Scandinavians Defy Leaders as Refugee Crisis Hits Home

Refugees to Dominate Juncker's State of Union
  • Refugees try to penetrate Danish controls to reach Sweden
  • Local police carrying out arrests of people aiding refugees

In terms of sheer numbers, Europe’s migration crisis is being billed as the worst since World War II. But for people like Lars Bech, a Danish photographer based near the Swedish border town of Malmoe, the parallels are far more poignant.

“This situation made me realize what my granddad went through during World War II," the 41-year-old said on Tuesday.

“He helped sink German patrol vessels in Skagen and smuggle Jews across to Sweden. Now I understand what fueled him back then.”

Bech would like to head to Denmark’s border town of Rodby, where hundreds of asylum-seekers arrived from Germany at the weekend, and “drive them to Sweden” in his BMW 525 station wagon.

“It can hold half a Syrian village,” he jokes.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Europe’s response to the refugee crisis will be a “defining moment” for the continent, requiring a united effort. But Bech’s example shows that even inside wealthy Scandinavia, policy differences are huge. As Sweden’s government looks for ways to let in more people from war-torn Syria, Denmark is placing advertisements in the Middle East to warn potential asylum seekers not to bother trying its shores.

Inger Stoejberg, Denmark’s integration minister, has already made it clear she doesn’t want her countrymen following Bech’s lead.

“People should not pick up migrants and give them a ride to Sweden,” Stoejberg told reporters on Tuesday. “In Denmark, we follow the rules and these people need to be registered and have their case tried, and individuals shouldn’t interfere with that.´´

But Danish media were filled with anecdotes on Wednesday of locals ignoring that advice, dodging police barricades and trying to make contact with refugees in order to offer food, clothes, shelter and care.

Danes helping refugees travel north risk arrest. Police in western Denmark said they detained a man early on Wednesday on suspicion of abetting the illegal transportation of five refugees to Sweden.

Swedes are also risking their freedom. In the past week, police there have arrested 16 people for trying to smuggle refugees across the Oeresund bridge from Denmark, Skaane police spokesman Lars Foerstell said by phone.
They face a maximum of six years in prison.

Northbound Refugees

After years of friction at Europe’s southern front, with debt-strapped Italy and Greece buckling under the influx of immigrants, similar tensions are now starting to play out in the continent’s most prosperous north. As thousands flee Syria’s civil war or unrest in Afghanistan, their numbers are adding to the steady flow of traditional migrants from the Middle East, Africa or Kosovo. They head for Germany and then make their way on to Scandinavia. Their trip across Europe will typically have taken them through the Balkans, Hungary and Austria.

According to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, the official number of new asylum applications in Hungary had already exceeded 65,400 by July. In Germany, the number of applications filed between January and July has already eclipsed last year’s total of 173,072.

Sweden, which is already Europe’s most generous country in terms of asylum seekers per capita, has complained pointedly about the fact that “too many countries” are shirking their responsibilities.

While the comments made by Prime Minister Stefan Loefven were primarily directed at Hungary and its razor-wire border fence designed to keep people out, tensions with Sweden’s neighbor, Denmark, aren’t going unnoticed.

Like Sweden, Denmark has a generous welfare state. Unlike Sweden, it has been less welcoming of refugees, registering just under 15,000 asylum seekers in 2014, compared with Sweden’s 81,000.

“We have a generous refugee policy, and we let people have their application tested if they haven’t registered in any other place,” Sweden’s Loefven told reporters on Tuesday. He also said his country will “maintain the rules.”

The political risk involved is questionable. A Svenska Dagbladet/Sifo poll showed 33 percent of voters support the Loefven government’s bighearted policy, while 25 percent of Swedes want their leaders to embrace even laxer immigration rules. Only 29 percent of the population wants a stricter policy.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen says his country is willing to accept about 100 of the 4,000 people sent by bus from Hungary to Germany over the weekend. But he has also signaled he’d be more than happy to see them continue on to Sweden. By comparison, Sweden’s response to the 3,200 weekly applications it’s been getting since late August was to raise its capacity to take in as many as 4,000 a week.

Rasmussen’s handling of the refugee crisis should be seen against the backdrop of his position in parliament. He rules a minority government with just one-fifth of the electorate’s direct backing. He was able to become prime minister only because a bloc led by the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party threw its support behind him. The party is now expecting some favors.

So far, Rasmussen has mainly succeeded in irking his domestic allies. The question is whether local politics will ultimately pale in the face of a broader European crisis in which Germany is emerging as the moral leader.

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