Denmark’s asylum figures are at their lowest since 2008. So why the election focus on refugees?

In the first three months of 2019, around 620 asylum seekers were registered in Denmark.

Denmark’s asylum figures are at their lowest since 2008. So why the election focus on refugees?
Refugees near Denmark's southern border in 2015. Over 20,000 people sought asylum in Denmark in 2015, but arrivals are now at their lowest since 2008. Photo: Bax Lindhardt / SP / Ritzau Scanpix

The figure represents the lowest number of asylum seekers registering in the country in a quarterly period since 2008.

At the beginning of last year, just under 3,500 people were reported to have applied for asylum in 2017, at the time the lowest figure seen by the country since 2008.

But the issue of asylum seekers – both their treatment and how many should be taken in by the country – remains a hot-button topic for political debate, not least with a general election upcoming on June 5th.

Earlier this year, new legislation was passed by parliament providing for what has become known as a ‘paradigm shift' in Denmark's refugee and asylum policy, so-called because of the shift in aim from integration to future repatriation of refugees.

Denmark has refused to accept quota refugees from the UN since 2016.

Meanwhile, humanitarian organisations and opposition politicians have criticised Denmark's treatment of rejected asylum seekers, with conditions at ‘departure centre’ facilities under particular focus.

A Danish Red Cross report in April found that a large proportion of children accommodated at the Sjælsmark facility showed signs of significant risks to their mental health, ranging from difficulty sleeping to loss of appetite.

Politicians continue to talk about the need to address the issue of asylum as the election approaches.

Far-right fringe party the New Right (Nye Borgerlige) has demanded a complete freeze on Denmark accepting any asylum seekers. That party has been joined as a newcomer in the race to enter parliament by Stram Kurs (Hard Line), a vehemently anti-Islam party whose leader has a criminal conviction for inciting racial hatred, currently under appeal.

The established anti-immigration party, the Danish People’s Party (DF), last week announced it too was calling for Denmark to refuse to take in any refugees at all.


The hardline policy has not previously been propagated by parliamentary parties, and is likely to be in breach of international conventions such as the UN Refugee Convention and the EU’s Dublin Regulation.

“We must have a complete stop to asylum in the new parliamentary term. And it’s not important to me whether the proposal is within or outside of international conventions,” DF’s parliamentary candidate Morten Messerschmidt told Jyllands-Posten on May 10th.

The party’s leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl confirmed the policy, saying that Denmark should “help people in (neighbouring countries) and not by giving them asylum in Denmark”.

In a television debate broadcast by TV2 on Thursday, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen rejected the demand.

“Denmark is part of the international community, so if I am met with a demand for us to leave international conventions and things like that, I cannot honour it, I’m very sorry,” Rasmussen said.

Minister for Immigration and Integration Inger Støjberg, who like Rasmussen represents the Liberal (Venstre) party and is known for her hardline stance and rhetoric on immigration, rejected a unilateral Danish freeze on asylum, saying she wanted to “limit” numbers.

Støjberg, in an interview with Politiken, denied that the topic of asylum was being kept alive to win votes, despite the low numbers of asylum registrations, and appeared to suggest demographic change was on her agenda.

“We want (the election) to be about the things that are important for Denmark, including foreigners. For me, immigration is a definitive area for how Denmark will look in the future,” she told the newspaper.

“With the migration we are seeing to Europe, it is not a question of whether it will change Scandinavia and Denmark, it is a question of how much we will allow ourselves to be changed,” she continued.

Confronted by Politiken with the fact the asylum figures are at their lowest since 2008, the minister said that it was “not just a question of how many people are coming”.

“This is also very much about the people who are here now and how much they accept Danish norms and values and can provide for themselves,” she said.

The low numbers of current asylum seekers were a result of the government’s policies and legislation, and had made the issue “easier to manage”, but the situation could change under a new government, Støjberg claimed in the interview.

Although the opposition Social Democrats, who hope to form a new government after the election, have voted for the majority of the asylum curbs — including the paradigm shift — proposed by the current government, Støjberg said their policy could change, given their reliance on other left-wing parties for parliamentary support.

Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen has promised not to change her party’s own strict line on immigration after the election, unless that change is also supported by the Liberal and Danish People’s parties, Politiken writes.

READ ALSO: More on the 2019 Danish general election

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Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

Denmark now aims to work with other EU countries to transfer asylum seekers to centres outside Europe and has suspended talks with Rwanda as it no longer plans to go it alone, its migration minister said on Wednesday.

Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

The Scandinavian country’s plans, first announced by the previous Social Democratic government, called for people seeking asylum in Denmark to be transferred to reception centres outside the European Union while their requests were processed.

A law adopted in June 2021 did not specify which country would host the centre, but said asylum seekers should stay there even after they were granted refugee status.

Discussions were launched with Rwanda and other countries, but they have now been suspended since the installation of a new Danish left-right government in December headed by the Social Democrats.

“We are not holding any negotiations at the moment about the establishment of a Danish reception centre in Rwanda”, Migration and Integration Minister Kaare Dybvad told daily Altinget.

“This is a new government. We still have the same ambition, but we have a different process”, he added. “The new government’s programme calls for the establishment of a reception centre outside Europe “in cooperation with the EU or a number of other countries”.

The change is an about-face for the Social Democrats, which had until now rejected any European collaboration, judging it slow and thorny.

“While the wider approach also makes sense to us, [Denmark’s change of heart] is precisely because there has been movement on the issue among many European countries”, Dybvad said. “There are many now pushing for a stricter asylum policy in Europe”, he said.


Inger Støjberg, leader of the Denmark Democrats said on Facebook that she was “honestly disgusted” by the government’s decision to delay plans for a reception centre in Rwanda, pointing out that Kaare Dybvad had said during the election campaign that a deal would be done with Rwanda within a year. 

“Call us old-fashioned, but we say the same thing both before and after an election. We stand firm on a strict immigration policy. The Social Democrats, Liberals and Moderates clearly do not,” she said. 

Lars Boje Mathiesen from the New Right Party accused the government of perpetrating a “deadly fraud” on the Danish people. 

“It is said in Christiansborg that it is paused. But we all know what that means,” he wrote on Facebook, accusing Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen of “empty words” in the run-up to the election. 

In the face of this reaction, Dybvad told the Ritzau newswire that although talks with Rwanda were not happening at present, the government had not given up on a deal with the African nation. He also said that he was confident that asylum reception centres outside of the EU would be a reality within five years.

EU interior ministers are meeting in Stockholm this week to discuss asylum reform. Those talks are expected to focus on how to speed up the process of returning undocumented migrants to their country of origin in cases where their asylum bid fails.

Denmark’s immigration policy has been influenced by the far-right for more than 20 years. Even Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the head of the Social Democrats, has pursued a “zero refugee” policy since coming to power in 2019.

Copenhagen has over the years implemented a slew of initiatives to discourage migrants and made Danish citizenship harder to obtain. In 2020, it became the only country in Europe to withdraw residency permits from Syrians from Damascus, judging that the situation there was now safe enough for them to return.