The Trump administration isn’t the first government to try to keep Muslims out of a Western country. Many European voters (even anti-Trump Europeans) agree with this goal – and their governments have been simultaneously creeping in that direction.
But few Americans would suspect which country has done so most successfully: Denmark, which many American liberals, including Bernie Sanders, praise for its comprehensive welfare state. That welfare state, however, is apparently intended for a homogenous population. As few Westerners realize, the Danish government has spent the past decade and a half implementing some of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world. Let’s look at several of the policies that have been put in place over time.
Caution toward Muslim refugees
Researchers Edith Montgomery and Anders Foldspang found that during the 1990s, Muslim refugee families who applied for asylum in Denmark as spontaneous asylum seekers — or people seeking asylum from within Danish borders — were eight times less likely to be successful than families that adhered to another religion. This trend has continued, as Michala Clante Bendixen, the head of Refugee Welcome in Denmark, found: In 2015, Denmark rejected Afghans’ and Iraqis’ asylum applications more often than did Germany, Sweden or Norway.
In fact, Denmark’s acceptance fell below the E.U. average. While Denmark granted asylum to Iraqis in 29 percent of their cases, that percentage was 58 percent in Sweden, 60 percent in Norway and 99 percent in Germany; the overall E.U. average was about 88 percent. Similarly, Denmark granted Afghans asylum 35 percent of the time, while the comparable rates were 77 percent in Sweden, 84 percent in Norway and 70 percent in Germany for an E.U. average of about 68 percent.
Restrictions on resettlement refugees
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more broadly known as the U.N. refugee agency, defines “resettlement refugees” as those who sought asylum in one country (as when, say, Syrians flee to Turkey) – but that country is unable to protect them. After reviewing them against stringent criteria, the U.N. then attempts to relocate them to a safer nation. Resettlement refugees are among the most vulnerable displaced persons, because unlike those who first seek asylum in a safe country, they generally do not possess the resources to get to safety.
Which countries take in these refugees? UNHCR works on this with 37 different countries, which previously included Denmark. During the 1990s, despite Denmark’s general caution about Muslim refugees, most of the country’s resettlement refugees came from Muslim-majority countries. But in 2005, Denmark’s conservative government introduced legislation requiring that U.N. resettlement refugees be assessed for their “integration potential” – how well they would fit Danish society and jobs.
It was later revealed that there had been a shift in which populations were prioritized after the integration legislation was passed. While trips before the change included predominately Muslim countries, from 2006 to 2013, Denmark did not select resettlement refugees from camps in predominately Muslim countries. Furthermore, from 2007-2013, refugees from predominately Muslim countries were not included in Denmark’s target groups for resettlement refugees, despite having been before.
Denmark’s own “Muslim ban” was in effect for eight years. While a number of left-wing politicians requested an explanation for the shift, it received little additional attention.
In 2013, the Social Democrats, Denmark’s left-of-center party, removed the integration potential requirement, making it easier to receive Muslim refugees. However, this change was short-lived. Inger Støjberg, the current minister of integration from Venstre, Denmark’s right-of-center party, suspended Denmark’s participation in the U.N. refugee resettlement program in November 2016.
Restricting Muslim family reunification
Most Western countries have policies that enable immigrants to bring family members to live with them. That’s viewed as a basic human right, outlined in the European Commission’s directive on the right of family reunification. This ordinarily allows immigrants to apply to bring over a spouse and children, for instance, after receiving a work visa or being granted asylum.
In 2002, Denmark tightened these rights by passing several restrictions. Those include “the 24-year rule,” which requires that before a spouse can be brought to Denmark, both spouses must be older than 24. The law also expanded the so-called “attachment requirement,” which previously required that non-citizens applying for spousal reunification must prove that the couple’s combined attachment to Denmark was stronger than to any other country. This was expanded to examine that attachment for Danish citizens as well, making it much harder for recently naturalized citizens to be granted reunification.
The legislation was framed as a way to prevent forced marriages, increase national security and promote integration. Left unsaid was the fact that it was largely aimed at Muslim groups. As noted by anthropologist Mikkel Rytter in a 2010 article, “it was meant to hamper the practices of transnational arranged marriages documented among Turkish and Pakistani immigrants where more than eighty percent of all marriages were contracted with spouses from Turkey and Pakistan.”
The 24-year rule did reduce the amount of marriage-related immigration. This may have been in part because a large number of young, recently naturalized Danes, many originally from countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Somalia, moved to Sweden.
Apparently, that works better than calling it a “ban.”
In Denmark, politicians voice anti-Muslim rhetoric but refrain from explicitly proposing a “Muslim ban.” That helps them avoid violating domestic and international law. This model has been much more successful at slowly restricting the rights of minorities — particularly Muslims and refugees — than has Trump’s straightforward promise to ban Muslims. That campaign promise resulted in his executive orders being met with massive protests. And judges have pointed to those statements in ruling the ban unconstitutional, as recently happened in Hawaii.
But courts and other reviewing bodies have begun to note the effects of Danish policies, however neutrally stated. For instance, and as noted by anthropologist Zachary Whyte, the Danish Appeals Board was asked to revisit a number of Iranian asylum cases — particularly from 2008 — where Christian applicants were more frequently granted asylum than their Muslim counterparts.
In early 2016, the European Union Court of Justice found that Danish immigration law illegally limited the rights of Turkish workers. A later ruling from the European Court of Human Rights found that the country discriminates against those who attain Danish citizenship later in life.
Both the Trump administration and a series of Danish governments have aimed at inhibiting Muslim migration without saying so explicitly within the regulations themselves. Instead, both countries have proposed and implemented regulations that purport to improve national security, integration and compatibility, and that disproportionately affect Muslims. We will see which approach is more successful.
Correction: This post has been corrected to more accurately characterize the halt on refugee resettlement from Muslim-majority countries between 2006 and 2013; and that immigration of young, recently naturalized Danes to Sweden may have contributed (rather than did contribute) to the reduction of marriage-related immigration. The editors regret the errors.
Samantha Ruth Brown is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s master’s program whose main research interests involve how racism and xenophobia manifest in Scandinavian politics, especially refugee policy.