A new law enabling Denmark to deport asylum seekers outside Europe while applications are being processed is the latest in a series of extraordinary and extreme measures targeting immigrants from a government going far beyond those taken by other European countries and the European Union (EU).
Under the new law, proposed by Social Democratic prime minister Mette Frederiksen and comfortably passed by Denmark’s parliament the Folketing in a vote of 70 to 24, asylum seekers would be flown to a faraway third country regardless of where they are from – with one option appearing to be Rwanda which signed a diplomatic agreement in March with Denmark leading to speculation it intends to open an asylum processing facility there.
It remains unclear how any external ‘reception centre’ could be administered, and notably whether it would be under Danish or the third country’s jurisdiction. But either way, Denmark still has a legal responsibility to ensure the rights of people transferred to such a camp are protected, not violated.
This latest move by the supposedly centre-left Social Democratic government follows its announcement in March to limit ‘non-western’ immigrants – a category codified in Danish law – in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and its decision in April to revoke residency permits of some Syrian refugees on the grounds it was now apparently safe to return to Damascus.
Remarkable shift for a progressive country
Only 1,547 people applied for asylum in Denmark in 2020, a 57 per cent drop on the previous year and the lowest number since the 1990s, but Frederiksen says she wants to reduce the number of asylum applications to zero. This is a remarkable shift for a country once seen as one of the most progressive in the world on asylum policy and refugee protection.
Denmark was the first to sign and ratify the United Nations (UN) Refugee Convention in 1951 with its core principle of ‘non-refoulement’ – that refugees should not be returned to a country where they would face serious threats. But now many Danish politicians violate that principle and talk about reforming the convention.
The political shift can be traced back to the 1980s and the increasing influence since then of the far-right Progress Party (Fremskridtspartiet, FrP) and Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) which have dominated political narratives and public debates on the integration of those they call ‘non-Western immigrants’.
The increasing influence of the far right on Danish politics eventually led to an internal split within the Social Democrats around immigration, as the party leadership chose to support a tightening of family reunion laws through a new points-based system which led some party members to resign.
The 2015 refugee crisis then further increased pressure on mainstream parties and, as the number of people claiming asylum in Denmark increased – especially from Syria – Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s centre-right government introduced measures aimed at making it less attractive to apply for asylum in Denmark.
This was followed in 2016 by the Folketing passing laws restricting access to family reunification for Syrian refugees for up to three years, and a ‘jewellery law’ under which valuables were confiscated from refugees to pay for their stay. Then in 2018 the government took measures targeting ‘non-Western residents’ in underprivileged areas, such as harsher penalties for crimes committed within or near a ‘ghetto’, a term originally used in the legislation although subsequently dropped.
A message to Danish voters
The Social Democrats’ own approach to immigration became even harsher after Frederiksen succeeded Helle Thorning-Schmidt as party leader in 2015. While still in opposition in 2018, Frederiksen called for a reform of Denmark’s asylum system, including creating reception centres outside Europe. ‘In the future it will not be possible for refugees to obtain asylum in Denmark,’ she declared, and was elected as prime minister on this platform in 2019.
Remarkably, the Frederiksen’s government’s policies are now even more radical than the Danish centre-right. It claims its attempt to deter asylum seekers is ‘humanitarian’ because it prevents people attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe and undermines traffickers who exploit desperate and vulnerable people.
In reality asylum seekers tend to re-migrate anyway and often return to human smuggling networks to help them get to other European countries instead. But the Danish government certainly cannot credibly claim it is taking a ‘humanitarian’ approach when it has declared it wants to stop asylum claims altogether.
The Frederiksen government is sending a message to Danish voters as much as deterring potential asylum seekers. Its policies illustrate that it is no longer only far-right or centre-right parties in Europe that seek to win disaffected voters by creating fear about immigration. Increasingly centre-left parties are also prepared to do so to outflank the right, regardless of the consequences for asylum seekers and immigrants.