Atcharapan "Mint" Yaungyai, a 13-year-old girl from Thailand, moved to Denmark with her family in 2017. She enrolled in a local school near Copenhagen, at the grade appropriate for her age level, and within a year she had mastered the language and developed a strong social network.
But last year, her right to stay in Denmark was suddenly withdrawn and she was deported to Thailand in October. The government said it was because she was considered to have lived in Thailand for too long to become integrated in Denmark, a position that stood so sharply in contrast with reality that her case caused an uproar – and a rare admission from the government that it should do something to prevent similar cases in the future.
And the government has done something. Last week, a new immigration law sailed through the Danish Parliament by a vote of 76 to 24. The law makes it quite clear that the government learned the wrong lessons from Mint’s case.
Instead of developing mechanisms to prevent the deportation of someone who so obviously succeeded in integrating into Danish society, the government codified its fondness for deportation into law. It places an emphasis on the "temporary" status of residence permits and makes it quite clear that refugees should be sent home whenever possible.
Deportation, not integration
Denmark’s reputation as an inhospitable destination for immigrants seems somewhat new, but it isn’t. By the late 1950s and ’60s, with the Second World War firmly in the rearview mirror, Denmark’s manufacturing economy was taking off. They were boom years, and the economy needed workers. Thousands of foreign laborers, mostly from Turkey, were welcomed to the country in those years, and with few exceptions, they integrated extremely well into Danish society. But as the boom ebbed and the economy stabilized, Denmark turned inward. By the early 1970s, immigration laws had been changed to only allow foreign workers from other Nordic countries. It slowly expanded to other European countries, but controls remained stringent.
The influx of migrants to Europe over the last five years has shifted both political and public sentiment to new lows. Denmark joined other EU countries in instituting border checks to prevent refugees from entering. And for those that do manage to reach the country, the police were given the authority to seize money and other valuables from them – ostensibly to help defray the costs of their stay in the country.
But the immigration law passed last week takes things to even greater depths. It is more than a raft of harsh new regulations. It represents a fundamental shift in the government’s focus, from integration to deportation. And it is callous, taking from immigrants the idea that there could ever be certainty about their future in the country. Indeed, one of the most controversial aspects of the new law is that it makes refugees’ temporary-residence status indefinite.
The law also says that refugees should be deported back to their home countries as soon as it is legal to do so. Moreover, it severely limits the right to family reunification. Families torn apart by war or other conflicts may now have no hope to reunite in Denmark. What will be the limit for reunifications? The laws says that that's entirely up to the immigration minister, who has already stated publicly her intention to make sure immigrants feel unwanted in Denmark.
Another new immigration plan proposed at the end of last year – and added to the budget for 2019 – will move unwanted asylum seekers to a tiny, uninhabited island by 2021. Out of sight, out of mind is not supposed to be an immigration policy.
Lindholm Island, which sits in a bay in the southeast of the country, will be repurposed from a stable and laboratory for livestock infected with swine flu and other contagious diseases. Traces of diseases are still found all over the island, and authorities have admitted that it will need to be completely decontaminated before people can live there. Again, the message is clear: You are not welcome in Denmark.
This proposal is yet another example of the government’s focus on making “unwanted” people feel that way. Critics of the plan point out that there are already other detention facilities in the country – which aren’t operating at capacity – and, even if this weren’t the case, surely dozens of other sites would be more suitable and humane. And cost effective. The government is prepared to spend over 100 million euros on the Lindholm project, but none of this money is allocated for language lessons, job training or other integration-related activities.
Denmark's new policies aren't just shocking because they come from such a prosperous, developed, and liberal EU state. They are shocking because they are, quite simply, cruel. And the cruelty is wholly unnecessary. We give much attention to the shameful immigration policies of countries like Hungary and Italy. But wealthier and more liberal countries often get a pass on inhumane immigration policies. How despicable and how cruel must these policies be before they get the attention they deserve?