“With the refugee crisis in Europe, there is no reason to think the numbers we are called on to take here in Allerød will go down in the coming years,” the mayor says. “The concern is that we won’t have the time and space to do a good job of this integration, and then what happens to this new attitude we’re seeing today?”

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