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Not so Hygge: Why Denmark is no cosy place for migrants

Denmark is famous for its high quality of life but the 'hygge factor' does not translate into a warm ­welcome for migrants, writes Meghan Davidson Ladly, reporting from Copenhagen


Xenophobic tone: A protest march organised by For Freedom (For Frihed) against Muslim immigration winds its way through Copenhagen. Photo: Ole Jensen/Corbis via Getty images

Xenophobic tone: A protest march organised by For Freedom (For Frihed) against Muslim immigration winds its way through Copenhagen. Photo: Ole Jensen/Corbis via Getty images

Inger Stojberg

Inger Stojberg


Xenophobic tone: A protest march organised by For Freedom (For Frihed) against Muslim immigration winds its way through Copenhagen. Photo: Ole Jensen/Corbis via Getty images

Despite the afternoon rain pelting the windows, Café Mandela is packed. The eatery lies opposite a police station in a detached brick building in Copenhagen's Vesterbro neighbourhood, where, thanks to gentrification, student cafés and upscale wine bars, pedestrians can get tattooed and then shop for home accessories.

The patrons of Café Mandela reflect this mix - a group of 20-somethings laugh at the bar, while an older man nurses a coffee while making faces at a baby in a pram. Each table is accented with a lit candle. And at a seat by the window, Syrian emigrant Yousef Jaeljawal Daas observes the scene.

"It's not easy to have Danish friends," said Daas, his blue eyes scanning the neighbouring tables. "They are closed off." Daas did not intend to end up in Denmark. For many, this country of renowned design and happy people is a destination, but Daas didn't factor quality-of-life indexes, or the ratio of hand-knit woollen socks to people in his travel plans as he fled Palmyra. And now here, these factors mean little.

For some in this tiny Nordic nation, happiness is hindered by the very quality foreigners find so inviting. As tourists, politicians, and social scientists embrace Denmark's hygge factor and seek to emulate it, migrants flocking to Denmark struggle to reconcile this piece of Danish identity and make it their own, within a society where cosiness can also mean exclusivity.


Inger Stojberg

Inger Stojberg

Inger Stojberg

Daas, now 28, arrived here in March 2015. Palmyra was no longer safe as the Assad army and Syrian opposition fighters battled for territory. After he was conscripted in the autumn 2014, he knew he must leave. He took a taxi across the border into Lebanon, and flew to Turkey. From the coastal city of Izmir, he and 42 other illegal migrants, mostly Syrians, took a jetboat to Mytilene - the capital of Lesbos - and then a ferry to Athens. Daas secured an Italian passport and planned to fly to Norway, an ideal destination because he is a petroleum engineer. To fly from his base in Italy to Norway, however, a stop in Denmark was necessary, and that was where his plans changed. He decided to apply for refugee status, rather than continuing on to Norway. It is a decision he now regrets.

Nativist backlash

"It's not a secret they don't want foreigners or refugees in Denmark," said immigration lawyer Asrin Mesbah, referring to the current government. "They are afraid the Danish system and the welfare system will change."

The smallest of the Nordic countries has become synonymous with nativist backlash in the wake of the refugee influx. Mesbah's assertion reflects her work with asylum seekers since 2015, when she founded the legal aid organisation JuraRådgivningen. Denmark is far from the Mediterranean frontlines of the migrant crisis, but it has been nevertheless shaken by the swell.

Located between the two most popular asylum destinations - Germany and Sweden - Denmark has set itself apart from its neighbours.

In summer 2015, the Danish government cancelled unemployment benefits for asylum seekers, replacing them with a new integration benefit that effectively reduced state support by 45pc. The government then publicised the changes in both English and Arabic in four Lebanese newspapers. The trend of increased arrivals reversed the following year. In 2017, there were only 3,458 applicants, down from 21,316 in 2015. This past December, the government announced it would not accept its quota of resettlement refugees from the UNHCR, opting out of the quota programme entirely.

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Muhamad Hamed (31) came just ahead of the wave of 2015. A Palestinian born in Syria, he arrived a double migrant, and stateless. He tried 14 times to cross from Turkey to Greece before arriving successfully, and then travelled up through Europe with a forged Saudi passport.

