Denmark: Right-wing government and Social Democrats agree on restrictive asylum policy

Da tempo il governo conservatore in Danimarca concorda, anche con i social democratici, per una politica maggiormente restrittiva nei confronti dei rifugiati. Dopo una breve stagione in cui l’arrivo dei richiedenti asilo incontrò una accoglienza popolare positiva, l’arrivo di 10 mila persone, per la maggior parte intensionati a trasferirsi in Svezia, nell’autunno 2015, portò a emanare leggi che hanno fatto scalpore in tutta Europa. Ha colpito la jewellery law ( il provvedimento che permetteva alla polizia di sequestrare ai richiedenti asilo i gioielli e i beni per pagarsi l’accoglienza ) da alcuni quotidiani paragonato a quanto  compiuto dalla Germania nazista  con gli ebrei, mentre sono passate quasi in silenzio norme che rendono più difficile il ricongiugimento familiare e la residenza, il tutto allo scopo di mandare verso la Svezia i profughi. Niels Rohleder, esponente dell’Alleanza Rosso -Verde come migration and legal affairs adviser, ci ha ricostruito alcuni anni di storia danese su questo tema e per questo lo ringraziamo calorosamente e pubblichiamo il suo lavoro scritto appositamente per ADIF. Una vicenda che ha le sue specificità, spesso ignorate nel resto dell’Europa. P.S. le foto che pubblichiamo sono relative a manifestazioni antirazziste e di benvenuto che si sono tenute in Danimarca nel settembre 2015.

By Niels Rohleder

Already before the 2015 general election Denmark had a quite restrictive policy on refugees and immigrants. But when the right wing won a narrow majority in parliament – the Folketing – at the election on June 18th 2015, and the new prime minister, Mr Lars Løkke Rasmussen, put a tough-on-migration hardliner, Ms Inger Støjberg, in charge of the newly formed “Ministry for Foreigners and Integration”, the policies took a turn to the worse.

The arrival in Denmark of tens of thousands of asylum seekers in the autumn of 2015 (most of them, however, on their way to Sweden) created an atmosphere that made it convenient for the majority in parliament to adopt even more restrictive measures. Among these was the so-called “jewellery law” that made it possible for police to search newly arrived asylum seekers and confiscate their valuables. The law became notorious internationally, and the prime minister found himself portrayed in a Nazi uniform in a cartoon in the British newspaper The Guardian as people (mainly outside Denmark) compared the planned action of the Danish authorities to what Nazi Germany had done to the Jews. This might be how it was perceived abroad. To a local observer it was clear that the “jewellery law” in itself had mainly symbolic character and was designed to scare potential asylum seekers to go to Sweden or Germany instead. The legislation package passed in parliament in early 2016 contained other elements with far more serious consequences for refugees. For instance it was made more difficult to obtain the right to permanent residency in Denmark. And a certain group of, mainly Syrian, refugees were put in a separate category deprived of the right to family reunification for their first three years with legal residence status in Denmark.

These policies enjoy a broad support in the Folketing comprising not only the three present government parties (two right-leaning liberal and one conservative party) but also the xenophobic and nationalistic Danish People’s Party and the Danish Social Democrats who have taken a clearly more anti-immigration position that the Social Democrats in neighbouring countries such as Sweden and Germany. Together these five parties hold a solid majority of 136 to 39 out of the 175 Danish seats (in a parliament that counts a total of 179 seats – the four members from Greenland and the Faroe Islands abstain from voting on Danish matters).

Faced with this massive majority it is quite clear that even a change of government at the next election (due, at the latest, in June 2019) with the Social Democratic leader, Ms Mette Frederiksen, as a new prime minister is not likely to bring a change in migration policies. A future Frederiksen cabinet will be a minority government (as it is Danish tradition) that will seek its majorities in migration issues with the right wing and ignore the demands of the Red-Green Alliance, the Socialist People’s Party, the green Alternative Party and the left-leaning Social Liberals. All these four opposition parties favour a humanist approach to refugees.

