But the past year brought something different. In 2015, 21,000 people sought asylum in Denmark—up from 14,815 asylum applications in 2014 and 7,557 in 2013. (Denmark happens to be sandwiched between the two most popular European destinations for today’s migrants and refugees: Germany and Sweden.) These are numbers that the Danish welfare state—which guarantees free health care and education, among other benefits, to every citizen—is struggling to handle.
Danish officials have responded with a series of steps, many rather dramatic, that appear to be aimed at dissuading migrants from coming to Denmark in the first place. In August, the government cut social benefits to refugees and immigrants by 45 percent, in a move marketed as an “integration benefit.” To ensure the message was clearly received, the Danish government proceeded to advertise the benefit cut, as well as other government policies that asylum-seekers might find unappealing, in newspapers in Lebanon, which has a large refugee population. More recently, the government proposed moving refugees from urban housing to camps outside cities, an initiative that would “shift the focus of government immigration policy to repatriation rather than integration,” according to Reuters. A Danish city council mandated the placement of pork on municipal menus (observant Muslims don’t eat pork), including at schools and daycare centers, while a Danish court fined a Danish man for driving five migrants through Denmark, from Germany to Sweden.
Why has the Danish government resorted to these rather passive-aggressive tactics, instead of simply sealing off its borders or issuing some blanket ban on granting asylum? As a member of the European Union and signatory to multiple UN conventions on the subject, Denmark has “to offer ... an opportunity to somebody who is coming to their borders ... to be heard. If they make an asylum claim, the state has no choice but to adjudicate that claim,” explained Demetrios Papademetriou, the president of the Migration Policy Institute’s Europe center. “The issue is whether you’re offering them permanent protection … with all the benefits … or whether you’re offering them temporary protection. And then, whether you’re trying to sort of make it difficult and send messages back to would-be newcomers that this is not really a friendly place for you to come.” (According to a UNHCR report, the legislation Denmark passed this week may still violate various UN conventions and EU law.)
These moves bear the imprint, in part, of the right-wing, populist, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party (DPP), which has been Denmark’s second-largest party since last year’s general election. While the DPP isn’t a formal member of the ruling government, its support is essential for keeping the minority Liberal Party in power. But Papademetriou told me that stringent immigration policies and demands for newcomers to assimilate predate the DPP’s rise, and have been present in Denmark for more than a decade. And these policies have considerable public support. One recent poll showed that 37 percent of voters opposed offering more residence permits to migrants—an increase of 17 percentage points since September. Another poll indicated that 70 percent of voters felt the refugee crisis constituted the most important issue on the political agenda.