Denmark's Mixed Message For Refugees

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A Danish policeman checks passengers' identity papers on a train arriving from Germany on Jan. 6. Officials say the small country is overwhelmed by the number of refugees seeking asylum. (Getty Images)
A Danish policeman checks passengers' identity papers on a train arriving from Germany on Jan. 6. Officials say the small country is overwhelmed by the number of refugees seeking asylum. (Getty Images)

Are refugees still welcome in Denmark? Many Danes say yes, despite a new, controversial law requiring police to seize cash and other valuables from asylum seekers arriving in the Nordic country. There's widespread criticism in Denmark of the new law, even as many Danes are nervous about the rising number of asylum seekers.

The pretty Baltic port town of Sonderborg is one of many Danish communities sending mixed signals to asylum seekers these days. It hosts scores of migrants at an asylum center on the city's outskirts.

Resident Pia Escherich says Danes have an obligation to help people fleeing war zones.

"I think if a lot of people from Syria are coming up here to be refugees, they are welcome," she says.

But her welcome comes with a caveat: Syrians are OK, but not so much those coming from Afghanistan or other countries where the urgency of asylum seems less clear-cut.

"They are not refugees as I see it," Escherich says. "I think a lot of guys are coming along with the other guys and that's a problem because we can't have millions of guys in Europe. But generally, if they are refugees, they are welcome."

Weeding out asylum seekers who don't fit the ever-narrowing definition of who is a refugee is what more and more Europeans want — not just here in Denmark, but also in neighboring countries like Sweden and Germany that have been more willing, until now, to take in refugees.

Some Danes also seek to insulate themselves from refugees who are already here, especially following widely publicized reports of sexual assaults and other violent crimes being blamed on migrants.

In Sonderborg, for example, a policy by the Buddy Holly nightclub only to let in customers who speak Danish, English or German received renewed attention after women here and in nearby towns complained of being harassed by asylum seekers.

The club's owner told Agence France Presse the policy was about safety and not xenophobia, but Sonderborg psychologist Martin Juhl considers it discrimination.

"I heard about it in the news, but don't think it's necessary to make those rules," he says. "But I think you have to know that Buddy Holly thing, as I consider it, is a youngster's place and I cannot take it that serious."

He is more concerned about the reputation Denmark is gaining as unfriendly to refugees.

A new law orders Danish police to seize cash and valuables from some asylum seekers and keeps others from bringing their families to Denmark, even if they are in danger.

University of Copenhagen migration researcher Zachary Whyte says the goal is to get asylum seekers to choose another destination.

"You can see this with the Danish government, when it last year took out ads in Lebanese newspapers to discourage Syrian refugees, primarily in Lebanon, from coming to Denmark."

Officials say they have no choice. They claim their small country — with a population of 5.6 million — has been overwhelmed by the 20,000 people who applied for asylum in Denmark last year, even though that number is a small fraction of what neighboring countries have taken in, Whyte says.

"But it's increasingly become the prevalent story that refugees are an economic burden to the Danish welfare state," he says.

Danish journalist Mikkel Andersson opposes what he calls asylum-based immigration. Many asylum seekers arriving in Denmark are unskilled and uneducated, and therefore won't fit in, he believes.

"A huge amount of those will not be able to be integrated into the Danish labor market in any meaningful way," he says. "That's the experience we've had over the last 30 years."

He says Danish tax dollars would be far better spent on humanitarian aid than hosting refugees.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees are still flooding into Europe. In Denmark, the government has made it more difficult for people hoping to land there. They passed a controversial law requiring asylum seekers to hand over any cash or valuables when they arrive in the country. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson says many Danes are conflicted over this law.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The pretty Baltic port town of Sonderborg is one of many Danish communities sending mixed signals to asylum seekers these days. It hosts scores of migrants at an asylum center on the town's outskirts. Downtown at the local mall, resident Pia Escherich says Danes have an obligation to help people fleeing from war zones. But her welcome has a caveat. Syrians are OK, but not so much those coming from Afghanistan or other countries, where the urgency of asylum is maybe not as clear-cut.

PIA ESCHERICH: They are not refugees as I see it. I think a lot of guys are coming along with the other guys, and that's a problem because we cannot have millions of guys in Europe. But I think, generally, if they are refugees, they are welcome.

NELSON: Weeding out asylum seekers who don't fit the ever-narrowing definition of who is a refugee is what more and more Europeans want, not just here in Denmark, but in neighboring countries that up until now have been more willing to take refugees in, like Sweden and Germany. Some Danes also seek to insulate themselves from those already here, especially following widely publicized reports of sexual and other violent crimes being blamed on migrants. In Sonderborg, for example, the Buddy Holly nightclub only lets in customers who speak Danish, English or German, after women here and nearby towns complained of being harassed by asylum seekers. The club's owner told Agence France-Presse the policy was about safety and not xenophobia, but Sonderborg psychologist Martin Juhl considers it discrimination.

MARTIN JUHL: I heard about it in the news, but I don't think it's necessary to make those rules. But I think you have to know that that Buddy Holly thing, as I consider it, is kind of a youngster's place and I cannot take it that serious.

NELSON: He adds he is more concerned about the reputation Denmark is getting as being unfriendly to refugees. A new law orders Danish police to seize cash and valuables from some asylum seekers and keeps others from bringing their families to Denmark for at least three years, even if they are in danger. University of Copenhagen migration researcher Zachary Whyte says the goal is to get asylum seekers to choose another destination.

ZACHARY WHYTE: The Danish government, last year, took out ads in Lebanese newspapers to discourage Syrian refugees, primarily in Lebanon, from coming to Denmark.

NELSON: Officials say they have no choice. They claim their small country has been overwhelmed by the 20,000 people who applied for asylum in Denmark last year, even though that number pales in comparison to what neighboring countries have taken in, Whyte says.

WHYTE: But it's increasingly become the prevalent story that refugees are an economic burden to the Danish welfare state.

NELSON: Speaking at the Copenhagen cafe, Danish journalist Mikkel Andersson opposes what he calls asylum-based immigration. Andersson argues many asylum seekers arriving in Denmark are unskilled and won't fit in.

MIKKEL ANDERSSON: A huge amount of those will not be able to be integrated into the Danish labor market in any meaningful way. That's the experience with that over the last 30 years.

NELSON: He says Danish tax dollars will be far better spent on humanitarian aid than hosting refugees. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News in Sonderborg, Denmark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.