Denmark is the first EU country planning to run anti-refugee adverts in foreign papers

The controversial Danish “information campaign” will be run in foreign newspapers and is intended to deter potential refugees from Syria and Northern Africa.

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The Danish words for “marauding” and “swarms” may not yet be a feature of the rhetoric of the country’s politics, but the same sentiment is at work. The government in Denmark has announced plans to advertise in foreign newspapers, beginning in Turkey.

This “information campaign” is intended to deter potential refugees from Syria and Northern Africa. No other nation in Europe has yet advertised its desired deterrence so explicitly, or so far away. But the rise of the populist Danish People’s Party, now a dominant force in the new rightwing minority government, reflects a changing tide of opinion that is taking immigration policy into new territory.

The plans confirmed by Inger Stojberg, the integration minister, have been controversial. Denmark received 14,815 Asylum applications in 2014, almost double those of the year before. Reports in the Danish press have revealed that documents comparing the benefits of several European countries are given to refugees by smugglers. The suggestion is  that the refugees are making a calculated choice to travel to Denmark, to reap the benefits not available elsewhere. 

The new government has swiftly cut benefits for asylum seekers by 45 per cent, with further benefits made conditional on meeting language requirements. Stojberg has asserted that the information campaign will only contain “facts“ such as these, and will allow them to reach  refugees in Turkey and the Mediterranean who are considering Denmark as a destination. The point is that diminishing the benefits on offer will only have a deterrent effect if the refugees themselves are made aware. 

The plans have been deeply polarising. Critics insist that the disincentives are pointless: they assert that neither the cuts to benefits, nor the ads themselves, will actually decrease the number of refugees seeking asylum. 

But the opposition to the plans goes beyond the merits of their effectiveness. Many fear that the ads could diminish more than just the number of people seeking to claim asylum, but also Denmark’s international reputation for tolerance.

A Danish Facebook campaign that started out of opposition to the policy has already funded ads in the Danish newspaper Politiken and in the Guardian, with a message which reads: “Dear refugees, we welcome you to Denmark.”

The group, which has over 20,000 followers plan to run a similar ad in Germany’s Taz newspaper this week.

As the “ad wars” persist, politicians on both left and right have expressed unease. Some from the ruling Venstre party have labelled the plans “un-Danish”, and business leaders have warned that the ability of Danish businesses to compete for foreign recruits could suffer. One CEO put it starkly to the Berlingske newspaper: “Many foreign graduates are concerned about how their colleagues will look at us and fear that we are a bunch of closet racists.” 

In truth, the desire of governments to appear intolerant to all forms of immigration has continent-wide resonance. Denmark’s new policy is of a piece with those of Britain where, confronted by the growing migrant crisis in Calais, the government has pushed through new legislation to clamp down on immigrants in private tenancies. Landlords could face up to five years imprisonment for failure to evict migrants whose visas have expired, too.

The implication is clear. Europe’s governments are drawing a line in the sand in front of millions of refugees from war-torn, deprived parts of the world, too desperate not to cross it. 

Other European countries have advertised in foreign media to dissuade asylum seekers in the past: both Austrian and German governments have advertised in Kosovan newspapers this year. They argued that this was necessary as the vast majority of applicants from these countries were rejected, on the grounds that Kosovo is officially a safe country. The adverts did result in a net decrease in applications to Austria, at least.

But the Danish policy is a new frontier: unlike previous such ads, it’s aimed at refugees who would have a good chance of successfully claiming asylum. Austrian ministers have considered adopting the Danish approach but are reticent.

“The situation for people from Syria is completely different,” Interior Ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundböck has said. “There is a very high probability that those people will be granted asylum and so there is no reason for an information campaign in these other countries.

With the number of refugees arriving at European borders increasing, this reticence will be tough to maintain.

The ethics of this policy are shaky at best – but if it works, countries may turn a blind eye to the morality of it. And it is striking that it is one of the countries that has historically been most accepting of those fleeing war and famine that is pushing the ethics of EU immigration policy. 

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.