Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Scandinavia has a ‘migrant-friendly’ reputation. But is that changing?

Ten years on from Norway’s Utøya massacre, a tragedy fuelled by a hatred of multiculturalism, borders are tightening across Scandinavia

Irene Peroni
22 July 2021, 11.14am
Flowers, candles and flags left in sympathy outside the Norwegian Embassy in Copenhagen in the aftermath of Norway's terror attacks, July 2011
Niels Quist / Alamy Stock Photo

The British Home Office’s proposal to create offshore asylum processing centres is not quite original. It takes the lead from Denmark, which last month became the first European country to pass legislation aimed at relocating migrants far away from its shores. Applicants could theoretically be granted asylum on behalf of Denmark in the country they have been sent to, thereby defeating the purpose of applying in the first place.

Though negotiations are reportedly ongoing with several potential partner countries, there has been speculation that Rwanda could be the location of an external processing site. Rwanda, unfortunately, has a rather dubious human rights record even though it has sheltered hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from neighbouring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Denmark's immigration laws have long been controversial. As part of the Edinburgh Agreement, signed in 1993, the country opted out of several EU cooperations, including asylum policies. And earlier this year it started revoking residence status for Syrian refugees – the first European country to do so – on the grounds that some parts of the war-torn country were safe enough to return to.

These latest controversial measures, which have made headlines across Scandinavian countries, were drawn up by a minority left-wing coalition headed by the Social Democratic party.

In Norway, another bastion of the Nordic welfare model, the first reaction to Denmark’s move came from Jan Egeland, a former prominent politician within Norway’s Labour Party. Egeland, who since 2013 has headed the Norwegian Refugee Council, said Denmark was defying the principles of solidarity and international law. From now on, he told Norwegian daily Aftenposten, he would cite Denmark as a “horror example”. The initiative ran counter to “everything we should stand for as European civilization”, Egeland added, claiming Denmark was leading a “heinous European race to the bottom”.

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‘Butterfly in Winterland’

Egeland’s remarks were more in tune with the Scandinavian refugee policies I remember from my first longer stay in Norway, in the early 1990s. I had grown up in the 1970s and 80s in a rather conservative Italy, at a time when the presence of migrants from developing countries was very marginal. Needless to say, I was hugely impressed by Norway’s relatively high number of mixed-race couples and its seemingly welcoming attitude towards refugees.

There was even a folksy song, very popular in those days, describing the plight of a newly arrived migrant child, whose mother “carried a suitcase with all she owned inside”.

The lyrics of a folk song do not necessarily correspond to inclusiveness by the population

“And you gave me a smile, butterfly in Winterland,” the chorus went. “I hope we will accept you, I hope you won’t have to freeze; I know you can give us colour, and laughter and life and light.”

As an idealistic 20-something, I briefly wondered whether I had accidentally ended up in the only Western country whose inhabitants were truly fond of asylum seekers.

It sounded too good to be true. And, indeed, I soon realised the rights granted on paper, and the heart-warming lyrics of a folk song, did not necessarily correspond to inclusiveness on the part of the population. Yet I remained firmly convinced that refugees were being granted fairer living conditions in Scandinavia than anywhere else in Europe.

‘Horror example’

But in recent years, Denmark in particular – but, to a lesser extent, also Norway and Sweden – has been increasingly tightening immigration laws.

Repatriations, including those of teenagers (especially Afghans and Syrians) who have hardly any ties to the countries their parents fled from, have become rather commonplace, though sometimes strenuously opposed by local communities.

When Egeland spoke of Denmark’s new strategy as a “horror example”, he probably did not imagine that only a few days later, a politician from his party, the Iranian-Norwegian Labour immigration spokesman, Masud Gharahkhani, would declare the party open to the suggestion that asylum seekers might be sent to third countries – provided it was safe for them to be there.

There is an awareness that Norway’s success with COVID-19 has depended largely on borders being sealed

Gharahkhani claimed the main reason for considering outsourced processing centres is so migrants do not embark on “death journeys across the Mediterranean”. Yet his words come at a time when many Norwegian citizens, even the most liberal ones, are suddenly very wary of travellers – including their neighbours coming back from a short seaside holiday in Spain.

There is a widespread awareness that Norway’s success in handling the COVID-19 pandemic has depended to a great extent on its borders being pretty much sealed. Migrants arriving from countries where the pandemic is raging with a particular vehemence are perceived as a potential source of infection by much of the public.

Gharahkhani might therefore have his eye on the moderate fringes of the voters who currently support Norway’s ruling centre-Right government. After all, the country has a general election coming up in the autumn.

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Utøya massacre

But it should give us pause for thought that such preoccupations occur just as Norway commemorates the tenth anniversary of its most horrific event since the end of WWII.

Exactly ten years ago, on 22 July 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik travelled to the holiday island of Utøya, some 35km from Oslo, where he killed 69 youngsters and teenagers who were attending a summer camp run affiliated with the Labour Party.

Purportedly motivated by the then-governing party’s liberal approach to migration – at least this is what Breivik himself declared over and over again – among his many innocent victims were some dark-skinned youths, some of whom may have become the next generation of Labour Party leaders.

From behind bars, we can imagine Breivik smiling at the idea of remotely placed asylum centres.

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