Denmark has a limited history of immigration and so it remains one of the few countries in western Europe with a relatively small ethnic-minority population.
Figures from US-based Migration Information Source put the number of immigrants and their descendent from “non-western” countries now living in Denmark at 320,000, or 5.9 per cent of the Danish population.
In comparison the UK has around eight per cent and Holland at 14.2 per cent.
But in the 1980s, with its prosperous economy and solid welfare state, Denmark became an increasingly popular destination of choice for asylum seekers and family dependents.
This, set against a declining birth rate for ethnic Danes, has led to immigrants and their descendents forming a growing chunk of the population. Whereas they are now approaching six per cent, back in 1980 they constituted just one per cent.
This growth has sparked increasing and passionate debate in Denmark over immigration and the effects it has on a country that for long has remained homogenous and distinctly mono-cultural.
Divisions over the issue have reached such a level that political experts fear they threaten a culture of political and social cohesion that has dominated Denmark since the end of the Second World War.
The right-wing Danish People’s Party has helped keep immigration in the political spotlight since its founding in 1995, and it, along with widespread concern in Denmark over immigration, has led to the country introducing a series of laws aimed at keeping it under control.
Non-EU immigrants that are allowed into the country are now required to learn Danish and become familiar with Denmark’s history and culture, while access to benefits remains tightly controlled.
At the same time the country has cracked down on people using marriage as a means of gaining access to Denmark.
Laws now stipulate that for marriages involving a Dane and a non-EU or non-Nordic citizen both parties have to be aged over 24 and the Dane must be independent of government aid.
All this has led to the number of asylum seekers in Denmark falling by two-thirds in the last five years.
Most businesses feel current immigration policy prevents them from hiring the foreign employees they need
Just as a looming election campaign seems to have sparked new life into the immigration debate, major businesses are calling out for a softening of the immigration policy.
Six out of ten of the country’s largest businesses need to attract foreign employees within the next three years. But many of them say the current immigration regulations are making it difficult to entice them to come here, according to a new survey by Jyllands-Posten newspaper.
The Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) agrees with the criticism.
“There is a need to make improvements to make it easier for the businesses,” DI managing director Karsten Dybvad said. “If they have problems getting skilled workers to Denmark, they end up having to move their operations abroad.”
It is particularly difficult to hold on to overseas students, according to the Danish Chamber of Commerce (DCC).
“They [overseas students] get six months after finishing their studies to find a job and then they have to leave,” said Jannik Schack Linnemann, the head of research policy at the DCC. “We think they should automatically be handed a green card and a starting allowance.”
Søren Pind, the immigration minister, pointed out that the government with its flexible work permit programmes has already opened up the borders for foreign talents.
“More people are coming to Denmark to work and study than ever before. We have tripled the number of residence permits for work and study since 2001,” he said, pointing out that last year alone immigration authorities issued more than 5,300 work-related residence permits.
“That’s a 50 percent increase on the previous year.”
The bureaucracy can also scare off the skilled foreign workers, according to Torben M. Andersen, a former chief economic adviser to the government.
“Yes, we have more types of work-related residence permits now that make it easier for businesses to get foreign workers here, but the schemes also involve lots of additional administrative hassle. That could easily play a part if it is considered inconvenient and insecure.”