The idea was to make Denmark unattractive to refugees, not the international community. The new immigration law L 87 made international headlines for giving the police the right to take valuables from refugees, and delay the right of some to seek family reunification. The government has repeatedly stated the measures were needed to reduce the number of arriving refugees, but neither changes violate the UN refugee convention, nor are dissimilar from other new immigration laws being introduced across Europe.
But the law provoked former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to speak out against it and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to close a major exhibition in Copenhagen. CNN even went so far as to live stream the parliamentary debate ahead of the vote.
On the one hand it seems odd that Denmark is receiving so much attention. According to the IMF, Denmark spent 0.57 percent of its GDP on asylum seekers between 2014 and 2016, compared to an EU average of 0.19 percent. Ireland spent 0.05 percent. Eurostat figures show that 13,000 refugees arrived in Denmark in the 12 months leading up to September 2015 – Ireland accepted 2,950. According to the Economist, Denmark had the fifth largest number of arrivals, judged per capita in all of Europe. Even when Denmark reduces its foreign aid budget to 0.8 percent of GDP, it will still remain the fourth highest per capita contribution in the world. Ireland contributes 0.45 percent.
Why is no one asking Ireland to pick up the slack? Why is there no #shameonNetherlands hashtag on Twitter given they have similar valuables confiscation laws? Is the bar set that much higher for Denmark, and is that fair?
Writing for The Guardian, Danish refugee activist Michala Bendixen argued that Scandinavian countries face a difficult dilemma.
“We have always been proud of our human rights standards, equality and social welfare. But if too many people are coming from outside, the balance of the tax-based welfare system is tipping, and our tribal-like culture feels threatened.”
Few outside Denmark recognise the enormous compromises and costs that come along with a universal welfare state. Sure it’s a happy and wealthy country, but you have to play by the rules. The government has to know where you live, you have to pay high taxes, learn the language and get an education recognised by the labour market.
Coming to Denmark as an outsider is difficult. So the worst part of the new law wasn’t the valuables or family reunification regulations, it’s the decision to keep refugees as far away from ordinary Danish life as possible. The former government introduced rules to let some asylum seekers to live and work outside centres. This has now been rolled back.
Many people that have arrived in Europe aren’t entitled to protection. Returning those that don’t is fair, just like it’s fair to demand that foreigners without a visa leave the country once their time is up.
But the least Denmark can do is treat those are entitled to protection humanely. They should be allowed to live and work as close to Danish society as possible. Passive lives in asylum centres have conclusively been shown to increase the risk of mental health issues. Therefore, keeping asylum seekers in such a state is both punitive and inhumane.
Despite its flaws, Denmark is still a unique country, with low corruption and highly-developed institutions and public services. The rest of the world is not looking at Denmark now just because the laws are objectively bad. They are looking at us, because if Denmark won’t treat its refugees humanely, who will? M