After jumpers and hygge, ‘cosy racism’ may be Denmark’s next big export

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Asylum requests have fallen dramatically thanks to policies that belie the country’s liberal image. No wonder Priti Patel is watching closely

For the past five years, Kofi Emmanuel Akoba’s home has been a former prison deep in the forest of western Denmark.

Akoba, 35, would rather not be there and the authorities would like him to return to his native Ivory Coast. But each time he slips away, Akoba is sent back to the “expulsion centre” at Kaershovedgard in Jutland, where the doors are open during the day but inmates must be back every evening by 11.

He was returned to Kaershovedgard after making it over the border to Sweden and then to Germany, and then again when he reached France and crossed the Channel to Britain.

“They take my fingerprints, see I am registered in Denmark and make me come back,” Akoba told me last week as we sat on a garden bench beside the row of plain, single-storey buildings where he and about 250 other inmates live. As we talked, men and women from everywhere from Cuba to Myanmar wandered over to share their stories.

The Danish government would prefer to be without these people. Most, like Akoba, have had their applications to stay in the country rejected. Others were once entitled to live in Denmark but lost that right after committing a crime and must also go, despite having served their punishment.

The centre, with two smaller facilities near Copenhagen, has become a symbol of Denmark’s tough stance towards migrants and asylum seekers. That stance has caught the eye of Priti Patel, the British home secretary.

While Denmark may be known to the world as the home of hygge, with its notions of cosiness and conviviality, the country presents an unwelcoming face to those seeking refuge – in contrast to the policies pursued by neighbouring Sweden. The approach has been made possible partly by an opt-out from EU rules on justice and home affairs issues.

Since a migrant crisis erupted in 2015, Danish governments have passed headline-grabbing laws threatening to confiscate jewellery and other valuables from asylum seekers, labelling areas with high numbers of immigrants “ghettos” and limiting the number of “nonwesterners” who can live there, and increasing the time that newly arrived refugees must wait to be reunited with their families from one to three years.

In the past few months, Mette Frederiksen, the prime minister, has gone further, pledging to send home some Syrians settled in Denmark. She has won parliamentary approval for legislation to allow asylum seekers to be settled in third countries, probably in Africa. The idea was championed by the immigration minister, Mattias Tesfaye, whose father arrived as a refugee from Ethiopia. Patel has pointed to such “offshore hubs” as a way to fix the UK’s “broken asylum system” and indicated that Britain may co-operate with Denmark on them.

Experts doubt that the hubs will ever be implemented, because of legal complications, like many of Denmark’s highprofile policies. Its rules on family reunification, for example, were rejected this month by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This does not appear to deter Frederiksen, 43, who, though a Social Democrat, takes an even more robust line than the centre-right government that preceded her.

“Everything the Danish state has done for the past 20 years is about deterrence,” said Michala Bendixen, the founder of Refugees Welcome.

“It is about scaring people away from Denmark. The message is: you should stay in Germany or France or wherever. Everywhere else is better than here.”

The message appears to have got through to those tempted to seek refuge in Denmark: only 1,547 people applied for asylum last year, a 57 per cent fall from 2019 and the lowest number since the 1990s. Frederiksen has said she wants to reduce the number to zero.

She came to power two years ago at the head of the centre-left coalition. Key to her victory was her party’s success in wooing working-class voters away from the far-right anti-migrant Danish People’s Party, whose share of the vote more than halved.

The harshness of the rhetoric reflects hyggeracisme, or “cosy racism”, says Michelle Pace, professor of global studies at Roskilde University, who moved to Denmark after 15 years in Britain.

“When I arrived I was told I should leave political correctness back in the UK, because in Denmark you have the right to say whatever you want, whenever you want and however you want,” she said. This, she says, makes race something you can make jokes about – with those who object accused of lacking a sense of humour. “In Denmark, you can hear the N-word or you can see a Nazi gesture in the name of fun.”

For Akoba and the others stuck in Kaershovedgard, miles from the nearest shop or bus stop, such sentiments translate into a strong feeling that they are not welcome –  a feeling intensified by demonstrations outside by far-right groups.

He and fellow residents are fed and housed but not allowed to work. Most do not receive any pocket money; some beg or steal to get cash for cigarettes. Although they are allowed to check in and out through the centre’s high gates using an electronic card, they must return to sleep there every night. Failure to do so can mean a stint in jail.

They may soon be joined by a new group: Syrians. Denmark was one of the most welcoming countries in Europe in the first years after the uprising against President Assad in 2011. But it has tightened the rules, culminating in a decision in April to cancel the residency permits of people from the Damascus area, on the grounds that it is now safe there.

Assem Sweid, a board member of Finjan, a Copenhagen-based group that helps Syrian refugees, thinks it unlikely that anyone will be sent back, at least as long as the present regime is in place.  “They cannot be seen to be dealing with Assad,” he said. Yet hundreds of Syrians previously granted asylum are having their rights reduced as their status comes up for annual renewal. Many are fighting back in the courts.

They include Suzan Jlilati, 50, who arrived in Denmark in 2016 after fleeing Damascus with her two teenage children. Jlilati fears that, if her appeal is rejected, she and her children, now 18 and 20, could be sent to an expulsion centre.

“It is like a prison. There are no human rights there,” Jlilati said. “Bashar al-Assad destroyed our lives. I fought to build a decent life for my children here. I won’t let them send us to the camp.”

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