Danish police escort a family from Syria seeking asylum in Denmark. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK – As confirmed results trickled through in the early hours of the morning, election night turned into a day of celebration for Hazem Al Khani. The centre-left Social Democratic Party, led by the current prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, had won, and Al Khani, a Syrian refugee, had cheered her on all the way to the victory.
To secure a majority and form a government, the Social Democrats formed a coalition with three immigration-friendly, left-wing parties – the Socialist People’s Party, the Danish Social-Liberal Party, and the Red-Green Alliance – on a memorandum of understanding that included promises to “promote integration, help people in need [and] stand guard for international conventions.”
“I was so happy that I threw a party,” Al Khani said.
The victory for the Social Democrats meant that the previous centre-right government’s crusade against immigrants and refugees was finally over, and a new era lay ahead.
Or so Al Khani thought.
Based on the glow of the election night on the 5th June, 2019, no one could have predicted that just two years later, Al Khani, as the leader of rights group Syrians In Denmark, would now be organising a months-long sit-in protest outside the Danish parliament to protest the government’s hostile immigration policy. A policy that has recently escalated into Denmark issuing deportation orders to some Syrian refugees. Orders that have been issued, despite the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee watchdog, saying such a decision to send refugees back to Syria could be a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
“I’ve been doing everything right,” Al Khani told VICE World News. “But they keep making life harder.” He has not been told to return to Syria himself, but he fears for his future in Denmark if the government expands the policy, and has close friends who have received the doom-laden message.
Since its election in 2019, the government has implemented dozens of policies targeted not only at refugees, but also immigrants and ethnic minorities in general. In its first year in office, the government implemented twice as many new laws restricting immigration as the previous centre-right government had on average in the same period.
VICE World News has spoken to multiple refugees in Denmark who have been affected by the government’s position, as they battle repressive immigration policies that they say are a result of the supposedly left-wing government adopting hard-line rhetoric of the right and far-right.
Aveen Mohamad Issa, 20, is one of around 500 refugees whose residence permits were revoked by the authorities, putting their lives on hold. Last month, she and her family were told the decision had been overturned at the last-minute, allowing them to stay in Denmark as political refugees. But the shock has shaken her, and life under the Social Democratic government has been “psychological torture,” she said. VICE World News previously reported on Issa’s case while she was still awaiting a decision.
“It has become so hard to be a refugee here,” Issa said in a new interview. “It wasn’t like this when we arrived. I can’t do anything at all because the situation in Denmark makes us fear for our future every day. There is no stability. There are constantly new laws, rulings and rebukes against refugees, and the situation is so that you never really feel safe because you constantly worry about the future. You feel like you could be deported at any time, or one mistake could block you from being allowed to stay in the future.”
Examples of the government’s anti-immigration policies include setting up asylum centres in African countries; laws that set an upper limit for how big a percentage of the population in a residential area can be from an ethnic minority group, increased opportunities for authorities to collect data from foreign nationals, and offering cash payments of £3,000 to asylum seekers whose first application were rejected to not appeal the verdict. But the government has also made some relaxations, such as resuming participation in the UN’s refugee resettlement programme, giving refugees with temporary residence permits access to higher education, and giving higher economic benefits to families with children – though not nearly as many as there are restrictions.
“The list is endless. I could go on for days,” said Sikandar Siddique, a member of parliament and spokesperson for immigration and integration for the Independent Greens, the only left-wing party not in the supposedly liberal coalition.
“But I didn’t have high expectations for the government anyway,” he said. “I had high expectations for the supporting parties, that they would exercise parliamentary control and influence on the government and use their mandates to push the government in a more humane direction. From a legislative perspective, left-wing or right-wing immigration policy is like being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. But there was a hope and that hope has been crushed, and that means a lot as a minority.”
What has shocked people is not that the government adopted a “tough” stance on immigration – the platform it was elected on was built on a promise that it would not be “weaker” on immigration – but that a left-wing party saw the right-wing’s hard line and raised it. The government’s stated goal is to ultimately receive zero new refugees by making Denmark a less attractive country as a destination, in an echo of the hostile environment policies adopted in the UK for example.
“They said very clearly there would not be relaxations, but we had an expectation that they would tone down the policies that have the opposite effect of promoting integration,” said Michala Clante Bendixen, chair of Refugees Welcome, an organisation that offers legal advice to refugees and promotes their rights in Denmark. “That they would be more receptive to experts and researchers when they say that the current way of governing is making integration worse.”
“But, to put it very mildly, that has not happened. It has gotten worse,” she said. “The restrictions they have made to obtain citizenship, in particular, are outrageous. Just speaking about them makes my heart pound.”
