Helle Thorning-Schmidt will leave Danish politics to lead Save the Children. Photo: Uffe Weng/Scanpix
“Children’s protection, rights and development have always been close to my heart, and I look forward to doing everything I can to help us deliver on our bold but simple ambitions: that no child under five dies from preventable causes.”
Those words come from former Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, commenting on her appointment as chief executive of Save the Children – a position that she will take up on April 4th.
But what are “preventable causes” and has she really done everything she could to save the children while in office?
Thorning-Schmidt, who is married to Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, certainly spent a large part of her time as PM in Denmark pursuing anti-immigration policies that have, amongst other things, barred children in war-zones such as Syria from being reunited with their families and thus put them in grave danger.
In her New Year’s speech to the nation on New Year’s Day 2015, she gloated that her government had made family reunification and asylum more difficult for refugees. “It is the first time in 12 years that this has happened,” she told the Danish population.
And in her election campaign later in the year (which she lost to Venstre), large posters were seen all over Denmark that promised that she would continue to be tough on immigration.
Earlier this month, her party voted for a bill proposed by the Venstre government that specifies that refugees must have stayed three years in Denmark before they can apply for family reunification. The new bill builds on similar legislation put in place by Thorning-Schmidt’s government in 2014 that restricted the right to family reunification. That act was heavily criticized at the time by the Danish branch of Save the Children, Red Barnet, for being “inhumane”.
According to Red Barnet, the new bill is in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which states that “a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will” and that “applications by a child or his or her parents to enter or leave a State Party for the purpose of family reunification shall be dealt with by States Parties in a positive, humane and expeditious manner”) and could literally risk the lives of children.
Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrat Party will support the bill.
But after it was announced that Thorning-Schmidt was appointed to lead Save the Children, the organization’s Chairman Alan Parker said he was very pleased to have her and Red Barnet called her “the right person to create tangible improvements for vulnerable children”.
The new Danish bill has been heavily criticized by many other organizations and individuals both in Denmark and internationally. The UNHCR said that the measures were “an affront” to the dignity of refugees and have urged the Danish government to scrap the bill. The Danish Institute for Human Rights called it “a violation of international law”, and the Danish Refugee Council, the Danish Association of Social Workers and the Danish National Council for Children have voiced similar criticisms.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, wrote to the Danish government on January 12th to say that he was “deeply concerned” by the new changes to Denmark’s legislation on asylum and immigration, including the parts that will make it “more difficult for beneficiaries of international protection to request family reunification”.
And one of Thorning-Schmidt's fellow Social Democracts, Mette Gjerskov, who served as a minister in her government and is presently the party’s development spokesperson, criticized the bill for “refusing children the right to see their parents for over three years”. Gjerskov said she would vote against the bill.
Even the Danish branch of the Hells Angels has criticised the government for its anti-immigration policies, stating in a press release on January 13th that “it is not the fault of immigrants that they look to a place where they can enjoy safety and a better life”.
Thorning-Schmidt, for her part, has stated that she “is fully behind my party” of the issue of the new bill. She has not wished to comment on the discrepancies between the ideals of her new employer, an organization that was formed to help starving children during a post-WWI blockade and envisages “a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation”, and that of her political standpoint on immigration as a both PM and MP backbencher.
“For the past seven months [since losing the election] I have stayed out of Danish politics. I will continue to do that”, she told the Danish media.
She also had “no comment” to questions about whether her policies on immigration, when she was PM, were an issue at her job interview with Save the Children.
Peter Kenworthy is a sociologist and a freelance journalist for Africa Kontakt and other publications. You can see more from him here.