Denmark: Not so happy now

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A few thoughts after being interviewed by RTE (Irish radio, which you can listen to here) about Denmark’s decision to confiscate jewellery and cash worth more than 10,000 Danish Kroner (£1,000) from refugees. Today the Migrant Bill passed through Danish Parliament, despite international opposition. It also means that asylum seekers have to wait three years before they can ask to be reunited with family members.

The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, has described it as the “most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history.”  The argument goes that if unemployed Danes aren’t allowed assets before they seek benefits, why should anyone else. Interestingly, it wasn’t just those on the right who voted yes – even many centre-left Social Democrats agree this is a fair policy. And with 70% of Danes putting immigration as a top concern, there is widespread public support towards efforts to curb immigration.

Outsiders seem shocked that ‘welcoming, liberal’ Denmark can be so tough. But the reality is, they don’t care what others think. Danes say they need to protect their borders and their small country of 5.6 million people. But it’s a far cry from the ‘Happiest Country in the World’ name tag that Denmark has enjoyed for so many years.

  1. Very fair comments and excellent, Alex.
    By way of supplementing what you say:

    ((i) The three-year moratorium on family reunifications will be longer in practice. The 3-year wait will only begin after asylum applicants have been granted permission to stay. This can take two years or more. Five years away from a parent is a very long time for a terrified child.

    (ii) The government’s claim that it is merely putting refugees on an equal footing with Danes regarding clawing back assets in return for welfare is nonsense. Danes on the dole who don’t want their assets seized can get a job. Asylum seekers are prohibited from working for their initial six months in the country. After that they may only take a job with the explicit permission of the authorities, including signing a contract with the authorities. There’s a very long list of conditions, not to mention the simple fact that these foreigners, no matter how well educated, know nobody, have no network and are very likely traumatised. Danes don’t have to follow these rules. So this is NOT a level playing field.

    (iii) Today I watched Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, (political spokesman for the ruling Liberal Party) with hand on heart, tell the Danish parliament that Denmark would NEVER confiscate jewellery from refugees except in “grotesque, bizarre circumstances that he couldn’t imagine”. Yet a close and careful reading of the bill (L 87) that was passed today does actually permit this. I read the bill as proposed and as voted through. I then tracked back through the law that enables state agencies to seize private property because this is referenced in L 87. And yes! Under Danish law it is now possible that the state might grab a refugee’s belongings EVEN if these belongings are of “personal sentimental value”.

    (iv) The Danish government (and its fellow travellers) has variously blamed domestic political opponents and the media for drawing international attention to this. In a harrowingly familiar throwback to the 2005/06 Cartoon Crisis they are neglecting the importance of the diplomatic community. Diplomats stationed here are, inter alia, tasked with reporting home on legislative changes. They do this independently of the media and of local politicians. They don’t need us journalists to tell them what’s going down in Denmark, they draw their own conclusions and the story, inevitably, gets out.

    (v) Denmark is a terrific country that has won well-deserved praise for many solid humanitarian initiatives and international development efforts. For a long part of its history, Denmark has been a beacon of fairness and an exponent of standards that other nations should aspire to. This gave Denmark a blue-chip reputation but where is that reputation now? If it’s in a bad place, it would be foolish for the Danish government to blame the media/political opponents/diplomats. People here and abroad are perfectly capable of reading the law and deciding for themselves.


    (I write for The Economist but all views are personal.)

  2. Hi Clare and Alex,

    I think this is just a pretext for the Danish governments unsayable goal of wanting to dissuade migrants and refugees from targeting Denmark as a destination. All this negative publicity has furthered those ends.

    I have some questions though, about your comments:

    (i) What were the reasons given for the family reunion moratorium? It seems very cruel to genuine refugees.

    (ii) I do not think the government is claiming that they are putting refugees on an equal footing with Danes (or other permanent residents). They say they are giving themselves the powers to apply the same rules to refugees that currently apply to all permanent residents. The problem, as you point out is that refugees are not equal to other permanent residents – legally or situationally – so there is a risk these powers might be unfairly applied. On principle, I think it is fair that the state has the power to refuse to help to those with sufficient assets support themselves, regardless of who or what they. That said, I think it would be deeply wrong to use these powers to strip ordinary refugees with trifling assets of what little they have left in their possession, especially whilst refusing them the right to work. Much depends on how these powers will actually be used.

    (iii) Where did you read this? Can you link to it? I take it, based on your comments, it is not in the main law but in another law referenced by it? If it is I am presuming it is a general law that again applied to all residents? Are you sure there is no wording in the main law to override the referenced provision (as we sometimes see in UK laws). It seems odd that the government is making such bold statements when the laws state otherwise. How did their local opponents miss this?