In a bill implemented on the 10th of May this year, the government, in agreement with the three right-wing parties that formed the previous government, raised the requirements for immigrants to become citizens. The new requirements mean that receiving any type of prison sentence disqualifies people from ever becoming citizens, extra abstract questions on the citizenship test about Danish values that cannot be studied for, and that any debt to the public that exceeds approximately £500 — including student loans, unpaid fines, legal costs — are disqualifying, and more.
With anti-immigration sentiment becoming mainstream not just as a right-wing talking point, but on both sides of the spectrum as an important policy standpoint to win elections, it can be hard to feel welcome as a minority in the country.
In the years prior to the election, historically anti-immigration parties on the right had won over centrist voters who, encouraged by sharp rhetoric from politicians, were worried about an influx of refugees following the Syrian civil war. To sway back those voters, the Social Democrats amended their immigration policies to look very much like that of the right-wing parties. This triggered a still-ongoing race to the bottom where parties on both sides continuously one-up each other on how tough they are on migration in order to secure votes, spurring policies that critics say sometimes balance on the edge of violating international conventions.
The Social Democrats went on to win 25.9 percent of the votes in 2019 to become the country’s biggest party, scoring many votes from Danish People’s Party (DF), which is often credited as the original instigator of the current agenda in immigration policy. In all, they secured more than 100,000 votes from DF and Venstre, The Liberal Party of Denmark, the country’s main opposition party, which had also been cracking down hard on immigration during their years in government in the previous election period.
Baresh Amer Ali Joma has felt the consequences of this on his own body. Despite having lived in Denmark since he was a child after his father had fled there as a refugee, he still only holds a temporary residence permit because he had been unaware of a technicality during a period of job seeking. When he applied a few years ago, he was rejected because he had accepted the help of a job centre — on encouragement from the municipality — for two weeks until he found an employer. But this barred him from obtaining permanent residency for four years because receiving certain kinds of public benefits are not permitted.
“I did what the government asked me to. I never should have,” he said. “Since then, things have only gone downhill for me because the current government keeps making new restrictions that I can’t catch up to, because of one mistake.”
Joma continued: “It’s just a terribly stressful way to live. And I really thought it would get better after the new government came to power because of the supporting parties. Instead, the situation has only made me come down with stress.”
He’s now in training as a carpenter, but being a student does not count as an occupation when applying for permanent residency. It is currently a requirement to have been employed for 3 years and 6 months of the last four years when the application is processed. He has recently begun visiting schools to hold presentations about the dos and don’ts in becoming a resident, to make sure others don’t make the same mistake he did. “There are so many young people who have no idea how to navigate all the rules,” he said. “The government doesn’t help them, they just say ‘well, that’s how the rules are, you should have known.’”
But the effects of the Social Democrats’ immigration agenda doesn’t just impact refugees and immigrants and their descendants. They also affect citizens of ethnic minorities due to the change in rhetoric.
“I actually voted for the Social Democrats in the election,” said Wissam Abdel-halim, a Danish citizen who has lived in the country since the 90s.
“God, I wish I could take back my vote,” he said.
Abdel-halim came to Denmark as a toddler and was later granted citizenship through his father. He grew up in a troubled neighbourhood and faced racism at a school where every other/the vast majority of pupils were white. He was recruited by a gang at a young age, and committed petty crimes to get by. He has since left the gang and works as an E-commerce specialist, but says he understands first-hand what the consequences of the government’s rhetoric and policy are: alienating vulnerable, immigrant teenagers is only going to push them into crime, and taking away their path to redemption will only make that problem worse.
“I had hoped for more nuance from the government, instead of talking about ‘all immigrants’ and ‘all refugees’ as one homogenous group. But the opposite happened,” he said, in reference to a specific incident in the government’s early days when Prime Minister Frederiksen said that immigrant youth made people afraid of taking city trains at night to promote a police reform.
What Abdel-halim found especially disheartening was that this rhetoric seemed to spill over into everyday life, where he had experienced a clear increase in racist encounters after the new government had come to power. He said he was scared that having a left-wing party push right-wing rhetoric would normalise racism.
Reports indicate that more and more Danes see racism as a widespread problem, with the number of reported hate crimes rising from 449 to 569 between 2018 and 2019 — a number organisations say is still rising.
“Earlier this year, my wife – who’s white – and I were doing some window shopping in town, and we had to dodge two women with our baby-stroller who stopped to let us pass. But when we passed, one of the women asked my wife: ‘how can you have a child with someone like that?’, meaning a person of colour,” Abdel-halim said, adding that it was just one among several incidents like it over the last couple years.
“It feels like people don’t hold back anymore, like people feel they have a carte blanche to just be racist if that’s what they want. But, I guess, in some ways that’s better than if they keep it to themselves. At least then you know.”
“That’s what’s so sad about this,” Abdel-halim said. “You would have expected this from the far-right, but these people are Social Democrats.”