Scandinavian Responses to the Refugee Crisis: How Denmark and Sweden Differ in Their Approaches

This article has been written as a supplement to the 2016 St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference, whose focus this year is on Migration & Displaced Peoples. Through this article, we hope to delve deeper into the diverse and far-reaching effects of conflict and the freedom of movement in areas such as state interaction, internal politics, societies, and economies.

On 9 September, Denmark temporarily suspended all rail links with Germany after police experienced an enormous influx of refugees attempting to cross over into Denmark on their way to Sweden. Sweden, which is now the only Scandinavian country where a centre-­left government remains in a position of power in parliament, has offered to issue residency papers to all Syrian asylum seekers. Refugees have subsequently been flooding transportation links in Germany and Denmark in pursuit of residency status in what is arguably the most liberal and open­minded refugee nation in Europe at present.

Image Courtesy of Anders Mohlin ©2015, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of Anders Mohlin ©2015, some rights reserved.

Mixed policies among Scandinavian countries regarding how to handle the strain of the thousands of incoming refugees are in turn illustrative of the drastic ways in which the arrival of refugees has transformed the domestic and foreign policies of various Scandinavian states. Additionally, in countries that historically hailed as open­minded, progressive, and quasi-socialist nations, these changes have also served to radically change the very ethos of the Scandinavian state, as citizens and politicians alike have struggled to accommodate the reality of migration with the ideals of Scandinavian­inspired socialism.

Denmark, for example, following the adoption of the Social Reform Act in 1933 has garnered a reputation as one of the most progressive and enlightened countries in the world. Following the loss of the last remnants of the Danish Empire (which during its Hamlet­era heights once included Southern Sweden, Northern Germany, Norway, and Iceland but now only includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Denmark began to ‘turn inwards’ and adopted a policy of ‘Denmark for the people’. As a result of this national ethos, Danish citizens have enjoyed state benefits from ‘child to grave’. These benefits include as free child­care, free education up through University, paid vacation leave, paid maternity and paternity leave for up to a year, and free elderly care.

Denmark, however, has long been one of the most ethnically, culturally, and linguistically homogenous nations in our world’s current nation­state system, with non-­Danish immigrants only allowed in the country in 1973 for the purpose of what was intended to be short­ term migrant labour. The recent influx of migrants has thus put the socialist foundations of the Danish welfare state to the test, as various civil society groups and political foundations have struggled over how to accept an increasingly growing non­-Danish population into the fold of Danish life. The outcome in Denmark, quite different to what has happened in Sweden, has been to tighten immigration laws, restrict benefits for refugees and immigrants already residing in the country, and further complicate the country’s ‘entry tests’; which require, among other things, immigrants to embark on a 3-­year long integration program during which they are supposed to become nearly­ fluent in Danish (an extremely complicated language) and prove a sufficient level of ‘national attachment’ to the country.

Throughout Danish society, incoming levels of immigrants and refugees has also contributed to a growing nationalist sentiment which has led to the popularity of the Danish People’s Party­­Denmark’s populist, anti­immigrant, and right­wing equivalent to UKIP­­ who came second in Denmark’s elections for the first time in Danish history this past June. Bolstered by an increasingly agitated Danish voter base, the Danish People’s Party has in turn slashed welfare state­entitlements by up to 50% to immigrants, cut foreign spending intended for humanitarian efforts abroad, and pushed the European Union (alongside nations such as Hungary) to dissuade migrants from coming into the country. The Danish government has also taken steps to promote this new Danish attitude abroad, such as occured when it ran Arabic­ language advertisements in the Lebanese El Haifa newspaper broadcasting Denmark’s tighter policies for potential asylum seekers.

Sweden, on the other hand, has diverged from its Danish neighbors concerning its reaction to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants in recent months. While Denmark has garnered a reputation as the most inhospitable Scandinavian country towards migrants, Sweden has accepted the largest number of refugees in relation to its population of any country in Europe. While Denmark has introduced new welfare benefit restrictions and has actively aimed to discourage immigrants from settling in Denmark, Sweden has encouraged other EU members to take in more refugees and step up to the plate as ‘civilised’ European nations. Sweden is also reported to be the only EU country with a majority of the population in support of non­ EU immigration, with between 71­77 per cent of Swedes claiming to approve of immigrant friendly policies according to a recent Eurostat survey (countries like Greece and Hungary have an approval rating closer to 20 per cent).

Sweden, like Denmark, also adopted a generous welfare state model in the immediate post­-World War II period that granted similar benefits to all Swedish residents from cradle to grave. Sweden, like Denmark, has also had a mostly ethnically homogeneous population for nearly the entirety of its existence. Contrary to Denmark, Sweden considers itself more progressive when it comes to immigration; this an attitude which has shaped its increasingly immigrant friendly domestic and foreign policies. For example, the Swedish equivalent to the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, remain a marginalized political party within Sweden. Unlike in Denmark, Swedish students have also become increasingly vocal in their dislike of the Sweden Democrats, as is evident through University demonstrations where Swedish students attend talks by the Sweden Democrats to then turn their backs to the stage in unison. Sweden is also raising taxes by $7 billion among the population in order to support the newcomers, who continue to receive equal state ­benefits as native Swedes. Morgan Johansson, Sweden’s center­left Justice Minister, has also stated that he is prepared to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees this year alone (an incredible number, especially compared to President Obama’s recent statements that the U.S. will take 10,000 more Syrian refugees next year), which will result in a 1 per cent increase in the Swedish population, which numbers around 10 million. Sweden and Denmark, which have historically been clumped together and regarded as beacons of Scandinavian-­style socialist welfare states have thus begun to diverge dramatically over the issue of immigrants, increasingly drifting further apart on the left­/right-wing political spectrum.

However, critics of Sweden’s policies, such as Danish People’s Party supporters and Swedish supporters of the Sweden Democrats, claim that the country is adopting and advancing a policy towards immigrants that is naive and idealistic, especially after the 10 August incident where an Eritrean asylum­seeker stabbed two Swedish natives to death in an unprovoked attack outside an Ikea store in the city of Vasteras. Supporters of the Danish People’s party, and critics of Sweden’s ‘naive’ immigration policies, have pointed to growing incidences of violence within Denmark, such as the attacks that occurred on 14-15 February, when a Palestinian­-born immigrant killed two Danish citizens in Copenhagen only a week after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

Supporters of progressive immigration policies however, especially in Sweden, argue that more needs to be done to protect the refugees escaping brutal regimes in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Supporters of progressive immigration policies also argue that the immigration issue is serving to change the very fabric of certain Scandinavian countries for the worse. In Denmark, for example, critics have argued that the Danish People’s Party and Denmark’s increasingly xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants have tarnished the Danish reputation abroad and have radically changed the philosophical underpinnings upon which the Danish welfare state rests. The policy of ‘Denmark for the people’ has increasingly come to mean ‘Denmark for the Danes.’

As the European Union continues to struggle with how to deal with and accommodate the unprecedented influx of refugees into the region in recent months, certain European countries, such as Sweden, France, Germany, and recently the United Kingdom, have nevertheless taken the lead in arguing that the region needs to do more to help. This, in conjunction with increasing international pressure, has reverberated within Scandinavia and helped to reverse some of the more ethno-centrist moves taken by right­ wing political parties.

According to Martin Larsen, a spokesman for the Danish National Rail Company DSB, outrage and pressure from international sources persuaded the Danish government to open up rail routes between Germany and Denmark for migrants days after the link was temporarily suspended, thereby helping facilitate the journey of migrants seeking refuge in the ‘bright lights’ of the Scandinavian North.

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