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Denmark: Proposed Immigration Curbs Focus Of New Controversy

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Denmark is preparing to introduce new restrictions on immigration which, because of their relative harshness, have surprised many of Denmark's European Union neighbors. The move follows the election two months ago of a center-right government under Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Does this mean Denmark, a traditionally tolerant country, is starting down an antiforeigner path?

Prague, 22 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Denmark has long been seen as a small country with a big conscience. Like its Nordic neighbor Sweden, Denmark is linked with support for liberal causes around the world, from the promotion of sound environmental policies to Third World aid.

That image is now being called into question -- ironically at the hands of a new coalition government led by the Liberal Party. That's because the coalition, which also includes the Conservative Party, is developing a restrictive new immigration and asylum policy.

Among other things, the new rules would more than double -- to seven years -- the waiting time for refugees to gain residency permits. And they would tightly restrict eligibility for humanitarian asylum.

Foreigners and their descendents make up less than 7 percent of Denmark's population. That's a sizable proportion, but well below the level, for instance, of countries like Germany. Denmark is facing pressures from illegal immigration, but those pressures are no worse than those felt by its European Union partners.

So, what's behind the crackdown? Danish political commentator Jakob Neilsen explains, "It's very hard to say, but over the last four or five years, the tone of the debate on immigrants and asylum seekers in Denmark has become very harsh. And I think media and politicians alike bear responsibility that it has just become 'Comme il faut' in Denmark to have a very rough tone on the issue of immigrants and asylum seekers. In the elections in November, it just ended up being the main topic, and the parties which are now in government promised some rather harsh measures."

Neilsen notes the public mood toward immigrants worsened in 2001 because of several sexual assaults on Danish women that attracted heavy publicity. And he says immigrants are more visible because of their high unemployment rate. The rate of joblessness among foreigners is three times that of native Danes.

Neilsen and others blame this latter fact, in part, on the poor integration policies of past governments.

"Surveys show that Denmark is the country in the EU where integration of foreigners is at its worst. And the proportion of immigrants in the labor market is very low," Neilsen said. "And you hear stories about highly educated people from Iran, Afghanistan, from Turkey and Pakistan who leave Denmark because they are unable to perform as doctors or dentists or as IT [information technology] experts. And they leave for better opportunities in Britain or Canada or Germany and Sweden."

Neilsen says the new government is continuing to neglect the integration aspect of the problem in that its present legislative package deals only with various restrictions. Measures dealing with integration will not be presented until autumn.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark is a Social Democratic member of the European Parliament and a critic of the Danish government's proposals. She blames the rightist Danish People's Party for creating the hostility toward foreigners within which the government has been able to frame its policy.

The People's Party is not in government but draws extra influence from the fact that the ruling coalition may need to rely on its support to pass controversial measures such as the immigration package.

"We have this very right-wing party which has managed to create an atmosphere [to the effect that] immigration and immigrants are one of the biggest problems for the welfare state. I totally disagree on that," Thorning-Schmidt said.

Thorning-Schmidt says such an atmosphere can only marginalize ethnic minorities. She says she fears the debate could damage Denmark's image abroad.

"I don't want Denmark to be [seen as] connected in any way with racist society. I don't think Danes are racist, but I think we have started this discussion in a manner in which the tone has not been suitable. And I do hope we can come back to a civilized tone," Thorning-Schmidt said.

One way out of the problem would be for the European Union to develop a common immigration policy so that individual member states could not be criticized because of unilateral measures. Analyst Neilsen notes that both parties in the present Copenhagen government profess to be pro-EU and in favor of a common immigration policy. But he says achieving that will not be easy.

"This policy would be very difficult to make on a European scale because definitely the Danish government would never agree to a European policy that was less strict than the Danish one," Neilsen said. "And I think [the attitude] would be similar in most countries in Europe. So I think it would be very difficult to develop a common policy on that issue."

Some critics of the Danish government liken the situation in Copenhagen to that in Vienna, which was at the center of an EU-wide row after the rightist Freedom Party joined the Austrian government. Most Danes find that an unpleasant comparison.

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