Dispatch

How the Danish Left Adopted a Far-Right Immigration Policy

In an effort to outflank the populist right, the ruling Social Democrats have adopted one of the harshest refugee policies in the world.

copenhagen protest
People attend a demonstration against the tightening of Denmark's migration policy in Copenhagen, Denmark on April 21. AP Photo/David Keyton

Every morning, Ozlem Cekic, a former Danish politician from the Socialist People’s Party, bikes past the parliament building in Copenhagen. She is on her way to work at Bridge Builders, a nongovernmental organization she founded. Christiansborg Palace, the parliament house, is the heart of Danish democracy in the center of the capital. But in recent weeks, protesters have been occupying the  square outside the palace.

They are enraged because several Syrian refugees have been ordered to go back home by the Danish government. This is possible because of a law enacted in 2015 with a large majority that distinguishes between political refugees and refugees who gained their status because of a general state of war in their home country. “When I biked past the palace this morning, someone was holding a sign saying: Syria isn’t safe,” said Cekic, who left parliament in 2015. “It’s absurd that Denmark ... is discussing whether Syria is safe or not—a country that has been in a civil war for years now.”

In March, the Danish immigration office concluded that the Greater Damascus area is safe enough for some refugees to return. Since 2019, at least 254 people have already lost their asylum status and are either in an appeals process or have been told to leave the country. According to the Danish newspaper Politiken, around 500 Syrian refugees could be asked to return to Syria. By May, at least 39 people had received a final rejection, according to BBC. Political refugees are exempt, but anyone from the greater Damascus area who gained their status because of the general state of war is in danger of losing it.

Every morning, Ozlem Cekic, a former Danish politician from the Socialist People’s Party, bikes past the parliament building in Copenhagen. She is on her way to work at Bridge Builders, a nongovernmental organization she founded. Christiansborg Palace, the parliament house, is the heart of Danish democracy in the center of the capital. But in recent weeks, protesters have been occupying the  square outside the palace.

They are enraged because several Syrian refugees have been ordered to go back home by the Danish government. This is possible because of a law enacted in 2015 with a large majority that distinguishes between political refugees and refugees who gained their status because of a general state of war in their home country. “When I biked past the palace this morning, someone was holding a sign saying: Syria isn’t safe,” said Cekic, who left parliament in 2015. “It’s absurd that Denmark … is discussing whether Syria is safe or not—a country that has been in a civil war for years now.”

In March, the Danish immigration office concluded that the Greater Damascus area is safe enough for some refugees to return. Since 2019, at least 254 people have already lost their asylum status and are either in an appeals process or have been told to leave the country. According to the Danish newspaper Politiken, around 500 Syrian refugees could be asked to return to Syria. By May, at least 39 people had received a final rejection, according to BBC. Political refugees are exempt, but anyone from the greater Damascus area who gained their status because of the general state of war is in danger of losing it.

According to the Danish newspaper Politiken, around 500 Syrian refugees could be asked to return to Syria.

One of the reports that the immigration office is using for its conclusion was produced by the European Asylum Support Office, according to the Danish newspaper Berlingske. But the same report also pointed out that returning refugees were randomly arrested, harassed, and extorted. Moreover, most of the expert sources who helped prepare some government reports on which the new policy was based have since distanced themselves from the government’s stance.

The Social Democratic Party, currently leading a minority government, has defended the decision. In recent years, the Social Democrats as well as other mainstream parties have supported and pushed further tightening of an already restrictive immigration system, often adopting the same policies that far-right parties have recommended. Earlier this year, the government made a deal with right-wing parties to make it impossible for foreigners with a suspended sentence to ever become Danish citizens, and on June 3 the parliament voted to give the government a mandate to establish internment camps outside Europe where asylum-seekers will have to wait while Danish authorities process their applications.

The Scandinavian welfare state is adopting a refugee policy more like the notoriously strict Australian policy, in which asylum-seekers are held in limbo as their cases are processed overseas. As in Australia, both the Social Democrats and the center-right Venstre, the other major party traditionally in charge of Danish governments, are increasingly in agreement over harsh immigration policies. The Danish government hasn’t said where these centers would be, but the immigration minister signed a memorandum with Rwanda, a country under scrutiny from international human rights organizations, to cooperate concerning immigration in April.

The possible immigration centers outside Europe, as well as other immigration policies in the last years, have been criticized by the European Union and United Nations. The French newspaper Le Monde, the day after the parliament passed the law about these immigration centers by an overwhelming majority, stated in an article: “The European far-right dreamed about it. The Danish Social Democrats are prepared to do it.” While far-right parties in Denmark and the rest of Europe have been pushing for harsher immigration and asylum policies in recent decades, the Danish Social Democrats made it a reality.


Cekic, who represented a party left of the Social Democrats in parliament from 2007 to 2013, says that there has been a clear shift in what Danish mainstream parties think about immigrants in general—especially Muslims. Since 2001, when the Danish People’s Party—a far-right anti-immigration party—first provided the necessary votes for a right-wing coalition to govern, it has been pushing the limits of how restrictive immigration policies can be. In 2015, the far-right party became the biggest party on the right, providing the necessary votes for Venstre, the center-right party, to form a minority government. But the parties on the left also followed suit when it came to adopting the Danish People’s Party’s ideas.

Cekic left her own party because of this. In 2016, Pia Olsen Dyhr, the chairwoman of Cekic’s old party, the Socialist People’s Party, listed “radical Islam” as the biggest threat to Danish “society, freedom, and community.” Cekic said painting this as such a major threat is absurd. But she is most frightened by the fact that popular anti-immigration stances of the far-right were adopted by the big parties, including the Social Democrats.

Anne Sofie Allarp, a former Social Democrat who worked as an international secretary for the Social Democratic Party organization until 2009, thinks the Danish People’s Party is responsible for “changing the flavor of almost the entire parliament” toward the right-wing in the last two decades and adopting what Allarp calls “populist” immigration policies.

Danish authorities have ordered one refugee to go to Iraq, even though he grew up in Syria, has a Syrian passport, and has never been to Iraq.

The race for restrictive immigration policies ultimately meant that the Danish People’s Party, overshadowed by more extreme far-right parties and with mainstream parties adopting its policy wish list, lost the 2019 election. The big winner was the Social Democrats. “The prime minister saw it as her primary goal to get her party into power,” Allarp said. “And if that is the goal, it’s a brilliant strategy to lure voters in by adopting policies of the nationalist parties.” The Social Democrats won the election and decided to continue with their plan of strict immigration policies, getting the necessary votes to form a minority government from left-leaning parties that focused more on other policy areas, such as climate reform.

Rasmus Stoklund, the Social Democratic spokesperson for immigration policy in the Danish parliament, has become the poster boy for the government’s immigration policies. He denies that his party has adopted populist politics. “Since the ’80s, immigration from the Middle East especially, but also from some parts of Africa, has been huge, which has led to many challenges,” said Stoklund, who thinks stricter immigration policies should have been adopted earlier.

“Some immigrants have been working against principal values such as freedom and democracy,” Stoklund said, referring to Islamic extremists. But he denied the claim that the Danish Social Democrats are discriminating against Muslims. “There are plenty of Muslims that do well in Denmark. The majority do well. And we of course have religious freedom,” Stoklund said. “But the problem is that too many [who come from Muslim-majority countries] who have difficulties accepting our values, that democracy and rule of law come before religion, that women have equal rights, and that law is enacted in the parliament and doesn’t come from your religion.”


One of the refugees feeling the brunt of the increasingly strict immigration policy is Ahmad Mosara Zanon, who grew up in Qamishli in northeast Syria. He fled to Denmark in 2015, trekking from Turkey by car and on foot with his two brothers. The rest of his family joined them later through family reunification.

Zanon’s situation is especially peculiar. Danish authorities have decided not to renew his asylum and ordered him to go to Iraq, even though he grew up in Syria, has a Syrian passport, and has never been to Iraq. He said that he has no connection with Iraq whatsoever, except that his grandfather fled Iraq to Syria in 1968 as a political refugee, eventually getting to Denmark, where he became a citizen.

“I had a perception of Denmark as a democratic country without discrimination, but I was wrong,” Zanon said. He has been doing well in Denmark. He learned the language in a short time and now is studying to become a social worker. But he said that even though he is well integrated into the community in Tonder, a village of 7,000 people in southern Denmark, the rhetoric of politicians makes it impossible to feel welcome in the country. Zanon, who is among the refugees who have succeeded in Denmark, points to Stoklund as one of the politicians who harms integration efforts and the well-being of Syrian refugees generally as a result of his rhetoric.

As an example, he mentioned a law enacted by the former government in 2018 that requires immigrants to shake the hand of a member of the municipality council before they can become citizens. The law was meant to prevent the granting of citizenship to people who, because of their religious beliefs, wouldn’t shake the hand of an official of the opposite sex when getting citizenship. The Social Democrats have announced that they want to complicate the situation further. As some municipalities found a loophole by offering refugees to the option to either shake the hand of a female or male council member, the government now wants to restrict the handshake so that it can only be with the mayor.

Zanon had hoped that a Social Democratic government would change some of these policies, pushed through by the Danish People’s Party and the former right-wing immigration minister for Venstre, Inger Stojberg, who later left the party, saying that it wasn’t strict enough on immigration policy. But specifically mentioning the Social Democrats, Zanon, who has appealed the decision to revoke his refugee status, said: “They are just as bad—sometimes worse than the former government.”

Rahima Abdullah, the 19-year-old deputy chairperson of the youth division of the Danish Refugee Council, a Danish NGO, is a political refugee—and hence not in danger of losing her immigration status at the moment. She is also from Aleppo, a city that is not yet considered safe by the Danish government. Since her close friend and high school classmate was told to go back to Syria, she has been active in protests while writing opinion pieces and a poem for Danish media.

Even though Abdullah had noticed that most political parties had accepted stricter immigration policies, she was shocked by the Social Democrats’ decision. “I can’t trust them again,” she said.

The Danish People’s Party has pushed the center to the right when it comes to immigration policy.

“They don’t care about conventions and what international human rights organizations say,” Abdullah said. “This isn’t about a strict immigration politics anymore. … Now it’s about ethics and values. It’s about the fact that Denmark is the first country in the world to say that Syria is safe.”

Stoklund is unnerved by the fact that foreign newspapers, the U.N., Amnesty International, and allies in Europe have criticized his party’s decision to enact stricter immigration policies. “We haven’t outsourced Danish democracy,” he said, even though another country—possibly Rwanda—will be hosting refugees who applied for asylum in Denmark in the future. “We always want to discuss with allies and negotiate, but it’s Danish politicians that make the decisions about the Danish refugee system,” he added.

Allarp, who became a journalist and writer after leaving the Social Democratic Party, said that, regrettably, Zanon and Abdullah have no reason to be shocked, because the Social Democrats are simply delivering the draconian policy they promised, with the support of most parties in parliament.

She said she won’t be voting for the Social Democrats anytime soon. “I find this policy extremely shameful. And I’m not alone, a lot of people feel in despair, they feel that they are not able to vote for any political party at this point,” Allarp said. “Around 80 percent of the political parties participate in this competition to be as rigid and as tough on migration as possible.” One thing seems clear: The Danish People’s Party has pushed the center to the right when it comes to immigration policy.

Regin Winther Poulsen is a multimedia journalist from the Faroe Islands. Twitter: @PoulsenRegin

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