How Not to Welcome Refugees

With its new immigration law, Denmark is once again sending a blunt message to migrants.

Migrants at Denmark's Padborg Station, after crossing over the border from Germany (Scanpix Denmark / Reuters)

On Tuesday, the Danish parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill seemingly designed to solidify Denmark’s reputation as Western Europe’s least attractive country for refugees—a hard-earned title at a time when many of its neighbors are tightening border controls as people continue to flee conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere. The law empowers Danish authorities to seize any assets exceeding $1,450 from asylum-seekers in order to help pay for the migrants’ subsistence in the country (items of “sentimental value,” such as wedding rings, are exempt). It also extends, from one year to three, the period that those who are resettled must wait to apply for family members to join them in Denmark.

While Denmark has not traditionally been a magnet for immigration, it hasn’t necessarily been an unwelcome place for migrants either. Over the course of the 20th century, the country of nearly 6 million became home to refugees and immigrants from the Soviet bloc, the Balkans, the Middle East, and beyond. Today, immigrants and their descendants account for 10 percent of the total population. Denmark has also been a prominent advocate for refugees and asylum-seekers. It was one of the first countries to become a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and the Danish Refugee Council—a humanitarian group partly funded by the Danish government and the Danish public—is actively involved in supporting refugees and internally displaced peoples around the world.

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.

Papademetriou distilled the general Danish attitude as such: “I want to protect the fact that my country, a small country, is an extremely wealthy country; that it provides these exceptional benefits to its people; and I don’t want to compromise my ability to receive those benefits simply because more and more people want to come in.”

But the people need to go somewhere. One upshot of the Danish government’s recent actions is that they could encourage other European governments to adopt similarly restrictive measures. Some refugees in Switzerland have had to hand over assets valued at over 1,000 Swiss francs, and Germany’s southern states have similar laws on the books. Papademetriou believes “this will open doors in other countries … it gives them additional license, perhaps not to go exactly where the Danes are going, but to go half of the way, or three-quarters of the way towards it.” Leaders in countries such as Austria, Germany, and Sweden, who are bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, may note that Denmark executed its plan despite the critics, and that the critics then moved on.

Denmark, Papademetriou suggested, may not only be sending signals to would-be asylum-seekers: Its policies could convey a “message that gradually will spread throughout the few countries that matter.”