Europe

Do Denmark's immigration laws breach human rights?

  • 10 February 2011
  • From the section Europe
Mock marriage performed by activists during a demonstration outside the Danish parliament
Image caption The tough law on marriages involving a foreign-born spouse has led to satirical mock weddings

Critics of Denmark's tightening rules on immigration and integration say the country is violating European norms, including human rights legislation. How much has Denmark's approach to these issues been transformed under pressure from a right-wing populist party?

It looks, at first, like a familiar Scandinavian scene.

Outside the Danish parliament in Copenhagen, an international crowd mixing Danish citizens, immigrants from all kinds of backgrounds, is enjoying music and theatre.

"Afro-Danes" are here, reflecting Denmark's long interest in African developments and its past offers of asylum to those fleeing conflicts in Africa and elsewhere.

The crowd laughs as a couple stage a mock marriage. An official asks whether they are marrying "purely for immigration purposes" and "plan to live in a ghetto".

Behind the humour, there is serious anxiety. Denmark has recently tightened its immigration laws again, with a points system designed to make it more difficult for "family reunion" to bring foreigners into the country through marriage.

And the language of "ghettoes", warnings of a threat to "Danish values", are now heard routinely in political and popular debate.

Points system

There are new stricter requirements for would-be immigrants, and for those already in Denmark, who wish to marry a Dane. This is in addition to the already high minimum age of 24 for both the Danish and the foreign would-be spouse, proof of financial independence and an "active commitment to Danish society".

Image caption Opponents of the new points system made their feelings known outside the Danish parliament

The new points system had Thomas Miller, a Dane, and his Mexican wife Carolina so worried they might now have to leave Denmark, that they went to lobby MPs in parliament.

"We are both graduates, we have been living in Denmark for eight years, working and paying our taxes, with no debts to the public system. Despite this, she would get no points," says Thomas.

"It's as if they don't want Danes to marry foreigners anymore. It's very worrying," Carolina adds.

"I'm speechless, it's so unjust," says Thomas. "It's all about the stick, there's no carrot."

Human rights breaches

European and international bodies have pointed out that some of these laws and regulations could be in breach of human rights legislation.

Professor Margot Horspool, a specialist in European law at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, says that the restrictions on marrying foreigners "almost certainly breach European Union law in respect of discrimination as to ethnic origin, and possibly as to age".

She also believes the rules may violate EU legal protection of "the right to family life".

A tighter enforcement of the rules since 2008 prohibits state-funded hostels for the homeless from accepting foreigners who do not have permanent residency status. Reports say that this has led to people freezing to death in the sub-zero winter temperatures.

This, suggests Professor Horspool, breaks EU legal commitments not to subject individuals to inhuman or degrading treatment, laws that amount to an "obligation on the member state to ensure that humans are not left out in the street to freeze or indeed to starve."

The Danish government denies that its laws breach human rights, and says the 24-year age restriction is to prevent forced marriages.

Naser Khader, himself of Palestinian and Syrian descent, is now the immigration spokesman for the Conservatives, part of the governing coalition which depends on the votes of the DPP, the anti-immigration Danish People's Party.

He defends the toughened immigration policies: "We have a lot of people with an immigrant background who married cousins from their parents' villages, who came to Denmark with no language skills, education or work experience and became a great cost to Danish society."

"Denmark should welcome anybody who wants to contribute to this society, but we don't want people who don't want to contribute," he adds.

Populism

All this is part, say critics, of a decade-long transformation in Denmark's approach to immigration and integration, under pressure from the populist Danish People's party, the DPP.

Image caption DPP leader Pia Kjaersgaard enjoys holding the balance of power in parliament

The DPP is led by Pia Kjaersgaard, a former social worker in an old people's home. "We founded the party because of too many immigrants," she says.

She likes to present a homely, common sense image. "I am very powerful," she told me, "but I am also just a housewife and mother".

Denmark's Muslim population are the party's particular focus. There are many Muslims, it says, who are unwilling to integrate and hostile to "Danish values" such as free speech.

The "cartoons crisis" in 2005 boosted DPP support, when a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims in Denmark and abroad objected, some violently.

The party has yet to win more than around 15% of the vote in elections. But what has given it such influence is Denmark's coalition politics. For a decade ruling parties have depended on DPP MPs to get legislation through.

In return, the DPP has secured other parties' agreement to ever stricter rules on immigration and integration.

Image caption The late Toeger Seidenfaden regretted many Danish politicians' decreasing interest in human rights

This has "made everyone aware of [the DPP's] power," the late Toger Seidenfaden, Denmark's top political commentator, told me shortly before his death last month. The DPP has become "highly visible", and is seen as the "winner of the game", he said.

Mainstream parties originally tried to ignore the DPP or dismiss it as "not house-trained", unworthy of political attention.

But more recently several parties have abandoned that stance, accepting the DPP as permanent part of the political and parliamentary scene.

In Denmark, as in many other European countries, new populist parties and movements are moving from the margins and shaping the way immigration and integration is debated.

You can listen to the first part of Chris Bowlby's series Europe: Driving on the Right on the BBC iPlayer, and listen to episode two, about Austria and Germany, on Radio 4 on Tuesday 15 February at 1600 GMT.

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites