'From hero to villain': Denmark comes to terms with outcry over refugee law

Country’s international reputation has taken a hit over new policy on confiscating valuables, while at home there is concern about the tone of political debate

When he fled to Denmark from Afghanistan a few weeks ago after militants burned down his home, Najibullah did not expect to find a new threat to his belongings.

Denmark’s new law stripping refugees of cash and valuables is “so strange”, says the 24-year-old, who has just 400 krone (£40) to his name.

“When people have lost their homes, their lives are in ruins, how can you take things from them?” he says, five days after arriving in Copenhagen. “Everyone knows that without money you cannot travel, sleep or eat. Are they telling people to go out and steal?”

Like most asylum seekers, he knows little about Denmark, but heard Scandinavia is a good destination for refugees. Now he is disappointed and intends to leave for Germany.

Asylum seekers are not the only ones to feel their idea of Denmark has clashed rudely with reality. The Danish law enabling police to confiscate cash and valuables above £1,000 has left many perplexed and angry: Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei closed his Copenhagen exhibition in protest; Kofi Annan, the former UN leader, said the legislation was “not in the spirit of the European convention on human rights, the UN convention on the rights of the child, and the UN refugee convention – all of which Denmark is a party to”.

Danish author Christian Mørk last month sent the government a ring that belonged to his grandmother, whose parents migrated from Prussia in the 1800s.

“As far as I am aware, my great-grandmother was not asked to hand over her valuables when she reached the Danish border,” he wrote in a letter of protest. “But thinking of those who will now suffer this humiliation, I am sending you my grandmother’s ring as a token.”

Mørk feels that the Danish political class is undergoing a “historieløshed”, a loss of historical consciousness, reflected in the coarse domestic debate about the law, which has used the language of raids and seizures employed in Soviet Russia or the Yugoslav civil war.

Christian Mørk's ring and letter to the Danish government
Danish author Christian Mørk posted his grandmother’s ring to the Danish government in a gesture of protest. Photograph: Facebook

“Now this sort of language is on the statute books. The people who proposed this law have short memories – or even worse, they don’t care what such language really means,” he says.

Language has consequences, Mørk argues. Earlier this month, a Danish policeman was quoted in a Swedish newspaper that he would gladly “pull out the gold fillings from refugees’ teeth”, if ordered to do so. Hansen declined to speak to the Guardian, but a police spokesman said he had been misunderstood.

“I can enlighten you with the fact that there are no plans whatsoever in Denmark to pull gold fillings from refugees’ teeth,” said Mads Jensen, head of communications for Copenhagen police.

The transformation of Denmark’s reputation has been rapid. From a nation that tops global indices as the happiest in the world, is green and democratic, and a leader in humans rights and welfare provision, a new, more negative narrative is now emerging, according to Mads Mordhorst, a specialist on national branding at Copenhagen Business School.

“Barely a month ago, the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in the US were competing over who was the most Danish,” he says. “We have gone from hero to villain.”

Critics point to a string of incidents out of which a narrative can be built, Mordhurst says. Last year the government took out advertisements in Lebanon telling refugees not to come here, while in a town in central Denmark, kindergartens will be obliged to serve pork to protect “Danish food culture”.

After Denmark was pilloried in 2006 for publishing inflammatory cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the country ran a campaign to brand Denmark as open to the world, with “Openhagen” as its capital. But now it is sending out the opposite message, Mordhorst says.

He is convinced the ruling Liberals are sincere when they say that jewellery will not, in fact, be confiscated. “But it could end up being worse for Denmark’s reputation than the cartoon crisis.”

The law’s defenders point out that Denmark spends more on refugees than any nation apart from Sweden as a proportion of its economic output, according to estimates by the International Monetary Fund.

“There is a general acceptance that Denmark is like a fairytale country, but I must disappoint people, we are not and have never been,” says Søren Espersen, deputy chairman of the Danish People’s Party (DPP), the right-wing populists whose rise to win almost a fifth of the poll at elections last year has enabled the minority Liberal government of Lars Løkke Rasmussen to remain in power.

Denmark is a small nation that has survived centuries of pressure from outside to build up its welfare state, Espersen says, and now it must defend its institutions.

“Why should we bow to culture that is not ours?” he says. “Why should we deny Danish children the wonderful pork that we cherish? We have to turn the tide and say no.”

Peter Nedergaard, professor of European politics at Copenhagen University, says the “media shitstorm” over the new law is “99% hypocrisy”. But he also points to the success of the DPP in articulating the fear of many Danes about the future of the welfare state.

“With too many immigrants, in their interpretation, the coherence and equality of the welfare state will be undermined,” Nedergaard says. “They were the first to point to it and articulate it, while other parties were worried about appearing to be racist.”

Copenhagen’s famous ‘freetown’ Christiania
Copenhagen’s famous ‘freetown’ Christiania is feeling the pressure from contemporary Danish politics. Photograph: Bob Strong/Reuters

Away from the political debate, on a quiet sidestreet near the waterside, Tomas, 28, has just finished work at a big IT company and come home to Christiania, Copenhagen’s bohemian enclave and a symbol of the liberal, open, anything-goes image that city has enjoyed for so long.

Since the 1970s, Christiania has been proud of its reputation as a self-governing “free town” with an alternative, anti-racist culture. A sign over the exit reads: “You are now entering the EU.”

But even here, Thomas says, people are feeling the pressure of a new Denmark that is harassing them with frequent police raids, large fines and undercover operations, forcing the marijuana sellers to wear masks and hide furtively inside their booths.

“It has changed so much since the five years I have lived here, it makes me feel stressed,” says Thomas. “And it is the same people who are hassling refugees who are now hassling us.”


David Crouch in Copenhagen

The GuardianTramp

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