War in Ukraine For Members

ANALYSIS: Why is Denmark treating Ukrainian refugees differently to those from Syria?

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: Why is Denmark treating Ukrainian refugees differently to those from Syria?
Ukrainian refugees at the Dokkedal asylum reception centre in Denmark on March 15ht 2022. Photo: Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark has passed a new law to help refugees from Ukraine apply for residence and work permits in an effort to help them settle in the country. But why are refugees from Syria and other countries still subject to the harsh asylum policies of successive governments?


A difference can be observed between the response of the Danish government to people displaced from Ukraine by the Russian invasion and the stance successive governments and immigration ministers have taken towards refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries during the last decade.

The Danish parliament last week passed a new, expedited law to simplify the process for residence applications for Ukrainian refugees, with the stated aim of helping them into jobs and schools in Denmark as soon as possible.

This came just a few months after the immigration minister, Mattias Tesfaye, was berated at the EU parliament by all but the most right wing MEPs for the Danish government’s insistence that it was safe enough in Damascus to send some Syrian refugees back there. This has led to the withdrawal of asylum status from many Syrians in Denmark, condemning them to stays in the country’s infamous departure or expulsion centres.


Shortly after the Russian invasion, the government also confirmed that the controversial ‘jewellery law’, passed in 2016 that allows valuables to be confiscated from refugees claiming asylum in Denmark – would not be applied to Ukrainians.

However the law has rarely - or perhaps even never - been applied to refugees from any country in practice.

Critics have argued the difference in treatment is at best discriminatory and at worst racist.

Sikandar Siddique, leader of the Independent Green party, called the government’s position “completely open racism” in a March 17th tweet.

“The government is saying good things about how families and children should be treated and all the while I can see the Syrian and Afghan families – caged in at the (asylum) centre,” he also wrote.

'It's our back garden'

The Danish government has maintained that Ukraine’s geographical and cultural proximity to Denmark makes it a nærområde (this word literally means “near-area” but can be translated as "regional") country with respect to Denmark, unlike Syria.

“Ukraine is our region. It’s part of Europe. It’s in our back garden, if you like,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on broadcaster DR’s Aftenshowet programme on March 3rd.

Asked whether she recognised a difference in the treatment of refugees between 2015 and 2022, Frederiksen replied “yes, it is (different), because Ukraine is our region”.

According to DR’s calculations, the distance from Denmark’s border with Germany to the Ukraine-Poland border is 1,270 kilometres, and to the Syria-Turkey border 3,760 kilometres.

The furthest part of Ukraine from the EU is around 1,400 kilometres away (from Romania), while the furthest part of Syria from the EU is 700 kilometres (from Cyprus).


The government’s spokesperson for immigration, Rasmus Stoklund, has also cited the proximity justification for the contrasting positions taken towards Syrians and Ukrainians.

In comments to DR, Stoklund argued that Ukrainians had fled directly to Denmark, while Syrians are likely to have come following stays in refugee camps in countries closer to Syria.

He also said that Ukrainians should not have to flee to the countries which border Ukraine.

“There are certainly also many Ukrainians who do (flee to countries closer than Denmark). But we should also take some responsibility for those who need another place to be,” he said, while also recognising that there is not a clear-cut definition of a nærområde (near-area).

The lack of a formal definition for the term has also been officially confirmed by Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye, in response to a parliamentary question.

The jewellery law is “not relevant in relation to Ukrainians. They are coming directly from bombs falling on their homes. There is therefore no need to think in terms of jewellery law for this group,” Stoklund meanwhile said.

The Social Democrat spokesman controversially defended the policy of sending Syrians back to Damascus by telling newspaper Politiken in April 2021 that “there's a risk a bomb could fall on your house (in Syria), but that doesn’t mean there’s anything personal between you and the regime”, and that it was therefore reasonable to return people who cannot document individual persecution.


Pia Olsen Dyhr, leader of the Socialist People’s Party (SF), a close political ally of the government, told broadcaster TV2 on Wednesday that she believed Denmark had a greater obligation to help Ukrainian refugees than Syrians.

Dyhr also referred to the regional argument for this position.

“Syria is 3,000 kilometres away and Kyiv is 2,000 kilometres away. But the difference is that Ukraine is part of Europe. There’s only one country between us and Ukraine, and that’s Poland,” Dyhr said to TV2 -- inaccurately, given one must travel through Germany to get from Denmark to Poland.

“I completely disagree [that it’s easier for Denmark to accept Christian refugees than Muslims, ed.]. In relation to the refugee question I don’t think we should sort (people) based on colour or religion. What matters is whether it’s a close region or further away in relation to the responsibility you have,” she said.

Fines for giving lifts in 2015, free rail tickets in 2022

In an interview with newspaper Jyllands-Posten in early March, University of Southern Denmark historian Rasmus Glenthøj said that it makes a difference when a society finds it easier to relate to others.

“They are Europeans like us, and they are Christians, and because they have expressed a wish to be part of our community in Nato and the EU. When Russia attacks Ukraine, we perceive it as an attack on Western values and ideology,” Glenthøj said.

“You can talk about our region. It’s a war in Europe, which is crucial. If it was refugees from the Middle East, many would say we should not take them in,” he said, noting that the response of being personally and nationally open to Ukrainians was seen all across Europe, and not just in Denmark.

Anne Lise Marstrand-Jørgensen, one of the founders of the ‘Venligboere’ movement which emerged in Danish civil society amongst those who wished to help Syrian refugees in 2015, told Jyllands-Posten that the contrasting response to Ukraine showed that “we see people differently”.

“There was also a lot of helpfulness in 2015, but there was also an extreme prejudice towards people who came to Denmark. Because they had a different skin colour, a different culture, way of life and religion, we were generally less amenable to helping them,” she said.

Danes who gave refugees lifts across the country in 2015 were fined for doing so, Jyllands-Posten writes, contrasting this with free train tickets offered to Ukrainian refugees by national operator DSB during the current crisis.

“The way we are helping Ukrainians today is the way we should have helped in 2015. It’s shameful, the way many people reacted back then,” Marstrand-Jørgensen told the newspaper.

“In a way it’s understandable that many find it easier to identify with people that look like us. But we have a refugee convention that doesn’t differentiate between skin colour and religion. That should remind us that we should help everyone who needs help,” she also said, noting that the asylum system is in place to determine who needs protection and who doesn’t.


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