In a European Union context Denmark is in a special position. Due to the opt-outs that were constructed after the Danish Maastricht Treaty referendum in June 1992 and the Edinburgh EU Summit in December 1992 Denmark does not take part in the common EU asylum policy. And Denmark has a stricter legislation on family reunification than most European countries.

Where a country such as Italy has been critisized for not doing enough to register and fingerprint all asylum seekers that come into the country, and for not supporting asylum seekers and refugees financially while they are in Italy, Denmark’s situation is of quite a different nature.

Denmark has, along with Sweden and Norway, a long political tradition dominated by the trade union movement and the Social Democratic Party. This tradition has created the Nordic Welfare Model that worked nicely when the Scandinavian countries were homogenous societies behind guarded borders.

In 1968 Denmark introduced the Central Person Registration (CPR). Every national citizen (or foreigner with a residence permit) was given a 10-digit unique CPR number that was and is used in any communication with the authorities.

Being resgistered in the CPR gives you the right to free medical asistance, free education including universities and a number of other public services on a comparatively high level compared to other European countries.

Denmark is a small country of, at present, five and a half million people and the CPR system made sure that the authorities knew how many people were in the country and where they where living. Since 1968 there has been absolutely no use for a census in Denmark. All the numbers were in the computers already – on any given day.

The CPR system combined with the Nordic Welfare Model survived Denmark’s entry into the European Community in 1973. The notion that millions of “poor” Italians would invade Denmark in order to take away Danish jobs and enjoy generous social benefits turned out not to be true – even though it had been argued by some voices against European Community membership during the 1972 referendum campaign.

But… the open borders of the Schengen area and the fact that not all countries at the outer Schengen borders manage these efficiently enough to prevent asylum seekers from eventually reaching Denmark has, in later years, put the Danish system under pressure.

If you, as an asylum seeker, have the choice between all 26 Schengen member states, you are more likely to choose Denmark over countries such as Spain, Slovenia or Slovakia. The level of social benefits or the possibility that your children will be able to get a stae-sposored high-quality education may play a role – even if you have to learn to speak the “impossible” Danish language

Among the 28 EU member states Denmark has received relatively many asylum seekers. According to Eurostat statistics Denmark received 3.679 asylum seekers per one million inhabitants in 2015. Far less that neighbouring Sweden (16.016) and fewer than Germany (5.441). But elsewhere sin Europe the figures are much, much lower: Italy (1.369), Spain (314), Portugal (80), Slovakia (50)[1].

The government’s reaction to this was, right after the 2015 election, to introduce reduced benefits to refugees. Now newly arrived refugees receive considerably less in social benefits than persons who have lived more than eight years in Denmark. Critics of this practice have argued that it is difficult to integrate in Danish society if you are poor. And that the reduced benefits violate the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. This failed to impress the government and its majority.

Getting refugees into the Danish labour market has turned out to be an extremely difficult hurdle. Unskilled work is difficult to find in the highly specialized Danish industry as much of the manufacturing has, long ago, been exported to Eastern or Central Europe or to countries in Asia. So many refugees end up being unemployed as they find that the training and the skills they bring from Syria og Eritrea are difficult to use in Denmark. At the same time the open EU internal market makes Danish employers prefer workers from Poland or the Baltic states that have directly relevant qualifications and are attracted by the higher wage level in Denmark. So workers from Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania occupy a lot of the jobs that could have been made available to refugees through some investmenet in mid-career training.

To some extent the arrival of mainly Syrian and Eritrean refugees has led to a popular mobilisation in favour of helping the refugees. This was shown massively at a huge demonstration outside parliament in September 2015 and is demonstrated on a daily basis around the country where thousands of volunteers are committed to the process of helping refugees.

The rise in arrivals of asylum seekers in 2015 has left Denmark changed – in good ways and bad. The past two years have been an avalanche of still more restrictive measures from the government. And we understand from the minister that more is to come. The creativity of the government and its partners when it comes to inventing new restrictions seems unlimited.


Niels Rohleder is a migration and legal affairs adviser of the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) which is a left-wing opposition party in the Danish parliament. Contact: