Introduction to the European Refugee Crisis
Since 2015, the refugee, or migrant crisis in Europe has been a top story worldwide. Due to political unrest, poverty, and conflict in areas of Western Asia, South Asia, and Africa predominantly, individuals have been forced to relocate and seek asylum in neighboring countries, with European countries being the most popular. Although migrants have been applying for asylum for several years, applications increased massively in 2015 following the civil war in Syria. During that time, the top five countries of origin of migrants included Syria, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Albania, and Iraq.
This drastic influx created the European refugee crisis, in which countries have been forced to develop new ways to accommodate, each country responding in its own way.
EU/EFTA countries received a total of 1,393,285 applications in 2015 and 308,915 applications in 2016. Germany, the country with the largest influx of migrants, had 179,780 of those applicants, roughly .22% of their population of 80.6 million. Denmark, on the other hand, had 3,035 applicants, approximately .05% of their relatively small population of 5.7 million.
My Experience in Denmark
As I studied abroad in Denmark during the fall of 2016, the crisis was in full force. Thousands of refugees were applying for asylum in my host country, and many were entering, fleeing their homes and hoping to make a better life for themselves among the Danes. While I was aware of the issue and the many challenges European countries faced at the time, I did not come in contact with refugees, nor I did not wholly understand the degree of the crisis. Therefore, I took matters into my own hands, researching and interviewing Danes on the matter. The following piece addresses the way in which Denmark has responded to the crisis from both a governmental and citizen standpoint, and provides viewpoints from interviews with Danish citizens.
Denmark’s Response to the Refugee Crisis
In the most recent news, Denmark is receiving a lot of negative press regarding their responses to the crisis. Denmark, welfare system and all, may have seemed like an extremely attractive destination for those seeking asylum, but that label has quickly tarnished. Among Denmark’s decisions criticized by the public include two new laws. First, a law enacted in January of 2016, enables Danish authorities to confiscate belongings over $1,450 as a means to help settle the debt Denmark undergoes from taking them into their country. The second law increases the reunification process from one to three years, a process that allows migrants to come together with their families.
This shift in Denmark’s attitude is controversial as well as surprising, due to the fact that Denmark has been a home for refugees for many years. In fact, while refugees accounted for about 10 percent of the entire population in 2016, this number has developed over the past several decades as immigrants came to Denmark in search of education, labor opportunities, family reunification, asylum, and due to the EU and EEA rules of free movement. The graph below displays data regarding the number of refugees received by Denmark as well as their country of origin from 1956 to 2014.
Now, while countries such as Germany and Sweden are two other primary destinations, Denmark’s welfare state, which includes free health care, free education, unemployment benefits, and more, would seem particularly attractive. However, another recent change enacted by the Danish government is a 45 percent cut to migrant welfare benefits. One positive aspect of the change is that those who pass an intermediate Danish exam will receive additional financial support. These changes clearly distinguish Denmark’s, specifically the Danish government’s, viewpoint on the crisis: to limit the number of asylum-seekers and provide incentive to those already settled to integrate into the Danish society. One of the key elements of the welfare system, which I learned upon my stay, is that the system only functions properly if everyone is doing their part and contributing equally. Therefore, it seems fitting that they plan to reward individuals for working to integrate properly.
Countries such as Germany and Sweden initially responded to the crisis in a more positive and welcoming way, with Germany accepting over a million refugees in 2015 and Sweden allowing in a high number as well, taking in the greatest number of refugees per capita in 2015. However, Sweden, a fellow Scandinavian country, has been forced to make changes themselves, some of which mirror those of Denmark. For example, Sweden now allows refugees to receive temporary permits only, has further regulated the reunification process, and has increased the number of officers in border control. Sweden has even deported refugees, as they were not able to handle the influx. It seems as though countries who have attempted to be of aid during these desperate times did not understand the degree to which their help would be needed, and are making these changes as both responsive and preventative measures. Despite the criticism Denmark has received, it is evident that other countries are following their lead.
Danish Viewpoints on the Issue: Frederikke
In an interview with Frederikke, a 20 year-old woman from Denmark, we discussed the crisis and several issues that I previously mentioned, such as Denmark’s new laws. I also asked for her personal opinions of the matter. Frederikke is from a town called Roskilde, a suburb of the capital city of Copenhagen. She currently works full-time in Copenhagen, and commutes each day from home in Roskilde.
To begin, I asked Frederikke how, if at all, the refugee crisis in Denmark has impacted her in her daily life. She responded that refugees have come to Denmark and have spread all over the country, typically living in large groups together. She was very up-to-date regarding the crisis, however, she stated that she did not feel the impact of it at all in her daily life. She informed me that her mother Birgitte, however, who works at an international school in Roskilde, has a refugee working with her for three months. The refugee, a Moroccan woman, is studying Danish in order to be able to eventually work in a Danish workplace; Birgitte will help her integrate. Frederikke seemed very positive about her mother’s situation, adding that it is exemplary of the behavior that Danes look for in those relocating to their country; again, they hope that refugees will work to become a part of their society.
When I asked Frederikke her opinions on both refugees and Denmark’s response, she had many positive ideas to share: “I think it’s great that we can help, honestly. I don’t see a bad thing about it, but of course there will be change. I think that it’s great if they want to be a part of Denmark and want to integrate to be one [a Dane]. Not that they have to be the same religiously, they can believe in whatever they want. I just want them to behave nicely.”
When I asked Frederikke her opinions on the new Danish laws, she explained: “The law about seizing jewelry is awful. I’m really embarrassed about being a Danish person after that. It’s such a small amount of money that they can have on them, it’s crazy. I feel like they take some freedom away from them in some way, which is not okay. It’s kind of sad actually.” This was clearly a topic that Frederikke was familiar with and had strong feelings towards. Denmark is currently being portrayed as an unaccepting country due to the new laws instilled to limit the number of incoming refugees.
“We need to take care of the people that are here now so that they can be integrated in a good way; Denmark needs to function at the same time.”
Finally, I asked Frederikke her thoughts on the difference in responses by Denmark and neighboring countries such as Germany and Sweden. “I know that Germany has been taking a lot of them [refugees] in but at the same time, Denmark is so small in comparison. Proportionately, it could look more similar.” As a follow-up prompt, I asked whether she thinks it is right to increase border control and limit the number of incoming refugees, to which she replied “I don’t think that we can let everybody get in here. We need to take care of the people that are here now so that they can be integrated in a good way; Denmark needs to function at the same time.”
Danish Viewpoints on the Issue: Birgitte and Henrik
In an interview with Frederikke’s parents, Henrik and Birgitte, both in their mid 50’s, we discussed similar issues. First, I started with an open-ended question regarding their attitudes towards the refugee crisis. They responded that at the moment, it is not as big as a problem in Denmark as it is in other regions such as Southern Europe. They accept the way that Denmark has responded to the crisis as a whole, but consider Danes who will not accept refugees nor help to pay to take care of them to be wrong. They also explained that the refugee crisis has sparked much debate in Denmark and discussion in the public and the media between political parties. However, similar to Frederikke’s response, they added that it is not a problem in their daily lives in Roskilde.
Throughout the interview, I sensed a common theme in their views: Denmark does not have any problems due to the crisis regarding issues such as crime rates, quality of governmental services, and threats to the monocultural society, for example. But, that being said, Birgitte and Henrik explained that if there was another large influx of refugees in a short period of time, there would be problems because Denmark is such a small country and would not be able to function properly.
In summary, despite the criticism Denmark has received for their actions, it is evident that some changes were essential in order to handle the influx of migrants. Denmark has demonstrated that they are a welcoming country, but their priority as of now is to amalgamate those migrants who are already there, and to limit the number of incoming refugees in order to keep their country functioning harmoniously.
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