Photo of a black hole © Alexander Lupsasca et al / Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative 

This essay, on the lessons of Denmark’s refugee policy, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 18 April 2021, under the headline “By demonising asylum seekers, Denmark reflects a panic in social democracy”.

What do you call a government so hostile to refugees that it wants to send them back to a country that tortures and “disappears” its critics on a mass scale? Reactionary? Monstrous? In Denmark, they call it social democratic.

Denmark is the first European nation to insist that Syrian refugees should return to their home country because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is now in control and there is little conflict. It has revoked the residency permits of dozens of Syrian refugees and started detaining those it wants to deport. Yet it cannot actually deport anyone because it has severed diplomatic relations with Damascus. Assad’s regime is, apparently, despotic enough for Copenhagen to abjure relations but not so bad that Syria is unsafe for returning refugees.

Denmark’s decision has less to do with events in Syria than with the ruling Social Democratic party’s desire to burnish its anti-immigration credentials. In 2015, the SDP-led government lost power to a rightwing coalition in which mainstream conservatives were backed by the radical right Dansk Folkeparti or Danish People’s party (DF). The DF has never formally been in power but the timorousness of mainstream parties has allowed it to shape Danish politics and become, in the words of academic Sune Haugbolle, the nation’s “king-maker and thought leader”.

Loss of power, and the DF’s success, led the SDP, under new leader, Mette Frederiksen, to change political direction, not just returning to more traditional social democratic economic policies but also backing hardline anti-immigration regulation. In opposition, Frederiksen supported a series of grotesque laws, from the confiscation of refugees’ valuables to limiting the number of “non-westerners” in any neighbourhood. In power, SDP policies include “zero asylum seekers” and offshore migrant camps.

The success of the “red bloc” in the 2019 elections was seen by many as a vindication of tough immigration policies and as the way “to renew European social democracy”. It’s a misreading of what happened. While the DF lost more than half its seats, just 12% of its votes went to the SDP, which had a lower vote share than in 2015. The real success was that of the pro-immigration parties: the centrist Social Liberals and the leftwing Socialist People’s party, both of which gained eight seats. Insofar as immigration determined the election, the reasons were far less straightforward than many suggest.

Like all European social democratic parties, the Danish SDP spent decades distancing itself from its traditional working-class constituency, reaching out more to business and middle-class professionals and embracing fiscal conservatism and free-market policies, all wearily familiar to the trajectory of the Labour party in Britain, of the SPD in Germany and of the socialist parties in France and Italy.

Wearily familiar, too, is the way that immigration has become an alibi for the failures of economic and social policies and symbolic of a world over which people feel they have little control. Like many populist parties, the DF surged in areas where people felt voiceless and abandoned, where once the social democrats may have had a strong presence.

It is necessary, as Jon Cruddas reminds us, for the left to address that sense of voicelessness and enable people to regain “control over their lives”. We should not, however, confuse the need for policies that speak to the realities of working-class lives with the demand to demonise migrants. It would be a dark view, indeed, of the working class to imagine that the only way to get their votes is to send refugees back to possible imprisonment, torture or death.

Yet this is what mainstream politicians of both left and right have come to imagine. The European Union has built its “fortress Europe” through dehumanisation of migrants. European countries criminalise the rescue of, or support for, migrants. Italian prosecutors secretly bugged journalists and lawyers in their zeal to indict rescuers. In France, there are worrying signs that Emmanuel Macron might try to outflank Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, in the forthcoming presidential elections. In Britain, a small number of cross-Channel migrants has been turned into an invasion and asylum seekers are detained in the abandoned Napier barracks in Kent, apparently because the government does not want a public outcry about housing them in hotels or B&Bs.

The real lesson of Denmark is not that the left must act like the far right to win working-class votes. It is that if you engage in a race to the bottom, there will be no bottom. You simply keep going, until you lose all moral bearings.


  1. I’d say that if a government is hostile towards refugees it’s because it’s becoming harder to deal with the endless hordes seeking refuge and because it’s finally become obvious that given where they come from, it’s not likely to end. Ever. In 2015 a million applications for asylum in Germany didn’t seem to make a dent in the need for refuge. Perhaps one day the West will put the focus on the governments in that warring region and expect them to take responsibility for what’s going on in their countries. Now that would be an article worth reading, but then who would publish it? Not the aggressively left media who would sooner cancel you than soil their publications with ideas that don’t suit their narrative. I had to google the term fiscal conservatism. I don’t get why you’re against it. Here’s what was said: ‘Fiscal conservatism is a political and economic philosophy regarding fiscal policy and fiscal responsibility advocating low taxes, reduced government spending and minimal government debt. Deregulation, free trade, privatization and tax cuts are its defining qualities.’

    • “endless hordes”

      Nice neutral phrase. A pity it does not align with the facts.

      Global numbers of migrants have been relatively stable over the past fifty years. In proportionate terms, levels of global migration are lower than in 1960. Europe’s share of global migration has actually fallen. The majority of those whom we call “refugees” are actually internally displaced people – ie people made refugees in their own countries. There are fewer refugees in Europe than there were in the 1990s. 2015 was an exception year because of the Syrian war. Since then, the figures have dropped off hugely. Numbers of asylum seekers to Denmark have been falling and the figure for last year was the lowest since 1998. Even at its height in 2015, there was just 21,000. It’s much the same for the UK, too; the figures for 2019 was less than half of that in 2002.

      “Perhaps one day the West will put the focus on the governments in that warring region and expect them to take responsibility for what’s going on in their countries”

      Which countries take most numbers of refugees? Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Colombia, Uganda, Sudan, Iran… The only Western country in the top ten refugee-hosting country is Germany. 85% of all refugees are in developing countries, 28% in the least developed countries. If low-income countries and “countries in the warring regions” did what Western countries do, there really would be a refugee crisis. And presumably Western countries bear no responsibility for interventions (in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc) that have fuelled much of this. I guess only non-Western countries have to take responsibility for their actions.

      “the aggressively left media who would sooner cancel you than soil their publications with ideas that don’t suit their narrative”

      Ever seen the headlines in the Mail, Express, Telegraph, Sun? Guess there are none so blind as those who will not see…

      “I had to google the term fiscal conservatism. I don’t get why you’re against it”

      Because what it means are cuts and austerity, the squeezing of the welfare state, the creeping privatisation of the NHS, etc . You may be for that. I’m not.

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