Adirazak Mohamud fled to Denmark a year-and-a-half ago from his native Somalia. He dreams of finding work as a bus driver and bringing his wife and baby daughter to live with him in Copenhagen. But new Danish laws may dash those dreams. The government has proposed a series of legal changes that will make it harder for refugees like him to get permanent residence in Denmark and will slash welfare payments to newcomers. "The new law is bad for us," Mohamud says. "If there is no money and no job, I'll have no choice but to return home."
That's precisely what the government wants. In elections last November, the Liberal party became the largest party in Parliament on a platform of clamping down on asylum seekers and immigrants living on welfare. The platform proved so popular that the Liberals became the first party since 1920 to overtake the Social Democrats in Parliament.
"Denmark was a Sleeping Beauty country with a wall around it to protect us against all foreign influence," says Integration Minister Bertel Haarder. "Now globalization has come over this country, and we are experiencing the dark side of our social-welfare system." According to Haarder, more than half of Denmark's 300,000 immigrants (out of a total population of 5.3 million) are unemployed and living on welfare. Among some groups, including Somalis, the number of jobless is 90%. The social-welfare system is so generous, the government contends, that there is no incentive for refugees to find a job. A married couple with two children currently gets $2,441 a month. Denmark has the highest rate of asylum acceptance in Europe: 43% of applicants are given refugee status, according to the UNHCR, compared with 32% in Sweden and 29% in Britain. (Only 41% of foreigners living in Denmark are refugees; the rest are immigrants with official permission to stay in the country.)
The new laws, which will be presented to Parliament by March 1, would limit the grounds for getting asylum, increase from three years to seven the waiting period for permanent residency and cut welfare payments by 30%-50% depending on family size. Another proposal would change marriage laws to require a person living in Denmark to have an apartment and $5,800 in the bank before marrying a foreigner, effectively barring marriage to the unemployed. If the couple divorce during the seven-year waiting period, the foreign spouse would be sent home.
The measures are supported by 60% of Danish voters, according to opinion polls. But there is also significant opposition recently some 2,000 people demonstrated in Copenhagen to express outrage at the new laws. "The basic idea is they want to keep ethnic minorities out of Denmark," says Pakistan-born Bashy Quraishy, president of the European Network Against Racism, who has lived in Denmark for 32 years. "They are saying, 'We want Denmark to be white and Christian.' But they have to understand that Denmark has changed. It's a multicultural society now." Seven out of 10 foreigners are Muslims, including 60,000 people of Turkish origin, 40,000 Bosnians, 28,000 Palestinians and 20,000 Pakistanis.
Andreas Kamm, the secretary-general of the Danish Refugee Council, says the whole package of laws "is a signal to the world that refugees are not welcome," noting that the financial support is being lowered to the point of creating "scary conditions." Although the proposed changes were announced only last month, advance word spread so quickly that the number of new refugees in January fell to 366, compared with 746 in January 2001.
The government has overwhelming parliamentary support. Peter Skaarup, a Member of Parliament from the populist People's Party, which has long campaigned for immigration controls, called the new package of laws "a turning point for Danish refugee policy which can turn into something very good." The People's Party won 12% of the vote in last November's election, up from 8% in 1998, but it's not part of the government coalition. Skaarup said that even though the People's Party has reservations about some of the proposed new laws, it felt obliged to support the government. "It's in the right direction," says Skaarup. "So it's not possible for us to vote against it."
Because of the disparity with other European states on the rate of asylum acceptance, the government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen says it hopes the European Union will adopt a common asylum policy for all member states. That would make it easier for Denmark to legally block more refugees from ending up in the country. The government hopes asylum seekers like Adirazak Mohamud will take their dreams somewhere else.