Royal Affair: Danish Queen welcomes Mandela’s daughter

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Members of the Guard Hussar Regiment Mounted Squadron

This morning at Fredensborg Slot, five new ambassadors to Denmark were officially welcomed by Her Majesty the Queen, Margrethe II.  Among them was South Africa’s Zindzi Mandela, the daughter of Nelson and Winnie, who arrived in Denmark in the summer.

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Zindzi Mandela, South Africa’s Ambassador to Denmark

Each ambassador was driven by horse-drawn carriage from Fredensborg station to the palace where they were received by HM the Queen.  Members of the Guard Hussar Regiment Mounted Squadron escorted the dignitaries on their short journey and it looked spectacular.  I was particularly pleased to see that women made up the majority of the squadron.

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A horse-drawn carriage leaves Fredensborg Slot

Despite the pomp and circumstance, this was a very Danish affair.  Few Danes gathered to watch this tradition – it was mostly tourists.  But we were able to get up very close to the procession, with no barriers in place.

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The procession accompanying Zindzi Mandela

I can’t tell you what was discussed inside the palace, but from each ambassador’s smiling face as he/she left, it was clearly a happy experience.  The Danes love their monarch and I expect these ambassadors were equally impressed.

Copenhagen: Are Refugees Welcome?

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Crowds gather outside Christiansborg

I’ve just got back from a ‘refugees welcome’ rally held outside the Danish Parliament, Christiansborg, in Copenhagen. The police tweeted that around 30,000 turned out and it certainly felt packed.

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Police estimate 30,000 gathered

It’s been a strange week for Denmark. Most outside this country of just over 5.5 million, think it’s a liberal, welcoming state. At times the reality is markedly different. Anti-immigration adverts placed by the Danish government in Lebanese newspapers and around Danish asylum centres on Monday, didn’t help. These warned people that benefits for new asylum seekers had just been slashed in half and that family reunification was not guaranteed. They’re already making it increasingly difficult to get citizenship here.

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Reporting for Al Jazeera English on Wednesday night

There was also the chaos on Wednesday night when train lines between Germany and Denmark were suspended in an attempt to try to stem the tide of refugees. Then there’s been the confusion over whether Denmark was registering asylum seekers here or allowing them to head straight for Sweden – something the Swedish authorities have been less than happy about. The truth is, refugees know they’re not welcome here and are so desperate to get over the bridge, they’ve been attempting to walk.

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Refugees Welcome banner

I’ve already blogged about how badly the Danish government dealt with this unfolding crisis last week. Communication began to improve a little this week. But it took a British official here to tell me that actually the Danish government has pledged millions more in funds to the UNHCR to help deal with the crisis. Politics is at play here. Venstre (the Liberals) has only managed to form a minority government, and is kept in power by the anti-immigration Danske Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party). Furthermore, Denmark is not part of the EU’s justice rules, which includes asylum, so does not have to agree to any quota on refugee numbers. No wonder ministers have struggled to deal with this crisis.

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Crowds listen to pro refugees speakers

It’s clear many Danes don’t take the same stand as their government. A number have been arrested for trying to drive asylum seekers into Sweden. Many have been donating food and clothes as well as volunteering to help those in need. And today, thousands showed the world what they really think – Refugees are Welcome in Denmark. It’s just their government doesn’t appear to be listening.

Denmark: No easy answer to the refugee crisis

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Photo: UNHCR – O. Laban-Mattel

An equal society, a happy nation, the least corrupt country in the world. Denmark has a lot going for it, particularly when it comes to soft power. But just how welcoming is it to foreigners?

Well, I had a simple question I wanted answered: What is Denmark’s policy on Syrian refugees? Given that its neighbours, Germany and Sweden, are currently taking in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, it seemed a pretty obvious question to ask.

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UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency

What’s more, the Danish government has just announced its nomination for UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It wants former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to take on this prestigious role, even though it was the UNHCR that criticised her when she was in power. Surely then ministers would have something to say about the current refugee crisis? Apparently not. Not even David Cameron’s change of heart appears to have galvanised the Danish government into issuing a response.

As a former Westminster lobby correspondent I am used to politicians and officials trying to avoid questions. But when both the Danish prime minister’s office and the foreign ministry tell me refugee policy is not their responsibility, you do begin to wonder. Worse still, I was told to contact a ministry that was scrapped four years ago. When I did get hold of someone at the Ministry for Immigration, Integration and Housing it was left to an extremely nice student assistant (the Danish equivalent of a paid intern) to try to help me. I felt like I was in an episode of ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘The Thick of It’. Someone did have a chat with me in the end – but I’m not allowed to name that person or even disclose which ministry he/she is from.

Danmarks statsminister Lars Løkke Rasmussen på pressmöte vid Nordiska rådets session i Stockholm 2009

Denmark’s Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen

I suppose you have to understand the background to current Danish politics. In June, the left-of-centre coalition lost the election, replaced by a minority government led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen. His liberal party, Venstre, is propped up by The Danish People’s Party (DF), which campaigns against immigration and open borders. Like Cameron, Rasmussen has made it clear that he wants to cut immigration. He’s already significantly cut asylum seeker benefits and announced plans to make it even harder to pass a Danish citizenship test.

In 2014, more than seven thousand Syrians sought asylum in Denmark, with most being granted refugee status. I’m told by one government official that the figure, combined with those deemed ‘stateless’, accounts for the second highest number per capita in the EU. Up until the end of July this year, more than two thousand Syrians had arrived here. The feeling in government is that this country of five million has already done its bit. No surprise, then, that there is no promise of extra help to deal with the current refugee crisis.

There’s also another complication for the Danish prime minister. In December, Danes will vote in a referendum on whether it’s time to opt in to EU justice rules. Rasmussen believes this will help the country tackle crime. So if he decides to allow more Syrian refugees into Denmark, he will have to stress that it’s on a voluntary basis only, otherwise it could be used against him in campaigning.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that I struggled to get a straight answer to my question. But with Germany on one side and Sweden on the other, how much longer can the Danish PM simply hope this crisis will just go away?

I originally wrote this blog for The Huffington Post UK on Friday 4th September 2015.