Monday, 14 July 2008

When the Great Danes bark.

The post-Viking Danes are quietly filing their horns in preparation for an onslaught. The target: foreigners.

Denmark is a quiet country. The loudest news to come from Denmark recently was when they won the Eurovision, in 2000, but even that was with a quiet song. So quiet are they that few are aware that the post-Viking Danes are quietly filing their horns in preparation for an onslaught. The target: foreigners. But instead of spears, they are using the legislative pen. The pen is mightier than the sword.

Just before breaking up for its summer recess, on May 31 this year, the Danish Parliament – the Folketing – introduced a new law into its statutes book. The new legislation makes requirements for asylum tighter, withdraws funding to ethnic minorities organizations and extends the waiting period for permanent residency from three to seve years. In addition, rights to family reunifications have been curtailed and a ban imposed on Danes marrying non-Danes below the age of 24 and living with them in Denmark. The new law also demands that foreigners pass tests in written and spoken Danish and Danish culture before acquiring Danish citizenship.

The European community was flummoxed. Belgium and France – not known for their concern for foreigners – were shocked. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, was so concerned that she personally visited Denmark and asked the government to do away with its ambition to keep refugees out. The law drew fierce criticism from individuals too.
President of the European Network Against Racism, Bashy Quraishy – himself an immigrant to Denmark – says that Denmark is passing legislation "that Jörg Haider [Austria’s far Right leader] couldn’t even dream of."

"Today the victims are ethnic minorities; tomorrow it is the homeless, single parents, the elderly, students, the working class and the voiceless. One wonders whether this is discrimination, racism or xenophobia."

Stephen Smith, co-founder of Beth Shalom, the UK Holocaust center, agrees. "It’s a worrying prospect" he says, "Copenhagen is flirting with fascism, and we must all do something about it. One of the most dangerous aspects of racism and xenophobia is its enshrinement in legislation and its protection by law. History teaches us what can happen next."

"We cannot sit back and then, later, say we didn’t hear, we didn’t see, we didn’t know. We are seeing, we are hearing and we must speak out. Rightwing extremism is returning by gallops and is veiled in respectability. As a Danish friend said to me ‘the country has gone mad and no one seems to care.’"

Last July Denmark took over the EU presidency (although it is not a signatory to the European Union's Maastricht Treaty, and not a member of the European monetary system). European Parliament Member (MEP), Glenys Kinnock, has expresses her fears that Denmark will attempt to persuade its EU partners to look at the Danish immigration proposals as a common EU model based on restrictions. the Danish Presidency of the EU. "Denmark's actions will only serve to exacerbate the already very worrying and simplistic arguments about migration which are currently heard in many EU countries," she warns.

One elderly person from Turkey commented on this law in a meeting held by the federation of ethnic minority organizations: "The West claims that the world will never be the same after the events of 11th September 2001. I say that Denmark will never be able to call itself democratic after these new laws are put in place".

So what is happening in the land of Hans Christian Andersen that has turned it into an ugly duckling?

In November last year the Danes went to the polls. It was an election campaign led by the right wing parties. The choice was: right or extreme right. Asylum, refugees and immigration was the order of the day. Capitalizing on the aftermath of September 11th, Peter Skaarup, deputy chairman of the extreme-right populist Danish People's Party, managed to tie immigration with crime and this formula is fell on fertile ground. "Three quarters of rapes are carried out by non-Danes" he said during an interview. The DPP’s election campaign was dubbed unethical, racist and dirty.

And thus, on November 20, 200, the northern lights shone on Denmark but plunged the country into xenophobic darkness as the centre-right opposition party, the Danish Liberal Party's (Venstre) won its biggest victory in eighty years and the DPP became the third largest party in the Danish Parliament.

On hearing the election results, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter ran an editorial claiming that "it is difficult to point to any winner in the Danish election, but the losers are easier to identify. They are all those with dark skin, humanism and decency. Goodnight Denmark."

The new Danish government moved in fast. It abolished the concept of de facto refugees; it withdrew the possibility of applying for asylum from Danish embassies abroad; and it made it very difficult for family reunification to take place. In one of his first interviews after the victory, the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, pledged to tighten immigration laws. He established a special ministry for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration and its minister, Bertel Haarder, made public his government’s new proposals regarding asylum, family reunion and residence permits. Many of these proposals were based on the DPP’s electoral program. In March, Haarder presented the Danish government's new integration measures at a press conference on "A better Integration". The proposals were put to vote, formally approved in June, and became law on 1st July 2002.

