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Welfare Professionals Harbour Anxieties About Denmark’s Anti-Immigrant Policies

06 Jul 2023
By Professor Michelle Pace
Inger Støjberg, Minister, Ministry of Immigration and Integration, Denmark. Source: Arno Mikkor, Aron Urb/

Denmark’s social workers must walk a difficult line between providing rights and services for newcomers and upholding state legislation unfairly restricting immigration. Under the current government, further plans to alter immigration policy is poised to make the lives of many much more difficult. 

On 25 January 2023, in a phenomenal U-turn, Denmark announced a “pause” in its highly controversial plans to outsource asylum applications processing to Rwanda. Concurrently, and even though Denmark is not formally bound by the European Union’s (EU) Justice and Home Affairs legislation due to its legal opt-out, its minister of Immigration and Integration, Kaare Dybvad, declared the government’s intention to cooperate with EU member states in the establishment of processing facilities outside of Europe.

The return of former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen to Danish politics (following the November 2022 elections) as foreign minister in Social Democrat Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s new left-right government, had a lot to do with this policy shift. In September 2021, during a TV2 News program “Lippert,” Løkke Rasmussen announced the name of his new party, “the Moderates,” and declared his intentions to fix Denmark’s strict immigration policy. During his 2015-2019 premiership, his centre-right government implemented over 50 immigration policy changes infamously celebrated by his Minister of Immigration and Integration, Inge Støjberg. Løkke declared that the Social Democrats have continued the tight course on immigration policy and that things have gone out of hand. “Call it hypocrisy if you want to. You can also call it reflection or becoming wiser,” he announced.

Denmark’s notoriously strict immigration and asylum policies find inspiration in Australia’s “Stop the Boats” policies which, since September 2001, have held asylum seekers in limbo as their applications are processed in Nauru and Papua New Guinea under a policy referred to as “offshore processing.” Denmark’s welfare chauvinism – the notion that welfare benefits should be restricted to certain groups (the “dignified needy” or in Danish “værdigt trængende”) – migration model of ensuring a high employment rate for “Muslim, non-Western” migrants along with fewer new migrants entering Denmark has developed into one that is easily emulated across other European states, including the United Kingdom.

Along with outsourcing protection, Denmark has revoked protection for Syrians from Damascus, Rif Damascus, Tartous, and Latakia after deeming these Assad regime-controlled areas “safe” for return. This is in spite of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports of serious human rights abuses faced by returned Syrians at the hands of authorities and affiliated militias, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and kidnappings.

Continuing the bizarre set of asylum policy U-turns, Denmark has welcomed thousands of Ukrainians, granted temporary protection to some 32,570 people; and granted asylum to 1,403 people, while also planning to return vulnerable Syrians back home. This unofficial stratification of people seeking protection can be better comprehended in the context of 1864, when the Danish crown lost the largely German-speaking duchies of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia. The defining lesson from this episode was that Denmark must “stick together and be homogenous.”

The specific targeting of “non-Western immigrants” is even better understood in light of the 1849 Danish Constitution (Grundlov) and the principle of “værdigt trængende” meaning the “dignified needy”: When citizens are considered to have done everything in the best of their ability to provide for themselves – but fail to do so due to acceptable reasons (for instance due to ill-health) – then the state will provide public benefits. Danish politicians have increasingly triggered this kind of rhetoric – especially against non-Western immigrants – accusing them of not being genuine refugees who have fled war or persecution, insisting instead that they came to Denmark for its generous welfare state.

My current research on refugees’ lived experiences of Denmark’s racist immigration policies, in combination with perspectives from various state-corporate actors involved in enforcing, navigating, and reconfiguring this migration control regime, demonstrates the deep emotionality involved in having to manage the “messiness” of this system. Whether at a job center or the integration unit of a municipality or at an NGO, welfare professionals find themselves in a liminal situation between having to appear loyal to the preferred organisational identity, including ways of acting on and managing their emotions on the one hand, and, on the other hand, witnessing the impact of strict anti-immigration controls on the very people they serve (and thereafter having to process these emotions once they leave their place of work).

It is worth noting the changes brought on by the 2019 Danish Finance Act agreement to the framework conditions for welfare professionals in municipalities and civil society organisations alike. For instance, a number of municipal case workers and administrators had been involved in regular “network meetings” that used to bring together refugee families and a host of actors that supported them, including school teachers, job center administrators, and officials from the children and youth as well as employment units at various municipalities. Most of these specialised units within Danish municipalities have now been closed down, and experienced welfare professionals have had to move on to other roles after losing their jobs.

Social workers are very aware that the nature of their jobs require them to address the needs of newcomers to Denmark, but they are gradually finding themselves pushed to police the boundaries of Denmark’s welfare state. They are critical of the Social Democratic government’s shift to an increasingly negative practice that degrades the rights of the very people they are tasked to support. Many express their mounting concerns about having no choice at times but to adopt reactionary and uncritical views of Denmark’s ever-changing anti-immigrant demands, which in turn is changing the very nature of their jobs. As a result, most welfare professionals harbour embedded anxieties about which Denmark’s anti-immigrant policies and about what this means for Denmark’s historical reputation for progressive politics, not least for their own professions as social workers.

When I ask Danish social workers if they harbour any hopes for a change of direction in Denmark’s negative branding as the host country that does not welcome foreigners, they unequivocally agree that immigration controls are at their root unfair and discriminatory against specific groups of people. These anti-immigration policies are racist and are based on irrational beliefs about the “undesirability of mixing cultures” and that “Danish cultural homogeneity should be preserved.” On these grounds, Danish social workers oppose Denmark’s anti-immigration rules vigorously.

Meanwhile, as social workers, they recognise the image of themselves as “enforcers” but also as having the ability to push aside their government’s rhetoric and continue to support as many newcomers in Denmark as possible because “helping others” has always been the most rewarding part of the very nature of social work.

Michelle Pace is Professor in Global Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark. She is currently writing a monograph on Denmark’s strict immigration policies, which is funded by a Carlsberg Foundation Monograph Fellowship.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.