    (iv) I think this has been artificially blown up by publications like The Guardian which ought to be deeply ashamed of the grossly insulting and crass Hitler analogy in today’s cartoon. As an aside, since you are here Clare, I notice The Economist has been doing some major 180 degree pivoting on the migrant crisis:

    September 2015: “Eastern European countries are in dire need of labour, with an ageing population and a shrinking workforce. So why are they refusing refugees?”

    January 2016: “The assumption that Germany’s tight labour market was tailor-made for job-hungry migrants has given way to the grim realisation that most are an ill fit for an economy mainly seeking highly skilled workers”


    (v) As Alex said, Danes do not give a hoot what people think of them and it is something I love about them. They tend to be proven right in the long term and I really love their support of free speech (even Hitler cartoons). From the very start of this crisis the Danes have been criticized as fascists for having a the very refugee policy that the rest of the EU is converging one: Try and limit the numbers attempting to get to Europe but fully respect all conventions and rights for those that do come. For simply acknowledged that there are limits to what they, and other European countries, can handle, and acting to limit inflow, they had sanctimonious Swedes and Germans waggled their fingers at them. Now that it has become clear that neither Sweden nor Germany can cope, the Danes are chuckling to themselves and saying “I told you so”. As I asked elsewhere, why isn’t Mrs. Merkel being parodied as Hitler since Germany is implementing the same policy as Denmark?

    I think this particular policy is unnecessary. It addresses a non-problem (the mythical wealthy refugee benefit cheat), it damages Denmark’s reputation unnecessarily and if misused could be deeply unfair to very vulnerable people. On principle, however, I think it is fair enough. It is hard to argue with equality before the law and the good old socialist “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

    • Hi Jonathan. Wow, those are some comments, links and questions you have there. I know that you are very well read on this subject and that you have been involved in helping refugees here in Denmark. I don’t have answers to all those questions but I’m sure in time, Clare will answer some of them.

      I think it’s strange to say that the Guardian has blown up the story today with its controversial cartoon, when many Danes were making this analogy back in December. Also, let’s not forget that Denmark was very happy to defend free speech over the Muhammed cartoons back in 2005.

      I’m sure there is a lot of hypocrisy here and I spoke about the Switzerland issue in yesterday’s interview with RTE. But the point is, how did the Danish government really think this decision would play out? They wanted to look tough in Denmark but didn’t think of the wider consequences. I’m convinced that’s why David Cameron has pulled out of Friday’s visit here. Why would he want his visit to be hijacked?

      Look forward to discussing in person some time soon! Alex

      • I am not at all surprised why the Danes always end up like this and for the other countries to do less so.

        Alex said the Danes don’t care what others think. In some ways this is so true and it is the very reason why they end up “in bother” with the outside world. They often say and do things before considering how this could be received by the outside world. They are more “straight forward” and less emotional in their relationship with others. This is ok Dane2Dane but not when dealing with other cultures. And YET if you criticize any aspect of Danish “fabric” then they are suddenly offended that we dare to question their stance on hygge, liberal beliefs, foreigners and happiness.

        Just look at the way both the UK and DK handled the Muhammed drawings. The Danes dug their heels in and spoke before they engaged the brain. Once the situation was spreading to the UK I remember Jack Straw had a “behind the doors” meeting with Muslim leaders and after the meeting those leaders had changed their tune and nothing further happened. Denmark can only dream of having such leadership that believe in working with people but leaves the tough words to be said in private. Such different ways of doing things. None of us agree to the violent reactions but the Danes don’t help themselves. Danish politicians could improve a lot if they had more of a polite “British” approach.

        Another similar situation was when Michael Booth wrote his book. The Danes love it when he wrote the fairy tale articles about Denmark. Such a wise man they felt but the moment he dared to criticize and question Danish “hygge” the reaction was immense and judging by the comments he had clearly got under their skin. They don’t deal very well with criticism. UK people on the other hand are good at laughing at themselves. The very popular @VeryBritishProblem Twitter account (and subsequent book and Ch.4 TV program) is a great example.

        The Guardian is such a pro-scandi newspaper and the Danes love their countless pro-Denmark articles but the moment they show the satirical cartoon of Lars Løkke the population and politicians again show total lack of “situational awareness” with the rest of the world. I think the cartoon was a master-piece of satire. Why? Because it did exactly to the Danes what they thought was ok for them to do to others 10 years earlier with the Muhammed drawings and they fell in with both feet. As Alex noticed it wasn’t even the Guardian who started the Hitler comparison but rather the Danes and Washington Post.

        So one of the reason why the other countries are not in the limelight about similar laws could be because they are quieter about it and perhaps don’t have so high profile characters like Pia Kjærsgaard (and her gang) and Inger Støjberg who ride their political life on immigration issues and being “offensive” with regular embarrassing statements. Like Clare said, diplomats pick these things up and report them at home.

        It’s a great question Alex ask of how did the Danish government really think this decision would play out? It is beyond me too but I do find the politicians there rather oblivious of understand people from other countries and cultures.

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