A Danish man spits at refugees who are passing beneath the bridge he is standing on. (Sigrid Nygaard/ Information)

To some Americans, Scandinavian countries might all seem basically the same: They lead the world's rankings, be it in education or health care, and seem to be centers of innovation. These days, however, northern Europe couldn't be more divided. What is separating these wealthy nations? The question of how to deal with refugees.

Sweden has so far taken in the most refugees per capita among all European nations. Meanwhile, in neighboring Denmark, authorities have taken the opposite approach. They placed an ad in Lebanese newspapers, carrying an unspoken yet unmistakable message: Don't come to Denmark. On Wednesday, Denmark stopped all trains connecting the country to continental Europe through Germany for an undetermined time to prevent refugees from being able to cross the border.

Earlier in the week, the Danish newspaper Information published a photo by Sigrid Nygaard of a man spitting on refugees who were passing under a bridge. The image was widely circulated on social media sites. What does this photo represent? Is it the country's real face?

It certainly isn't the image most Americans have of peace-loving Scandinavia. And yet, such tensions could hardly surprise close observers of Scandinavian politics.

"Until 2001, Norway, Sweden and Denmark could be seen as a fairly liberal bastion in the north of Europe," Rune Berglund Steen, the director of the Norwegian Center against Racism, told The Washington Post. Since then, Norway and Denmark have drifted away from Sweden.

"In Denmark and Norway, the political climate has been dominated by right-wing populist parties peddling in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, something Sweden — at least until the recent rise of the Sweden Democrats — has been spared from," Berglund Steen explained. He said the evolution of the political discourse in those countries has led to different attitudes toward refugees.

Already in 2012, Patrick Kingsley observed in the British Guardian: "Denmark, then, is a tale of two opposing mindsets – one indignant and xenophobic, the other tolerant and communal." The country's strengths, which include its strong inter-community relationships, are also partially responsible for its current levels of xenophobia. "Danes reimagined their society as one defined by togetherness," Kingsley, who published the book "How to Be Danish," wrote. Consequently, Denmark has become a highly homogeneous society, making it difficult for some foreigners to assimilate.

After the Liberal Party, which is categorized as center-right, formed a minority government in June, it drastically curtailed refugees' rights. Denmark continues to isolate itself from the influx of newcomers to Europe and has cut generous benefits to discourage asylum seekers from coming to the nation.

Denmark is hardly the only northern European country opposed to more migrants. In the first half of this year, Norway, Finland and Iceland also took in fewer than 15,000 refugees each — compared to 75,000 who came to Sweden — though Sweden has by far Scandinavia's biggest population with about 10 million citizens.

Northern European countries are among the world's richest

Except for Finland, these countries are extraordinarily wealthy, partially due to oil revenues, which allow them to fund a generous welfare system. Norway's Government Pension Fund is financed through the country's surpluses in oil sales and is currently worth about $870 billion, for instance. Norway has the world's sixth-highest gross domestic product per capita, which means its citizens are among the world's richest, on average.

But Norway has not done nearly as much as Sweden to help refugees. When some tried to enter the country from the Arctic Circle, crossing the Russian-Norwegian border, the government threatened to charge anyone who helped them with human trafficking.

"These days, a popular conception in Sweden seems to be that Norway is a rather racist country, while a popular conception in Norway is that Sweden is a very naïve country, blind to the supposed hazards of immigration," Berglund Steen said. "While both views are strongly oversimplified, there is little doubt that sadly, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric generally has had more resonance in Norway."

Why is there so much fear?

In many of these countries, the financial burden does not necessarily appear to be the main argument against accepting more refugees. Rather, it's the fear of having to adapt a societal concept that appears to work rather well in many regards. Whereas German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that the country had to accept that it would change due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the coming years to stop its population decline, the northern Europeans seem more determined to preserve their way of living.

In an interview with NPR, Robert Acker, who emigrated from Bosnia to Sweden in the 1990s, said the mood was changing in Sweden as well. "I got along with the Swedes early on. But now, I believe it's a totally different thing. ... They want us out. They just want Swedes here." As in the other countries, many Swedes accuse Muslims of not being willing to to assimilate — but they do not mention how difficult some migrants find it to build ties because they don't feel welcome.

Terror attacks have only increased the rift in recent months: In February, for instance, a man who had sworn fidelity to the Islamic State killed two people in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Violence has also targeted Scandinavian Muslims: Several Swedish mosques have been burned down this year. 

Sweden and Iceland stand out 

According to a Eurostat survey, most Swedes continue to think positively about non-E.U. immigrants. In Iceland, which has only about 300,000 inhabitants and does not technically belong to Scandinavia although it is often associated with the region, support has gone even further. Citizens recently urged the country's government to accept more refugees. A poll conducted by Iceland's market and media research institute MMR showed that 88.5 percent of the population thought the country should accept more refugees. Last week, 1,000 Icelanders even offered their homes to accommodate them.

The initiative could turn out to be a success: The country's welfare minister announced shortly afterward that authorities were examining private accommodation offers, and that the country might decide to let in more refugees as a result.

In Finland, a Nordic country close to Scandinavia, where the population is more opposed to accepting more refugees, the reverse happened: The prime minister announced last weekend that he would accommodate refugees in his private home in order to inspire others to do the same.

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