- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — You get quite an unsuspected education in Danish refugee politics when you wander around the streets of Copenhagen on a summer's day. The past week was the last of the industrial holiday, which closes down businesses throughout the country for three weeks in July, and most of the Danish work force was out and about intent on enjoying itself. In the nation's capital, that means a population that is not blond on blond the way it used to be, but characterized by more than a sprinkling of the dark-complexioned "new Danes," who have been the subject of much political controversy in recent years. It is by no means difficult to understand why they want to be here in prosperous, libertarian Denmark, rather than at home in, say, Iran or Afghanistan.

On Copenhagen's main shopping street, young women in Muslim robes, no veils on display though, flitter in and out of shops with the same ease as Danish girls in much more skimpier outfits. And in the area's two amusement parks, they seem to enjoy themselves as much or more than your average Danish family. An indelible impression is left on the spectator by two young Muslim women seating themselves gingerly in the bungee jumping tower of "Bakken," a down-home cousin of the more famous Tivoli Gardens, screaming with laughter as they get pulled 100 feet into the sky and dropped precipitously, robes flapping around their legs and headscarves waving in the wind.

Mostly, there is no evidence to be seen of the animosity that has seeped into discussions of refugees and guest workers and not just in Denmark, but throughout Western Europe. Does that mean that the Danes are seeing ghosts when they fear being overrun by forces that will change their small, well-organized social-welfare state? Whether based on reality or fear, the anti-immigration wave that brought to power the center-right government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen in November, attracted immediate international attention.

While the Danes used to have one of the most generous sets of asylum laws in the world, they now have one of the tightest. The number of applicants for asylum in Denmark has dropped steeply in the first six months of 2002. In June, it turned into a mere trickle, with 348 applicants. Last year, applications ran at more than 1,000 a month. The approval rate for applicants is now 31 percent, against 50 to 60 percent previously.

The Swedes, the Norwegians and the Finns are none too pleased about this development; one Swedish politician recently caused a great uproar by accusing the Danes of trying to insulate themselves from the problems of the world. Sweden recently had a taste of just how tragic culture clashes can be, when a Turkish father of an immigrant family shot and killed his daughter who wanted to make her own life and choose her own husband. The murder apparently took place with the approval of male as well as female members of the family.

The Danish government has countered that as the new law only took effect on July 1, it cannot be the sole cause of the decline in applicants. But it seems that word quickly filters back to the refugees' countries of origin, whether through families or those who traffick in human beings, that Denmark is no longer a good destination. The same phenomenon has shown itself in the Netherlands, where immigration also figured prominently in an election campaign that cost the life of the anti-immigrant frontrunner Pim Fortuyn. There, the number of asylum-seekers has fallen by one-third in the first half of 2002.

The Danish government last week also defended itself by proposing to devote the sum saved by the reduced flow of refugees, about $14 million in next year's budget, to foreign aid to refugees in camps abroad. "The aid will primarily be focused on Africa and the Western Balkans," Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller told the daily paper Politiken. Some have accused the Danes of trying to bribe refugees to stay away. The Danish proposal does indeed smack slightly of a bad conscience.

But it is not inconsistent with the main thrust of the policies of most industrialized countries which is to improve conditions in the home countries of emigrants and asylum-seekers. That was one of the long-term aims of incorporating Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is also a principal aim of European Union development policies in the Mediterranean. If potential emigrants can find jobs and better wages at home, they will be less likely to risk their lives in illegal and desperate attempts to enter the developed world. It could also help take the nasty edge off the European immigration debate and give governments the breathing space to establish more selective asylum laws focusing on those in real danger of persecution.


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