Minister of Refugee, Immigration, and Integration Affairs Rikke Hvilshøj says foreigners get a better welcome after the Liberal-Conservative government came to power. There are just not as many welcome as before
Denmark is not receiving as many refugees and immigrants as it did before Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s Liberal-Conservative government came to power in 2001. It is, however, giving them a better welcome than ever before, Immigration Minister Rikke Hvilshøj believes.
Since Rasmussen’s government came to power and closed the door on many of the immgrants that had access before 2002, the number of annual residence permits granted to asylum seekers each year fell from 5156 in 2000 to 2447 in 2003. Residence permits for family reunification fell from 10,021 in 2000 to 4791 in 2003, according to national statistics office Statistics Denmark.
Hvilshøj, whose slight build and girlish voice belie her importance as the minister in charge of the government’s most hotly contested policies, said there was no doubt in her mind that recent years’ restrictions on immigrant influx to Denmark had proved positive.
‘One of the things we have accepted is that the number of foreigners coming to the country makes a difference,’ she said. ‘There is a reverse correlation between how many come here and how well we can receive the foreigners that come here.’
Hvilshøj said she herself remembered how the country’s towns and cities had fought to accommodate all the immigrants and refugees let into the country before the Liberal Party defeated the Social Democrats in the 2001 national election by announcing ‘changing times’.
Backed by the immigration-adverse Danish People’s Party, the government implemented stricter rules for who could receive residence permits, slashed social benefit payments to newcomers, and introduced ways to force rejected asylum seekers out of the country, depriving them of benefit payments and granting them only a box of bare necessities to sustain themselves.
‘I often say that previously, we received many people, but we couldn’t give them a good welcome. Now we can receive new citizens in style, and find a place for them in Danish society,’ she said.
Hvilshøj said, however, that high unemployment rates and low education levels remained the biggest problem posed to Danish residents with foreign backgrounds. Only 46 percent of immigrants from third-world countries hold a job, compared with 73 percent of Danes. Sixty percent of youngsters with foreign backgrounds drop out of high school.
Hvilshøj said the government was pushing to get more foreign women to leave the sanctity of their homes and enter the Danish labour market. The best tools to increase immigrant labour participation included Danish language courses, increased economic advantages for work, and job training courses to help newcomers on the labour market qualify for the jobs on offer.
The responsibility, however, could not be placed on immigrants alone. Employers must also open their doors to foreign workers.
‘The able and willing should not meet a closed door because they have a foreign-sounding name,’ Hvilshøj said. ‘We have seen a lot of that in the past, but I think it has become a smaller problem than it used to be. We have talked with many companies that say they would like to hire workers with other ethnic backgrounds, but they never apply for vacancies.’
Hvilshøj added that with Denmark’s current economic boom and low unemployment, the time was ripe for immigrants to seize the labour market.
Touching on a more sensitive subject than the matters of fact of the Danish economy, Hvilshøj said integration was also about convincing newcomers in the country to embrace Danish values. In some cases, they must discard cultural and political notions from the countries they left behind.
‘In my view, Denmark should be a country with room for different cultures and religions,’ she said. ‘Some values, however, are more important than others. We refuse to question democracy, equal rights, or freedom of expression.’
After last months’ debates about press freedom, sparked by a daily newspaper raising hell in the Muslim community by printing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, Hvilshøj’s comments came as a confirmation of the government’s stance that the newspaper was free to provoke the anger of Muslims around the world. It was simply not the government’s business.
Nevertheless, she found it difficult to answer whether the newspaper’s taunting of Muslims contributed to a hateful tone towards immigrants in the country.
‘Speaking for myself, I try to be careful how I say things,’ she said. ‘There have been comments in the Danish debate that I do not like at all. I don’t think the tone has been growing more hostile towards immigrants. On the contrary. Compared with other European countries, we have come a long way. Talking about some things can be painful, but keeping our mouths shut doesn’t solve any problems.’