The Danish government’s adverts targeting asylum seekers in Lebanon are ineffective, insensitive and a downright diplomatic blunder, say sources in Lebanon.
Earlier this month, integration minister Inger Støjberg followed through with promises to place Arabic-language adverts in major Lebanese newspapers. The goal was to dissuade Syrian refugees in Lebanon from seeking asylum in Denmark by detailing the country’s tightened regulations and welfare cuts.
“Denmark has decided to tighten the regulations concerning refugees in a number of areas,” reads the text, before detailing the welfare cuts for refugees and tightened requirements for family reunification visas. Refugees are also pointedly informed that they need to learn Danish to attain residency.
Støjberg’s goal was to make Denmark seem unattractive to refugees in Lebanon, but she has also may have succeeded in tarnishing Denmark’s reputation abroad. The adverts have unleashed a wave of global criticism and prompted a parliamentary inquiry in Denmark after accusations that they were misleading.
Lebanese sources say the Danish campaign has failed to register with refugees. And for those who have seen the adverts, they only reinforced the message that
Denmark is an intolerant country that has turned its back on a humanitarian crisis.
There are around 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country of just four million. But despite the broad reach of the three Arabic and one English-language Lebanese newspapers where the adverts were printed, Jad Melki, associate professor of Journalism and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, says the adverts went largely unnoticed.
“If the goal of the adverts was to deter illegal migration, these ads failed miserably and were a waste of money. According to several studies we’ve conducted on Syrian refugees, newspapers are not among the main sources for news about the conflict,” he says.
For Firas Suqi, who works with a Lebanese NGO building schools for Syrians, the advertisements demonstrated an ignorance about how Syrians consume media.
“Most Syrian refugees don’t pay for newspapers – they access their information online through smart phones where they primarily read Syrian sources, since they tend to be more interested in what is happening back in Syria.”
Remy Ghanem is a 26-year-old Syrian refugee who now lives in Lebanon’s capital Beirut. He studied digital art at the Institute for Dramatic Art in Damascus, Syria, and considered moving to Denmark – but not because of welfare. Instead he wanted to attend the The National Film School of Denmark, as he had once attended a workshop hosted by two of its instructors. Now he wants to go to Norway instead, where he has friends.
“When I first came to Lebanon in 2011, I would read newspapers like An-Nahar just to get news that I wouldn’t find on Facebook or the internet. But then I stopped after a while,” he said. He didn’t see the advertisements.
Not a top destination
That Denmark is a priority destination for asylum seekers was precisely Støjberg’s justification when she took to her Facebook page in early September to announce that the advertisements had been published in the Lebanese newspapers.
“Denmark is high on trafficker’s hit lists. Given the huge influx to Europe these days, there is good reason for us to tighten rules and get that effectively communicated,” she wrote on Facebook.
The cost of producing and printing the adverts amounted to 252,000 kroner, according to government figures.
Lebanese sources say, however, that the government’s assumptions that Denmark is a high-priority destination for displaced Syrians in Lebanon are unfounded.
“Denmark is not exactly a main destination for Syrian and other migrants.” says Melki.
Critics have also decried the campaign as offensive and insensitive in light of the refugee burden borne by Lebanon and other neighbouring countries.
As a small nation plagued by internal difficulties, Lebanon has responded to its overwhelming population surge with a hardline stance. Since January, Syrians are required to obtain visas and renew their residency every six months, sending unofficial refugee numbers in the country skyrocketing.
The adverts prompted former foreign minister Martin Lidegaard to dub the campaign “distasteful” in Berlingske.
Suqi agrees: “I think it’s a diplomatic blunder more than anything else,” he said, adding that it may increase tensions with Europe.
“I think most Lebanese have taken it as an insult from European countries. At the same time, it has given the Lebanese something to boast about in the continuing East-West rivalry.”
Though Melki believes that while the adverts were largely ignored, their primary impact has been to sour Denmark’s image abroad.
“They went mostly unnoticed but for those who did notice the adverts, they backfired. The adverts painted Denmark as a country intolerant of foreigners. Having been to Denmark many times, having friends and colleagues from there and having taught many students there, I know that is not an accurate picture,” he says.
The Danish adverts reflect a broader deterrence approach emerging from the refugee crisis. Most recently, Hungary took out a full-colour spread in a Lebanese newspaper warning refugees that they will be jailed if they enter the country illegally.
In recent months, the Danish government and its support party, the Danish People’s Party (DF), have touted Australia’s ‘Pacific solution’ as a viable approach to reducing the number of asylum seekers in Denmark.
Ausralia’s use of so-called ‘deterrence propaganda’ was justified on humanitarian grounds, to discourage further deaths at sea. The number of refugees arriving in Australia by boat have also plummeted since the introduction of the Pacific Solution.
Suqi does agree that refugees ought to be given realistic expectations about what awaits them in Europe.
“The government’s strategy was useful in conveying information to Syrian refugees who might have heard that they’ll be given a palace and a tree that grows Euros in their backyard. I often hear stories like this as explanations for embarking on the journey to Europe from Lebanon,” he says.
Suqi feels that the Syrian conflict is politically distant from Europe, which leaves leaders disinclined to participate in contributing to long-term solutions.
“Globally, we’re in a period where European leaders do not want to meddle in this part of the world. It’s sad that it had to happen during the largest humanitarian tragedy of the century.” M