Keeping Denmark Danish means making Denmark look bad

In international newspapers, immigration minister Inger Støjberg wants to run an information campaign to warn off asylum seekers from seeking protection in Denmark. But while the move satisfies her parliamentary partners in the populist Dansk Folkeparti, dissenting voices within her own party Venstre argue it is a petty and counterproductive strategy

Stay away from Denmark. This is the government’s message to the unprecedented levels of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflicts around the world.

The Liberal Party (Venstre) – which formed a minority government in June – has long argued that the rising numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark is a result of generous benefits and living conditions. Over the last four years they repeatedly attacked the former centre-left wing government for improving the living conditions of asylum seekers, including the right to live and work outside of asylum centres.

Venstre claimed that these improvements were responsible for a massive rise in asylum seekers. 2249 asylum applications were lodged in 2011, rising to 6104 in 2014, according to Statistics Denmark. Experts pointed out, however, that the increase roughly tracked a general rise in applications to the EU over the same period – from 310,000 in 2011 to 627,000 in 2015.

The flow already seems to be reducing, however. Only around 1,100 asylum applications were lodged in Denmark this July compared to 1,733 the year before. Despite this, the government is intent on reducing this number through a number of controversial new initiatives.

From war to poverty
Despite being the 17th most populous country in the EU, Denmark still receives the fifth most asylum applications relative to its population. Venstre’s suspicion that Denmark’s level of benefits was to blame was supported by a document from the EU’s border agency Frontex, which reported that in 2014 human smugglers posted a website detailing the varying level of benefits and ease of family reunification in a number of EU countries.

This news satisfied integration minister Inger Støjberg.

“With this paper in my hand, I can conclude with certainty that the conditions of stay mean something,” she told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “We have now tightened the level of benefits and more restrictions will come.”

Støjberg was referring to the reduction in benefits for asylum seekers implemented within weeks of forming a minority government following the June election. Asylum seekers will now receive an equivalent amount to students, but without the added benefits of loans and the ability to also earn money on the side.

While they can claim a 1,500 kroner “integration bonus” for learning Danish, political consultant Stinne Bech from Amnesty Denmark argues that the reduction in benefits will only serve to force asylum seekers into poverty.

“The new benefit will create poverty and discrimination, not integration. It’s out of touch with reality to suggest that we can regulate away the flow of refugees through reducing benefits.”

Pressure on finances
Rising numbers of asylum seekers have placed pressure on public finances. In 2011 the government spent around three billion kroner on housing and processing asylum applicants, while the bill in 2015 is expected to run to 9.2 billion.

Given these figures, Venstre can make an economic argument for limiting the numbers of asylum seekers, especially given the evidence that refugees and asylum seekers do seek out particular countries in which to settle.

“The vast majority of Syrians did not apply for asylum in the Member States of entry but rather in other Member States for many different reasons, notably because they expect to receive more attractive welfare benefits,” states Frontex in their 2015 Annual Risk Analysis.

In order to claim asylum in Denmark, refugees must first travel undetected through Europe, exposing a major problem with the EU’s protocol for handling asylum. In practice, asylum seekers must have their applications processed in the country through which they entered the EU. That means that if an asylum seeker is registered in Italy, but then travels to Denmark to make a claim, Denmark can send the asylum seeker back to Italy for processing.

Many asylum seekers are aware of this situation, along with the poor conditions in southern European countries such as Italy and Greece, which are the primary points of entry into the EU. Frontex has registered a number of cases where Italian authorities have deliberately failed to register asylum seekers in order to let them travel through Europe to lodge their application.

The Pacific Solution
In May, the European Commission proposed redistributing arriving refugees and asylum seekers among EU member states. The goal is to reduce the pressure on countries such as Italy and Greece, but the Danish government has decided not participate in the programme.

Instead, the government is set on implementing its own programmes to reduce the numbers. These initiatives are warmly supported by their support party the anti-immigration Dansk Folkeparti (DF), the second largest party in parliament, which has repeatedly called for stricter limits on immigration and for helping refugees closer to conflict zones, instead of on Danish soil.

In April, the party proposed copying Australia’s “Pacific Solution”, in which refugees arriving by boat are either towed back to land, or taken to the pacific island Nauru, around 3,000 kilometres miles away, for processing.

This controversial approach has been credited with reducing the numbers of refugees arriving in Australia by boat, but it has also had catastrophic consequences for those who are detained.

According to Julian Burnside, an Australian barrister, human rights activist and refugee advocate, the approach often results in indefinite detention for the asylum seekers – a situation that causes catastrophic personal harm.

“Typically, boat people fall into hopelessness and despair after about 12 months. Australia’s detention system, both onshore and offshore, has seen many refugee applicants, including children, try to kill themselves. It has seen hundreds of refugee applicants, including children, harming themselves especially by swallowing poison or cutting themselves,” says Burnside (see page 22).

Around 90 percent of asylum seekers arriving by boat are ultimately granted protection, making the system punitive and needlessly harsh, argues Burnside.

Støjberg’s scare tactics
In late July, Støjberg stated that she had not ruled out any new and restrictive policies for asylum seekers. Shipping asylum seekers offshore for processing is unlikely, but she did announce that she would copy the Australia’s information campaigns that warn against seeking asylum in the country.

“It’s an information campaign whose message is that you can no longer expect the record high levels of benefits that were introduced by the former government, and you should instead travel to another country,” Støjberg told Politiken.

The planned campaign, which would run in countries where refugees travel from and through, was swiftly condemned by the opposition, but also from within her own ranks, including MEP Jens Rohde, who has repeatedly broken with party lines on asylum.

“The question is whether she wants to solve the problem or survive politically because of them,” he told Politiken, urging Støjberg to visit Greece and refugee camps in the Middle East in order to fully appreciate the gravity of the problem.

High-profile businesswoman Stine Bosse, chairman of the pro-European Europabevægelsen, also penned a letter to Støjberg that argued the adverts would do Denmark more harm than good.

“How would these scare campaigns be received outside Denmark?” she wrote in political magazine Ræson. “Do they promote Denmark’s international influence? Has the minister for all of Denmark’s refugee and immigration policies even bothered to talk to the business community, which is only just starting to truly recover from the crisis, about how they can continue to attract people from around the world to this country?”

Bosse also argues out that Denmark would likely reduce its numbers of asylum seekers if it joined the EU programme to resettle refugees.

Torture victims suffer most
Whatever restrictions the government puts in place, asylum seekers are unlikely to stop seeking out Denmark for protection. Among them are vulnerable individuals suffering from trauma related to their experience in war zones.

According to anti-torture organisation Dignity, the decision to lower benefits is counterproductive.

“The deal will undoubtedly increase the stress on torture victims and other highly traumatised individuals and reduce their ability to integrate,” stated CEO Karin Verland.

“It is odd to increase the stress and insecurity on a group that most needs calm and stability, and destroy their opportunity for proper living conditions in Denmark.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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