In October 1943, in an act of civic and moral duty, Danish fishermen and resistance fighters transported approximately 7,000 Danish Jews to safety in neutral Sweden. They were ferried over the waters of the Oresund and saved from Nazi extermination camps.
That story of heroism is central to modern Danish identity and it stands in sharp contrast to what is unfolding today. In the past week more than 3,000 mainly Syrian refugees have been arriving from Germany, passing through Denmark and crossing that same stretch of water to Sweden, which has a more open immigration policy, and where they hope to rebuild their lives.
While our neighbors are responding with compassion to this crisis, the Danish government has opted for a mean-spirited public relations campaign.
On Sept. 7, Denmark’s minister of immigration, Inger Stojberg, placed an ad in four Lebanese papers informing would-be migrants and traffickers about the tough measures in place and urging them to stay away from Danish shores. The campaign is inspired by Australia’s policy of putting discouraging posters in airports in Indonesia and Pakistan. And until Thursday, the Danish police were blocking refugees seeking to pass through Danish territory en route to Sweden. They have since let people move freely through the country, on the grounds they don’t have enough police to halt them, creating a chaotic situation.
It is 2015, not 1943, but the times provide a similar test to our core values. Whereas Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has answered the crisis by issuing a call for extraordinary measures, opening the German border to 500,000 refugees this year, Danish politicians are frantically tightening immigration regulations.
The timing of the ad could not have been worse. It was released just days after images of a drowned boy, Aylan Kurdi, sent shivers of shame throughout Europe. A collective reaction against Denmark’s official policies has been brewing for some time, not least since the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party finished second in the May elections, forcing a new center-right government to promise further restrictions on what is already one of Europe’s toughest immigration laws.
When the Dublin treaty, which mandates that refugees be registered in the first country of arrival, is renegotiated in the coming weeks, Denmark will likely be given the choice of accepting a refugee quota or removing itself from the treaty. Denmark is currently allowed to send immigrants back to the first country of registration in the E.U. The government risks losing this right if it doesn’t accept quotas. A recent Gallup poll showed that a majority of Danes want to accept more refugees, but a government dependent on the far right’s support will have its hands tied.
Many Danes are finally awakening to our tarnished international image and are trying to change it. Members of a new movement are arranging meals, collecting used furniture and offering language support. This mobilization and the recent pro-refugee demonstrations that have occurred across Europe aren’t just the result of shame or collective guilt over Nazism. Nor is this purely about humanitarianism. It’s about what kind of Europe we want to be.
Danish society has changed dramatically. Foreign workers, migrants and refugees have been arriving since the 1970s. They have created mixed communities and customs, particularly in big cities. Europeans of first, second and third-generation immigrant background are prominent in solidarity movements everywhere, outside of the official political parties. They see themselves as citizens of their countries, and they want to be seen that way too.
We’re a multicultural society, even if that word has gone out of fashion, and we need to embrace this hybrid reality rather than wish it away.
The real divide in Europe today is between those who put European humanism first and who also believe that our rich societies can manage, and even thrive, by welcoming citizens with different cultural backgrounds, and those who insist that our societies will fracture under the weight of diversity. The latter group has, in Denmark, largely won the debate over immigration. Drifting with this sentiment, center-left parties like the Danish Social Democrats have moved steadily toward the right. The Muhammad cartoon crisis of 2005 and 2006 and the threat of terrorism only helped to further discredit proponents of multiculturalism.
Obviously, Europe cannot accommodate endless amounts of refugees. Fully open borders would create an immediate populist, and likely violent, backlash. But the flexibility we show should be in proportion to the scale of the disaster faced by Syrians, Iraqis and others fleeing war.
If we shut our doors now, as Denmark’s government wants to do (but can’t, because it’s still committed to the European project) we will revert to the national border posts that were supposed to melt away, and compromise the project of European integration.
Denmark has granted 7,000 people asylum this year, whereas Sweden has pledged to take in 100,000 refugees. The prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, doesn’t have the political support to match those numbers, but we too, as a rich country committed to European partnership, must do our part. Solidarity and shared responsibility are meaningless if they don’t apply in times of crisis.
Moments like October 1943 and September 2015 define who we are. And despite the challenges, Europeans must embrace what we have become.
Sune Haugbolle, an associate professor at Roskilde University and a visiting fellow at Oxford University, is the author of “War and Memory in Lebanon.”