As Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, bears witness, Denmark plays a special role in Jewish history, thanks to the Danish resistance's successful evacuation of most of the country's Jewish population to Sweden in 1943, during the German occupation.
But there is also a shameful side to the same story. That's because of how Danish officials, both before and during the Nazi occupation, collaborated in returning Jewish refugees back to Germany, and to their deaths.
As the Danish minister of justice, Karl Kristian Steincke, stated in 1937: "We will not be inhuman, but we dare not be human, because of the consequences." In this case, it was fear of Denmark’s powerful neighbor to the south.
At a memorial ceremony in 2005, Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen apologized for the wartime Danish authorities' active cooperation in the deportation of innocent people. He added: "An apology can’t change history, but it can serve to acknowledge historic errors, so current and successive generations will hopefully avoid similar errors."
But now it looks as though history will repeat itself.
Like most European countries, Denmark has been marked by the wave of immigration that has swept over Europe. In Denmark, 14 percent of a population of 5.9 million consists of immigrants and their descendants, almost two-thirds of whom come from non-Western countries.
The latter, primarily from Muslim countries, figure prominently in statistics relating to crime, unemployment, incomplete education and welfare. According to an estimate in 2017 by the Ministry of Immigration and Integration, the net cost of managing immigrant-related needs came to 33 billion kroner ($5.35 billion).
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Denmark was the first country to sign the UN Refugee Convention in 1951, but with the advent of the Social Democrat government in 2019 there was a change of face. In January this year, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen declared that "zero asylum seekers" was the government’s ambition. Last year there were 1,547, the lowest number since 1998.
This already-tough immigration policy is in competition with the national conservative Danish People’s Party, which in 2019 bled 12 percent of its voters to the Social Democrats. Kenan Malik in The Guardian warned: "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 moral bearings."
The UN Refugee Convention provides for the return of refugees to the country of origin when fundamental, stable and durable changes have taken place.
However, in 2015, when Mette Frederiksen was minister of justice, a new law was passed which made it possible for the return of refugees with temporary protected status, even when conditions in their countries of origin are still serious and can rightly be termed fragile and unpredictable.
Some 4,000 Syrian refugees were accorded this status, and now the Danish government plans to deport 505 Syrians to the Damascus area. Young people completing an education or vocational training face deportation or being torn from their families, in instances where other family members already hold more permanent residence permits.
For its alibi, the government uses two reports by the Danish Immigration Service which conclude that conditions in Damascus are "safe." The reports have been hammered by experts, but the government won’t budge.
The Minister for Immigration and Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, himself the son of an Ethiopian refugee, is a zealous defender of the government’s policy. Tesfaye talks of the forcible return of Syrian refugees and, like Israel, has concluded a deal with Rwanda which could provide for a center for asylum seekers to Denmark.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told the UN Security Council: "It’s also not in the interest of the Syrian people to pressure Syrian refugees to return to Syria, including to regime-held areas, where many fear they will be arbitrarily detained, tortured, or even killed by Assad’s security forces in retaliation for fleeing."
Before the 2019 election, Mette Frederiksen declared, "I want to be the children’s prime minister." But now she has declared herself adamantly opposed to the repatriation of 19 children and six mothers from the al-Hol and al-Roj camps in Syria. The children can return, but not their mothers.
In one case, there is a four-year-old girl suffering from PTSD, but her repatriation will mean she will be separated from her mother and five-year-old stepbrother. The Kurdish authorities refuse to separate the children from their mothers.
This has resulted in a standoff between the minority government and its parliamentary support from two small left-wing parties and the Social Liberals. The foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, who claims to stand for a values-based foreign policy, finds the situation "heartbreaking." But no, he is not prepared to take action.
The Danes are decent people, but a lax immigration policy has made them the prey not only of far-right populists but also of a social democratic government which plays the left off against the right to stay in power.
In the summer of 1944, Danes drew the line and went on strike against the Nazi occupation. The question now is whether they are again prepared to draw the line, and reject a policy which is an affront to human decency.
Robert Ellis is a commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press