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.

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