Danish civil society’s response to right-wing, xenophobic government policies

Guest article by Steen Folke

Denmark is a privileged, small European country with just 5.8 million inhabitants, more than 90 per cent of whom belong to an ethnically homogeneous group with a long history. It is one of the five Nordic countries - together with Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - that top most international lists, for instance in terms of per capita income, human development, moderate inequality and a lack of corruption.

In the second half of the 20th century, all the Nordic countries developed welfare states that ensured free access to education and health services, relatively generous pension schemes for all and unemployment allowances and other types of income transfers. All these benefits were funded by the states through comprehensive and progressive taxation systems. In all the countries a social democratic party played a major role in this.

Introduction of right-wing, xenophobic policies

Since the beginning of the 21st century the welfare states of the Nordic countries have come under pressure, exacerbated by the economic and financial crisis that began in 2008. Moreover, the issue of immigration and the reception of refugees has become a major political issue in all the Nordic countries, except tiny and remote Iceland. Right-wing governments have played a much larger role than in the previous 50 years, and in all the countries a populist and xenophobic new party has emerged and become a major player on the national scene. Although there are important differences between these new parties, they can be compared to the better-known Front National (recently renamed Rassemblement National) in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Lega in Italy and UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the UK.

In Denmark a right-wing government came into power in 2001 and, with some differences in its composition, has ruled the country since, except for a brief spell with a Social Democratic-led government between 2011 and 2015. These right-wing governments have been supported from outside by the so-called Danish People’s Party, which on its own won more than 20 per cent of the votes in the most recent election in 2015, and became the second largest party, almost as big as the Social Democrats. The success of this party is primarily based on its heavy-handed policies in the field of immigration and refugees. It basically wants a full stop on the reception of asylum seekers as well as migrants of non-white ethnic minority background. It specifically singles out Islam and Muslims as incompatible with Danish culture and is dead against the evolution of a multicultural and multi-ethnic society.

Spurred by this party, Denmark’s right-wing governments have adopted many laws and regulations that aim at preventing asylum seekers and other migrants from crossing the Danish borders. The current government has even stopped the decade-long practice of receiving 500 refugees annually under the United Nations (UN) quota. At the same time the conditions for those that have succeeded in getting asylum have been gradually worsened. For example, a special integration allowance was introduced that is lower than the lowest level of public allowances for Danish citizens, and the right to apply for family reunification has been barred until the completion of three years in Denmark. Measures such as these have the aim of making Denmark a less attractive destination for migrants and asylum seekers. The Minister for Integration proudly boasted on social media that the current government had implemented 50 regulations making conditions more difficult for migrants and asylum seekers. Some of the measures are probably in violation of international conventions.

In a way these efforts have been successful. The number of asylum seekers, which peaked at 21,316 in 2015, of whom 10,849 got asylum, has been reduced to just 1,307 in the first five months of 2018, of whom only 581 got asylum. So rich Denmark, which was previously known for its strong support to the UN and its relatively high development assistance, has effectively opted out of the international efforts to receive and take care of some of the world’s more than 65 million refugees.

Unfortunately, it is not only the right-wing parties in government and the Danish People’s Party that stand behind these policies. In an attempt to recapture votes from the Danish People’s Party, the Social Democratic party has made a turnaround and more or less acceded to or copied these policies. A recent government proposal, which entails double punishment for crimes committed in ethnic minority-dominated so-called ghettos, designated as such by the government, is also being supported by the Social Democrats. This seriously undermines a basic democratic right to be treated equally irrespective of colour, creed, or place of habitation.

Civil society response

Given these sad developments in Danish official policies, civil society has faced a tremendous task in trying to uphold certain humanistic principles. In comparison with other countries, notably our neighbours Germany and Sweden, not to speak of countries such as Bangladesh, Liberia and Uganda, the number of refugees received in Denmark is minute. Even so, the government’s restrictive policies and the dominating negative discourse on migrants and refugees have made it imperative for Danish civil society to welcome and assist asylum seekers, in particular, who have arrived in small waves, fleeing from conflicts in other parts of the world.

Fortunately, Denmark, like its Nordic sister countries, is endowed with a strong civil society. There is a more than century-long tradition of ordinary people engaging as volunteers in a variety of fields, including culture, social work and sports. In a survey in 2012 it was found that 38 per cent of Danish men and 36 per cent of women above the age of 16 were engaged as volunteers within an organisation. This evidently is a huge resource that contributes to making Denmark a well-functioning society, although in recent years it has been debated whether volunteers in some cases substitute for professionals who are being dismissed by a welfare state under pressure.

