Xenophobia: What's gone wrong in Denmark?

11 November 2010
Frankfurter Rundschau Frankfurt

They think it's us. Children in Mjølnerparken, Copenhagen
They think it's us. Children in Mjølnerparken, Copenhagen

The Danish parliament has recently toughened up laws regarding family reunification for immigrants. German daily Frankfurter Rundschau fears that this marks yet another step towards in an openly aggressive anti-immigrant policy, one which could spread throughout Europe.

Once upon a time there was a small country in northern Europe that was proud of – and esteemed for – its liberal, humanitarian attitudes, which served as a model for others. That country was Denmark. Now the Danish are making headlines with their xenophobic policies and Europe’s harshest immigration regulations, which are a mockery of liberal broadmindedness. They are setting an example again, only the ones applauding them nowadays are from the other end of the political spectrum. “The decisions we are making now will soon serve as a yardstick for other countries too,” boast Danish rightwingers, and past experience shows that may well be true.

Calls to check the influx of “non-Western” foreigners are spreading like wildfire across Europe. And Denmark is spearheading the crusade. The government had already outdone all the others by requiring that spouses from outside the EU be at least 24 years old before even applying for family reunification in Denmark. In future, they will also have to have a certain number of “points” to qualify for admission.

Calling Islam a plague and a terrorist organisation

And the way the scoring system is rigged, non-academics from Third World countries are bound to fail – which is of course the whole point: “Some people are simply not supposed to make it into our country,” says Prime Minister Rasmussen. Copenhagen has already set the hurdles for permanent residency and naturalisation so high that, for all intents and purposes, immigrants without a university degree don’t stand a chance. Henceforth similar regulations will apply to those who assert their human right to start a family. Partners are welcome only if they are of use to Denmark. For the rest, the border’s closed till further notice.

There’s no denying the problems caused by the failed integration of some immigrant groups. But the solutions Danish politicians have been concocting for years have poisoned the atmosphere and nurtured a mindset that would still be unthinkable in most other countries. Where else could members of parliament call Islam a plague and a terrorist organisation, or say Muslims murder their daughters if they can’t hand them over to be raped by their uncles, without being swept out of office by a wave of public outrage? In Denmark even the grossest violations have become so common that most people just shrug them off now. And these immigrant-bashers [the Danish People’s Party] happen to be the faithful majority-makers for the centre-right coalition government.

Few make a stand against the xenophobic mainstream

So the liberalminded role model has morphed into a cautionary tale. How could it come to this? Not for objective reasons, at any rate. The proportion of immigrants from “non-Western” countries is comparatively low, at six per cent; the “ghettos” many of them inhabit are pretty, green housing estates; Denmark is not plagued by unemployment or a high crime rate.

And yet right-wing populists have made it big by relentlessly agitating against immigrants, the right-of-centre parties have already won three elections on the highly effective anti-immigration ticket; and for fear of renewed electoral setbacks, even social democrats and socialists are now toeing the xenophobic line. Only one social-liberal party and one left-wing party, which, combined, hold less than ten per cent of the vote, are making a stand against the xenophobic mainstream.

Empty coffers and recurrent scandals

The upshot is an endless series of laws and rule changes aimed at making life harder for immigrants. And every time it looks as though the crackdown has gone as far as it could possibly go, the government finds yet another screw to tighten: e.g. halving welfare benefits for the first seven years in the country, cutting benefits for parents if their children do not behave. Particularly among youths from hard-to-integrate groups, this ongoing exclusion is breeding a disaffection with Danish society that could morph into hatred. How, even centre-right politicians ask, are these immigrants supposed to integrate if they wake up every morning to hear that they are a problem.

And yet keeping the “migrant problem” simmering has kept the centre-right camp in power for nearly ten years now. With the next elections coming up in 2011, empty coffers and recurrent scandals have dimmed the coalition’s prospects of winning again. So once again they are playing the immigrant card that has already turned up trumps at the ballots three times running – to the detriment of integration and the values that once distinguished Denmark.

Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz

Factual or translation error? Tell us.