How Progressive Denmark Became the Face of the Anti-Migration Left
Emily Rauhala, Washington Post, April 6, 2023
Zero asylum. Send them back to Syria. Claims should be sorted somewhere else. It may sound like the rhetoric of the far right, but in this wealthy, Scandinavian welfare state, it has become the political center.
Denmark, polite and progressive, is profoundly skeptical of asylum seekers. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, of the center-left Social Democrats, has touted a vision of “zero” people arriving to Denmark outside the United Nations resettlement system. A key priority for her government: working with European Union allies to set up claims-processing centers far away.
Even as the country touts its human rights record abroad, Danish authorities are threatening already settled refugees with deportation to Syria, claiming against considerable evidence that the Damascus area and two other regions are safe. They can’t actually send people back — Denmark does not recognize the Syrian government — but many Syrians live in fear of being kicked out, and small numbers languish in deportation centers. The Kaershovedgaard center is in fact a former prison.
The Danish case offers a vivid example of how far-right ideas are flourishing, even where the far right has struggled to gain power. For some, Denmark demonstrates how rich democracies are eroding refugee and asylum protections, shifting blame and shirking responsibility — all without meaningfully addressing root causes. And Denmark may preview where the E.U. is headed, as the 27-nation bloc warily watches rising migration numbers and mulls a more restrictive course.
Denmark’s hard-line stance does not apply to everyone seeking refuge. The country last year welcomed tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, easing their path to school and work.
Nadia Hardman, a researcher in the refugee and migrant rights division of Human Rights Watch, called Denmark’s policies “racist, duplicitous and hypocritical.”
In a statement, Kaare Dybvad, Denmark’s minister of immigration and integration, called that characterization “offensive” and “lacking of the seriousness that is required when talking about the Government’s policies.”
The government’s goal is not zero asylum, he said, but zero people arriving through unofficial channels. “Refugees should come to Denmark through the U.N. resettlement system where they will be selected on the basis of humanitarian criteria,” he said. In the past three years, the country of nearly 6 million has accepted fewer than 250 refugees through that program, according to data from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Because Denmark has opted out of many of the E.U.’s immigration and asylum rules, not all its policies are replicable. But the country’s hard-line rhetoric, its insistence on temporary protection and its focus on externalizing responsibility have echoes across the continent.
“The Danish approach may become the European mainstream,” said Kasper Sand Kjaer, a member of Denmark’s Parliament and the Social Democrats’ spokesman on immigration and integration.
Denmark was not always like this.
Thirty years ago, the country was relatively open and welcoming, with strong protections for asylum seekers and refugees. But that started to change in the 1990s, as the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right Danish People’s Party proved politically potent.
Anti-immigrant voices sold the idea that Denmark’s success was a result of its homogeneity — that protecting the welfare state required protecting “Danishness.”
Political figures on the right started saying that refugees should eventually be sent back to their home countries, recalled Haifaa Awad, a doctor who serves as chairwoman of the Danish aid organization Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke. “This was a right-wing agenda, but it was widely accepted by other parties that if you want to get into power, you have to play with their discourse.”
Europe’s influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016 helped turn talking points into law. In 2015, the Danish Parliament introduced a new temporary protection status that could be withdrawn when conditions in home countries improve even slightly. In 2016, the government granted authorities the right to confiscate the jewelry and valuables of new arrivals, supposedly to fund their stay. “Anti-ghetto laws” sought to limit the number of “non-Western” people living in certain neighborhoods.
Denmark’s political parties were “competing about being harder-line hard-liners,” Awad said.
In 2019, the Danish Immigration Service began reviewing the residence permits of Syrian refugees from Damascus and the Rif Damascus province. Since then, more than 1,000 Syrians have had their residence permits reassessed, and more than 100 have had their permits revoked, according to the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
Human rights and legal experts note that the majority of revocations are overturned on appeal, meaning the policy has little impact beyond terrifying newcomers and sending small numbers of others to wait in dreary camps. The cruelty, critics argue, is the point.