Many civil society organisations (CSOs), big and small, have played an important role in receiving asylum seekers and at the same time advocating for different, more responsible and humanitarian policies that respect the international conventions. Prominent among these are the Danish Refugee Council and the Danish Red Cross, well-established organisations with a huge, partly state-funded, budget, a large staff and numerous volunteers. They are both involved in the reception and integration of refugees in Denmark and in other parts of the world where the refugee problems are of a completely different magnitude.

More interesting perhaps are some organisations that have sprung up at the grassroots level in response to the small waves of asylum seekers who have reached Denmark. Some of them have committed civil disobedience by housing asylum seekers who have been denied asylum. The Committee for Refugees Underground was formed in 1986 by some Danes who helped an Iranian refugee who had gone underground after being denied asylum. Later this committee helped many others in similar circumstances before metamorphosing into the Refugees Welcome organisation, which provides advice and assistance to asylum seekers. This organisation has been quite vocal in its criticism of prevailing government policies.

Grandparents for Asylum is a grassroots organisation formed in 2007 in protest against the asylum policies of the government. Ever since, members of the organisation, who are primarily aged above 60, have assembled at regular intervals outside Danish asylum centres to demonstrate about the way the authorities handle asylum seekers. The organisation has successfully mobilised support from many well-known people from different parts of civil society and used their support to put pressure on the parties that stand behind the government’s policies.

The biggest and perhaps most interesting grassroots organisation bears the Danish name Venligboerne, which means ‘the friendly inhabitants’. It was started in the provincial town of Hjørring in 2014 by a nurse who felt a need to develop more friendly relations between people in general. But soon the organisation’s overwhelming focus narrowed in on the reception of and provision of assistance to refugees. By way of social media, particularly Facebook, this evolved into a movement that spread like a bushfire, loosely organising around 150,000 people all over Denmark. The movement is highly decentralised, without formal leadership, and it is up to the people involved to decide locally how they can help refugees, which they may do, for example, by setting up cafés, inviting them to visit private homes and helping with all kind of practical matters. There is often fruitful cooperation between these people and the local authorities at the municipal level, which tend to view refugees in their location in a more positive light than the politicians at the national level.

A key question for Venligboerne has been that of whether to engage in critical dialogue with the government on asylum policies. It seems to be a majority view that this would be inappropriate and potentially divisive. However, a vocal minority, particularly strong in the Copenhagen region, where 40,000 of Venligboerne associates live, thinks differently and asserts that the provision of practical support to refugees and critique of government policies must go hand in hand, since the issue is in any case heavily politicised. As a consequence of this split the two parts have each established their own internet presence.

The organisation that I have been involved in for several decades as a board member and activist, the large development CSO MS - since 2008 also known as ActionAid Denmark (AADK) - has played its own, more marginal role in this field. For more than 50 years its main mission has been to combat poverty in the global south, to a large extent funded by the official Danish development agency, DANIDA. But the objective of AADK is broader, namely “…to contribute to a sustainable global development and a just distribution of the Earth’s wealth.”

It was therefore obvious to AADK that we must engage in the debate on refugees and criticise the government’s restrictive policies. However, the first time this happened, a prominent conservative MP threatened AADK, saying that we could risk our DANIDA funding if we continued. As an act of solidarity, the threat was strongly denounced by the umbrella organisation of Danish development CSOs, Global Focus. As it turns out, in 2017 AADK was allocated an increased four-year grant from DANIDA for its work in the global south.

The organisation has continued its national-level work in various ways, including by getting almost 80,000 signatures in support of a petition demanding that Denmark resumes receiving at least 500 UN quota refugees. AADK has also provided assistance and training to groups in asylum centres, and has supported and trained young people in so-called ghettos, many of them from a second or third generation refugee background, in order to empower and enable them to take part democratically in Danish society, including through the establishment of local youth councils. Moreover, as part of the organisation’s cooperation with social movements, AADK has supported several grassroots organisations, including Venligboerne

It is my hope that these examples of how Danish civil society has responded to restrictive and xenophobic policies, that are also found elsewhere, can be of some inspiration to others in other societies facing similar issues.

About the author

Steen Folke is a retired development researcher, former member of parliament and a board member of MS/ActionAid Denmark for 18 years.