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Why should we talk about the refugees in Denmark?

Photograph: Eric Haidara by Stocksnap.In recent years, Denmark has passed several problematic laws restricting the rights of arriving refugees as well as the country’s residents with immigrant backgrounds. While attacks on rule of law  Poland and Hungary have been in the headlines,  relatively few have heard of what is happening in Denmark.

Recently, the Social Democrat-led Danish government has passed legislation to relocate refugees seeking asylum to third countries outside the EU while their cases are being reviewed. This brings Denmark a step further towards its goal of “zero asylum seekers”. The country’s government has advocated these off-shore processing centres as the solution to Europe’s immigration crisis.

The international community has expressed their discontent and concerns about this law. The Danish Refugee Council has said that  externalising the duty of processing asylum demands is irresponsible and lacking in solidarity.

Throughout recent years there have been many warning signs. The “Jewellery Law” entered into force in 2016 in yet another attempt to make Denmark less attractive  to seek refugee status in. The law  allows authorities to seize jewellery and other assets as a way of compensating for the bureaucratic and maintenance costs of applications.

The Danish immigration policies have disproportionately affected women, as they are likely to be sent to “Kaershovedgaard”, a center located outside Copenhagen where activities such as cooking or learning Danish language are forbidden, making it almost impossible for them to integrate into society if their application is accepted.

Not only has the Danish government been setting barriers for the refugees to get an asylum status, it claimed in May 2021 that some parts of Syria as “safe to come back to”; thus, some of the refugees which had been granted asylum in 2015, when the conflict started, are being forced to go back.

Perhaps the most shocking set of laws was passed in Denmark in 2018 when the so-called “ghetto package”, targeting residents of “non-western” neighbourhoods, was voted through. This package is part of the initiative called “One Denmark without Parallel Societies—No Ghettos in 2030”. It was decided that a neighbourhood could be classified as a “ghetto” if its demographics reach the 50% threshold of “non-western” residents, that is, residents from countries essentially outside of the European Union, other countries in Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The package introduced a set of laws regulating the lives of residents of these neighbourhoods, essentially differentiating and denigrating their rights from those of the rest of the population. Experts, including from the UNHCR and Amnesty International, have raised and criticised these laws for their effects on human rights. For example, the families in “ghetto” neighbourhoods have to send their children to Danish day care for 25 hours a week. This attendance is mandatory for children over 12-months up until school age, otherwise the family can be penalised by taking away their social benefits. Additionally, if a crime is committed by a resident of one of these neighbourhoods, they can face a punishment double than that set  for other Danish residents.

How has Denmark been able to pass and implement this kind of legislation restricting the rights of immigrants and foreign residents with so little attention?

Human rights cannot be taken for granted anywhere. Perhaps our hesitancy to bring up these problems in Denmark has to do with the unwillingness to face the fact that human rights problems are rising up in a Nordic country, a region that has long been held up as a positive model for many social policies.

The Danish far-right party, the Danish People’s Party, contributed to significant restrictions in immigration legislation when in power during the first decade of the 2000s. However, the succeeding governments have clearly continued the harsh line set by the Danish People’s Party. When far-right political narratives begin to be normalized among society, it becomes increasingly easy to lose perspective as the moral line begins to blur. This often leads to dangerous outcomes, as we have been observing across Europe in recent years. The recent legislation in Denmark, implemented by its Social-Democrat-led government should serve as a warning sign of the spill-over effects of populist ideology in Europe.

So what do we do? The situation in Denmark needs to rise higher up on the European political agenda and the media’s news cycle. European parliamentarians and decision-makers need to step up. Just like Hungary and Poland have been in the news for attacks on the rule of law, so should Danish government policy lead to an outcry. Without that outcry, a slew of other governments, as in Austria, Belgium and many more get away with ever harsher xenophobic agenda. Civil society action is essential, with advocacy work done by organisations like the Danish Refugee Council and more. Advocacy and lobbying towards decision-makers makes a difference, and as in Poland, Danish citizens need to get out onto the streets. Active citizens are democracy’s immune system, and it needs to kick into action.