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

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?

Ukrainian refugees shortly after arriving in Denmark
Ukrainian refugees at the Dokkedal asylum reception centre in Denmark on March 15ht 2022. Photo: Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

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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Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.