Denmark is often recognized as one of the happiest countries in the world, though there is more to the story. The small Nordic state and its far-right stance on immigration have shed a new light on the relationship between Western democracies and human rights. Syrian activist Asmaa al-Natour asserts that “Denmark has become a graveyard for refugees’ hopes and dreams.”
How did the beloved welfare state get here? The answer draws upon a complex social history and recent chain of events that have pushed Danes towards a “zero-asylum” policy in a time where millions are fleeing conflict in Kabul and beyond.
Contrary to today’s harsh refugee policies, Denmark was one of the first countries to sign the UN Refugee Convention in 1951. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the country’s far-right party, Fremskridtspartiet (FrP), began gaining traction that Denmark’s attitude began to shift. Thirty years later, since the early 2010s, the country has become notorious for having some of the strictest immigration policies in Europe. Such policies include the seizure of personal belongings valued at over 10,000 kroner (approximately $1,100 USD) as well as targeted discrimination towards non-Western residents living in disadvantaged areas (termed “ghettos” by the Danish government). The former, known as the “Jewelry Law,” was implemented in 2016, and the latter, known as the “Ghetto Package,” went into effect in 2018. Both of these policies aim to deter asylum-seekers from coming to Denmark━a strategy that prime minister Mette Frederiksen hopes leads the country towards zero asylum applications in the coming years.
The “zero-asylum” policy follows years of domestic unrest towards immigrants, specifically those coming from the Middle East and North Africa. The infamous Jyllands-Posten controversy of 2005 deepened xenophobic fault lines and heightened tensions among locals, which set the mood for the shaky decade that followed. Those years witnessed heated discourse surrounding free speech and the freedom of expression, with cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad causing fervent backlash from a significant portion of the Muslim community both inside Denmark and beyond. As tensions escalated, Danish officials made claims that accepting asylum-seekers from Syria and the broader region increases the risk of “religious and culturally parallel societies” emerging in the Scandinavian state. The interior minister has also proposed that the share of non-Western residents in each neighborhood “be limited to a maximum of 30% in the next 10 years.”
Most recently, the Social Democrat-led parliament (Socialdemokratiet) passed a law that would ship refugees to a distant third country where they would remain until the time comes when they can return to their home country. The government is currently establishing a deal with Rwanda to house refugees, but the international community has heavily criticized such actions as human rights violations—with some claiming that these relocation attempts by Denmark violate international laws since there would be no way to guarantee the safety and rights of asylum-seekers held in a third country for ‘processing’. If such Draconian measures are taken, Denmark would still be legally responsible for ensuring that the rights of those transferred overseas are protected. The mass deportation of refugees in this manner is a major component in Frederiksen’s “zero-asylum” policy. Indeed, the PM ran a blatantly anti-immigration campaign in the last election, publicly declaring in 2019 that “in the future, it will not be possible for refugees to obtain asylum in Denmark.” Comments like these coming from the Nordic welfare state strike some as incongruous with a nation previously considered a “haven of tolerance”. Nevertheless, Frederiksen emerged triumphant with this platform, and restrictions on immigration have persisted.
The ongoing conflict in Syria has produced close to 6 million refugees, making it the world’s largest displacement crisis for five consecutive years. Although the issue has received less media coverage, violence perpetrated by the Assad government remains widespread and unchecked by powers like the United States. A recent article by Human Rights Watch highlights that Syria remains unsafe despite active conflict decreasing since 2018. The Syrian Human Rights Network supports these claims, reporting that Syrian government forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained an estimated 150,000 people, as well as tortured around 15,000 of them, in the last 10 years. The World Bank approximates that the Syrian economy has shrunk by more than 60 percent in the past ten years, and reports from the World Food Programme estimate at least 12.4 million are food-insecure as of February 2021. Based on these numbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continues to categorize Syria as unsafe and urges host countries to not send refugees back.
Under Denmark’s new system, only refugees that have resided in the country for more than 10 years can be considered for continued residence, regardless of their contributions to the state. However, formal deportation back to Syria is impossible at this time since Denmark does not have diplomatic ties with the Assad government. Rumors have spread of Orban’s Hungary and several Gulf Powers potentially recognizing Assad’s presidency, which, if it occurred, would legitimize his regime in all its wickedness. International non-refoulment laws prevent Denmark from sending refugees back to Syria, so for the time being, the majority of Syrians will likely lose their residency permits and be expelled to rugged camps abroad as they await deportation.
In defense of its policies, Denmark attempts to promote deterring refugees as a “humanitarian” effort that dissuades people from embarking on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. The reality, however, is that asylum seekers will migrate regardless, and in doing so, become twice as likely to utilize human smuggling networks to reach other European countries. Recent reports have found that Syrian refugees living in Denmark have begun fleeing towards Belgium and the Netherlands to avoid deportation and provide a better life for themselves and their families. Denmark’s deterrence “solution” is thus nothing but a band aid on a gun wound.
The U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has placed the spotlight back on the refugee crisis—with hundreds of thousands of people flowing from Kabul as opposed to Damascus. According to a UNHCR report released in 2020, an estimated 1.5 million Afghans have fled to Pakistan, 780,000 to Iran, and 180,000 to Germany. France’s government has expressed that it will accept a certain number of refugees, though it has left the specific amount ambiguous. Meanwhile, the U.K. has pledged to take in 5,000 Afghans each year in an effort to resettle 20,000 over the next few years. Denmark has a total of 36,718 refugees living in the country as of 2020, meaning that refugees make up a mere 0.61% of the total population. More than anything, these numbers raise the question of why other advanced democracies can take in refugees while Denmark feels that it can not. Despite the initiatives of Denmark’s neighbors and the meager quota of refugees that reside in the country, its politicians’ longing for a refugee-free state prevails.
By waiving its moral responsibility of protecting those seeking sanctuary, Denmark has paved a dangerous road for others to follow suit. Countries like the United States and its allies must work alongside NGOs to put pressure on Denmark and speak out against its inhumane treatment of refugees. If ignored, the lives of millions will be at risk and the ethos of the liberal democratic system may be irreversibly tainted. To prevent what would become a lose-lose situation, world leaders must commit to mending social cleavages rather than deepening them. In a largely homogenous state like Denmark, this can be especially difficult, but an effort to do so will signal to others that safeguarding human rights should be at the forefront of international policy moving forward.