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Immigration control and Denmark's liberal democracy  



Dr Mette Wiggen


It came as a surprise to many Scandinavians that the right wing extremist Rasmus Paludan was refused entry to Britain in March this year. He had planned to visit Wakefield at the start of Ramadan with his trade mark Quran burning. His party Stram Kurs (Hard Line) campaigns to deport Muslims from Denmark and Europe. The British Home Office refused Paludan entry and added him to a 'warnings index'.  According to  Home Office Minister for Security Tom Tugendhat Paludan 'would not be allowed into the country to carry out a Quran burning.' 

In Scandinavia far right- ideas, ideologies and political parties have long been part of the mainstream political landscape. There is strong consensus around support for Paludan to express himself  in the name of 'freedom of  speech' and little discussion about  incitement to hatred, threat to  universal human rights and an increasingly aggressive discourse. The ex lawyer has served a prison sentence for racism and has since 2017 staged protests in Sweden and Denmark where the Quran is a central ingredient. He targets high immigration neighbourhoods where he shouts abuse and throws copies of the Quran in the air, wraps it in bacon and burns it  warning against a Muslim invasion aka Eurabia and Great Replacement. In 2019 Stram Kurs won 1.8%, 0.2% short of the electoral threshold of 2% that would have granted them a seat in the national assembly the Folketing.  

In the run up to the Swedish application and accession to NATO Paludan staged  Quran burning protests outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm with full police protection. The public discourse was unified in the condemnation of Turkey blocking Swedish membership of NATO and Turkey was seen as a threat to democracy. There was little space or acceptance in mainstream media for other views. Neither was there much discussion on joining NATO in the first place as even the left silenced opposing voices and ostracised their own as naïve, putinist traitors whilst supporting  Paludan's freedom of speech. 

Hilde Sandvik, a journalist  who chairs a pan- Scandinavian weekly political- and cultural discussion programme 'norsken, svensken og dansken' aired in the three countries on a Sunday morning positions herself on the left and claims to be scared for 'our democracy' when Paludan's rights are questioned. The second discussant on the programme  the Swedish Marxist journalist and author Åsa Lindeberg also expressed how concerned she was over 'our democracy' as Paludan's actions were being challenged. The third participant, actor and writer Hassan Preisler representing Denmark agreed wholeheartedly. Not one of them articulated concern over minorities  being exposed to Paludan´s vile racist assaults on their freedom of thought, conscience and religion.  

Far right parties are a force all Scandinavian governments have to relate to and compromise with as the parties hold strong positions in parliaments led by coalition governments. In Norway the far right governed in coalition with the mainstream right and a couple of centrist parties  for seven years.  

Far right policies are most accepted and mainstreamed in Denmark where for more than two decades anti immigrant welfare chauvinist governments both on the right and the left have ruled.  In 2019 the Social Democrats co-opted anti-immigrant policies  from the far right Danish People's Party and won on a platform combining that with welfare chauvinism. They  promised better pension rights to manual workers in a new pension arrangement called the ´Arne pension´, which came with conditionalities linked to citizenship and length of stay in Denmark. The prime minister Mette Frederiksen called for a cap on non-western immigrants, to expel asylum seekers to north Africa and at the same time promised a more equal society with less immigrants.  

Over 30 years Denmark has changed from being the most open and tolerant country in Europe to the strictest on immigration. During the 'refugee crisis' in 2016 refugees to Denmark were stripped of their valuables and jewellery to pay for their stay. The same year a cross party parliamentary delegation went to Australia to visit refugee camps, but decided in the end not to go to the controversial offshore detention centre on the island of Nauru. The plan was to 'to find out if a similar hard-line immigration regime could work in Europe'. The 2019- 2022 social democratic government ruled Syria safe for refugees to move back to. Syrian refugees are being uprooted from their homes, work and education and moved to deportation centres indefinitely as Denmark doesn't have diplomatic relations with Syria. September 2022 the Danish government made an agreement with Rwanda to process asylum seekers. In the national elections in November the social democrats were the biggest party with 27.5% of the vote and for the second time in Danish history since the 1970s formed a grand coalition with the mainstream right party the Moderates and the Liberals.

Denmark seems to be  an inspiration for other European social democrats as well as the mainstream right, the rhetoric is hardening and new stricter legislation is being introduced in many countries.  It has become increasingly difficult to apply for asylum anywhere from Greece to Norway. In the UK, violations against international law became increasingly part of the government’s own strategy after Brexit and under Boris Johnson's premiership policy in the area of borders and nationality was hardened with the previous  Home Secretary Priti Patel in charge of a new ‘nationality and borders’ act.  The new ´immigration bill ´  however, under Suella Braverman and the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda takes disregard for international law and human rights to another level. This is space Denmark had already explored in 2016.  


Several  European countries have introduced new legislation and practices that contravene international human rights legislation in breach of the 1951 Geneva refugee convention. The effect should not come as a surprise with far-right parties long established at the heart of the EU where they influence the European parliament and the European Council. The far right sits in national governments across the continent, despite a few losses in the last year. The EU has long been ruled by the ideology of securitisation of migration strongly promoted and supported by the far right and managing migration is more important than saving lives. According to the Missing Migrants Project 26,334 migrants are missing in the Mediterranean sea since 2014.   

Despite what we hear in the media, however, and by politicians, there is little  demand for inhumane or illegal asylum legislation from the grassroots. The ideology is normally generated by  far-right politicians or mainstream parties and politicans who have co-opted far-right policies on immigration. Anti- immigration legislation that attacks equality legislation and minorities is now integral to liberal democracy. 


Dr Mette Wiggen is Lecturer at the University of Leeds, with teaching and research on the extreme right. Mette specialises in Scandinavia and welfare chauvinism.