In a paper titled ‘A new policy for foreigners’, the Danish government spells out the aims of its new policy regarding foreigners. It’s a chilling document; a catalogue of new prohibitions and restrictions imposed on immigrants. And its shrill tone makes this paper reminiscent of darker days in Europe. ‘Asylum seekers whose applications for asylum are refused are to leave the country immediately and not, as today, only after 15 days.’ (One can only assume that they will be given enough time to pack.) Foreigners can only obtain a permanent residence after seven years.

The law has been changed increasing from three years to seven years the minimal period for non-Danes before they can qualify for permanent Danish residency- if the situation in their countries of origin changes within this time they can be returned. To qualify for residency, foreigners will have to pass a Danish-language exam, as well as be tested on Danish culture. Previously, over 65’s were exempted from taking these tests, but this exemption has now been abolished. One of the most controversial new laws, however, is the ban on Danish citizens living with their non-Danish spouses in Denmark, if their spouses are under 24 years.

"The aim of this law", says Thomas Harder Rasmussen from the Danish Ministry for integration, "is to prevent forced marriages." According to Rasmussen, increasing the minimum age of non-Danish spouses has reduced the problem of forced marriage. "When you are 18 years old you are more under the influence of your parents; at 24 you’re educated and more able to take control. In some communities here in Denmark around 90 percent get married to their cousins. I believe that any country with that sort of phenomenon would try and put an end to it."

And the new set of legislation is having the desired effect. PM Rasmussen announced that the number of asylum seekers fell by 52 percent this year, compared to last year. The number of applicants granted refugee status in Denmark fell too: from 53 to 31 percent.

"We are trying to deal with an integration stopper; if you are 18 years old, but your parents speak another language, and you get married to a non-Dane you would speak your [foreign] home language. The urge to get a job is not really there and all this is bad for integration. Non-Dane spouses are 40 percent less likely to get a full [college or university] education. This hinders the problem of integration. It means you’ll have a very hard time getting a job. We have a very generous welfare system. You are guaranteed a 10,000 DKK a month. So far 35% of all the money spent on social welfare is spent on 5% of our immigrants.

Europeans who emigrate to Denmark, claims, Harder Rasmussen, do not face the same integration problems so work restrictions don’t apply to them. "People from nonwestern countries don’t have the motivation to find a job. Our system is divided to Western countries (Europe, Canada, Australia etc). Israel is not a Western country; you’re not part of the European Union, so these laws apply to Israelis as well."

Indeed, like many other nationals, Israelis are also not in the Danes’ book of best friends. Last April the General Workers Union in Denmark (SiD) called for a boycott on Israeli products, in protest at Israel’s action in the Palestinian territories. Jens Peter Hansen of SiD recently wrote to the Israeli company Radix stating that "when the Israeli military is behaving so roughly in the Palestinian areas, neither I nor my union feel it is right to do business with companies from your country."

According to Harder Rasmussen, only 53 percent of all immigrants and descendants from third countries are active in the labor market compared to that of 80 percent by Danes; only 47 percent of all immigrants and descendants from third countries are employed while the rate for Danes is 76 percent. To motivate them, then, to find a job the government has set up ‘incentive to seek work’: a cut of 30-50 percent from their current benefit allowances.

Harder Rasmussen is not too concerned about the charges of racism or xenophobia which the Danish government has incurred. "It is unfair criticism against the Danish government to say that it is passing racist laws. There are lots of laws that apply to EU citizens and not to others. The laws in Denmark respects all the international conventions and all obligations under the Union. Some people think it’s wrong; we think it’s right. The last opinion poll indicates that almost 70 percent of the surveyed supported the new legislation."

"Of course there has been some criticism," he continues, "but also some support. The UN demography advisor applauded the Danish laws saying they were a good example for the European Union." Would he recommend this legislation to other countries? "Each country must decide itself," he answers resolutely.

Stephen Smith lambastes the Danish initiative and its attempt to hide behind international law: "Rasmussen claims the new law respects international conventions, and I’m sure the Danish Government’s lawyers would defend this point to the letter. However, by limiting the rights of some people to marry, the law is actually contrary to the spirit of several conventions to which Denmark is a signatory, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"The law’s unspoken rationale includes a deterrent to arranged marriages between members of Denmark's Asian community and those living in Asian countries. Legislation making this explicit would be racist, so the Danish authorities have chosen xenophobia instead - equal discrimination against all foreigners.
"It works for the Danish immigration department, but then so would many other more drastic measures if human rights were no longer part of the equation. In 1935, the Nazis found a great many ‘reasonable’ measures once they had disregarded the rights of Jews."

No comments: