Refugee tent camp in Thisted. Photo: Sara Gangsted/Scanpix
Denmark appears to be forgetting itself in the wake of the so-called refugee crisis. As a long-term resident of Copenhagen and a great supporter of the Venligboerne (‘Friendly Neighbours’) movement, I have found the recent hostile bullying tactics of leading political figures against ordinary Danish citizens a cause for great concern.
As one Facebook supporter of Venligboerne put it, Denmark is scared and refugees are scared.
When writer and activist Anne Lise Marstrand visited the refugee ‘tent’ camp in Haderslev she was so troubled by what she saw that she exercised her right to freedom of speech and told Denmark about the living conditions the asylum seekers are subjected to, and the working environment the staff are expected to perform within.
Marstrand wrote about the tent camp in Information and later expanded on her reasoning for speaking out in a column posted in Point of View International.
“I wanted to take the readers with me into the camp. I wanted to say: ‘Come along! See for yourself, listen for yourself, judge for yourself.’ And most importantly, I wanted to give a voice to some of the people who seldom get a chance to be heard,” she wrote.
Marstrand wrote that children in the camps only have the option of sitting in their cots or running around outside on what is essentially an unsafe building site with flammable materials and electrical installations that would be illegal anywhere else in Denmark; that the blocked toilets present a health hazard especially for children; that healthcare is only available in cases of emergency; and that the staff do not have the resources they need to carry out their work satisfactorily.
She also pointed out that the government had explicitly stated that the establishment of such tent camps was part of a strategic plan to deter asylum seekers from coming to Denmark.
Her reportage was seemingly offensive to Integration Minister Inge Støjberg, who reacted by publicly accusing Marstrand of lying about the camp conditions. When invited to a public debate about the situation in Haderslev, Støjberg declined, preferring to abuse Marstrand from a distance with the assistance of the Danish media. Unsurprisingly there was Facebook fury from the extensive community of Venligboer.
Meanwhile, the head of news for Radio24syv, Simon Andersen, commented that the asylum seekers and refugees should clean the toilets themselves and wondered how they had let the toilets get into such a sorry state in the first place.
His comments and the mocking tone in which they were presented provoked Mads Nygaard, one of the founders of Venligboerne, to write a very personal post that expressed in no uncertain terms what he thought of the journalist and his comments. He did not mince his words.
Within the next few days, Conservative MP Naser Khader, launched an attack on the Venligboerne initiative in his blog in the popular tabloid newspaper BT, saying that half of the group is made up of “semi-intellectual, arrogant, know-it-all wannabe attention-seekers”.
This is laughable. The positive outcomes for asylum seekers, refugees and regular citizens and residents of Denmark that are a result of the Venligboerne movement are truly immense and deserve the recognition they are getting from international organizations like the UNHCR. The movement has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Danish professor at Yale University.
To put things into perspective, take a look at the Danish prison system that was recently praised by a group of American professors in an article in the Washington Post. Prisoners enjoy the freedom to cook for themselves and have extended private family visits once a week, among other perks. The focus is on improving their lives and on personal and social reconstruction so that when they re-enter society they are ready to be productive and active citizens.
In light of such treatment of inmates, it is somewhat perverse that asylum seekers living in refugee camps and asylum centres in the middle of nowhere liken their situation to being in prison. The reality is that their situation is far, far worse.
According to a study carried out by Morten Goll, the founder of Trampoline House, residents of asylum centres in Denmark experience isolation, poverty and mental paralysis and after long stays. Upon ‘release’ when they get their refugee status, they often—unsurprisingly—become the very welfare clients that the state says they don’t want them to become.
Denmark is scared and refugees are scared. It is indeed scary that in a country that prides itself on its democratic values, its universalist approach to welfare and wellbeing and its relentless advocacy of freedom of speech, politicians attempt to silence civil society, or at the very least bully individuals and groups simply because they have the power to.
The reality is that the state subjects asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution to far worse treatment than prison inmates who have been convicted of crime.
Yes, Denmark has received one of the highest proportion of asylum seekers relative to its population. And yes, 81 percent of asylum applications have positive outcomes. And yes, it is one of the countries that spends the most on refugees per capita. But these statistics perhaps make the current situation all the more disturbing.
One might expect lively Facebook discussions and alternative points of view to be reported in the press in a country where there is freedom of expression, opinion and thought as well as a fervent anti-foreigner sentiment (as in the rest of Europe).
But targeted attacks by leading politicians on individuals and groups who, often in collaboration with the local authorities, are active in improving the everyday lives of refugees and asylum seekers, are tactics one might associate with authoritarian dictatorships rather than not constitutional democracies.
I am left wondering why Denmark seems to ignore the long-term impact of its supposedly ‘deterrent’ asylum policies, which ultimately produce welfare clients at a cost to state and society instead of active, resourceful, healthy networked citizens and denizens?
Residents of asylum centres and refugee camps have the potential to be the latter with the help of the Venligboerne and other grassroots initiatives, without dipping into the public purse. Attempts to silence voices from and beyond the camps destabilizes society and is harmful to Denmark’s international reputation for democracy, freedom of speech and consensus.
Nicol Savinetti is a self-employed social scientist, a mother and wife, and a strong advocate of equal opportunities. She grew up in the UK to immigrant parents and has always lived as an ethnic minority in different countries around the world, including the past 16 years in Denmark. She is the managing editor of the journal Asia in Focus, and founder of the Immigrant Art initiative.