"It's a good place for the Danish people," said Hamed. "And it's a good place for refugees - there's no war, but you have other wars." He smiles ruefully. He has a residence permit, but life is difficult. In Syria he was a physics teacher but here his qualifications aren't recognised, so he drives an Uber. Hamed feels set apart from the Danes around him, and as for hygge, he has not adopted it - like so many evasive cultural elements here - "it's not something you can learn," he said.

While the quality of hygge has been globally embraced as an antidote to dark winter months and as a means to better appreciate the day to day, it has also been used to foster a sense of nationalism that borders on insular nativism.

Along with its copious amounts of calming teas and warm lighting, hygge also prescribes keeping conversations away from divisive topics that might stir up conflict. And for many within the Danish social and political right, discord is synonymous with immigrants or cultural outsiders.

Hamed brought his wife and daughter to Copenhagen. But other refugees are not as lucky; the current centre-right government of Lars Lokke Rasmussen, elected in 2015, has made substantial changes to the country's immigration policy. Depending on your status, family reunification now often does not occur until after three years of living in Denmark.

"The current government has made it harder to get family reunification," said immigration lawyer Bjorn Dilou Jacobsen, "and they have made it harder to get permanent residence permits."

The government face of much of these new reforms is Danish integration minister Inger Stojberg, who infamously celebrated the 50th anti-immigrant measure passed last year with a cake.

The general protection status now given to most Syrian migrants is meant to be temporary, the idea being that when conditions improve in Syria, people will return. "The thought politically," said Jacobsen, "is why get your family here if you are going back soon? The human rights argument is that it's going to take a very long time before you can send anyone back to Syria, or at least send them back in a way that meets the criteria of the Geneva Convention."

The coalition government, however, is not the most conservative voice on immigration. In the 2015 election, the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party (DPP) gained seats and became the second largest party in parliament, while a new party, Nye Borgerlige (The New Right), was founded in that same year. With an even stricter stance on immigration, it has now qualified to run for parliament in the upcoming 2019 election.

The Danish right often uses hygge to further set a xenophobic tone. Hygge is tinged with nostalgia and thus perfect fodder for conservatives. The aesthetic features regularly in political party advertising, with one notable example being the 2016 campaign by the DPP depicting a cosy white family, complete with dog, under the tagline "Our Denmark".

Messages like that don't surprise Bwalya Sorensen anymore. Sorensen, who is originally from Zambia, came to Denmark as a pregnant 18-year-old, though her Danish partner was no longer a part of her life. She sought humanitarian asylum and spent the first two years in an asylum camp with her daughter. That was 32 years ago, and the immigration system, as well as Danish society as a whole, has changed, yet some biases persist.

"Every once in a while you can just feel the hate," said Sorensen. The country is still very much a landscape of familiarity - as of 2017, 86.7pc of the nation's population is ethnically Danish. Racism is a difficult subject in Denmark, and even raising the topic can be harrowing, according to Sorensen.

In September of 2016, she founded Black Lives Matter Denmark, but she has been an activist for migrant issues since her arrival. "I don't have a fear of difference," said Sorensen with a warm smile, "there is a Danish culture of hygge - and I enjoy that. It's not exclusive to whiteness." Sorensen practices hygge, identifies as Afro-Dane, has a Danish passport and four Danish children, yet she feels divided from many who share her citizenship; "there are the original Danes," she said, "and then there is us."

Asrin Mesbah is very aware of this social gulf. "If you aren't born here, even if you have Danish citizenship, you are not allowed to call yourself Danish," said Mesbah. "So I'm not Danish even though I have been here for 35 years." Mesbah was five when her family fled Iran. She is critical of the government, Minister Inger Stojberg, and the DPP, the political right, whom she says do not want Muslims in Denmark.

Mesbah concedes that she is excellent at hygge, and that nothing will change for her because a minister says 'you're not Danish'.

"Danish people like to say that hygge is very Danish," she said, "but of course it's not. If you go to Madrid they are very good at hygge."

Proposed ban on burqas and niqabs

Sorensen remembers the first time she truly felt Danish. Three years after getting citizenship, she took a trip, and, when she returned she felt that she was home. But she acknowledges that this feeling recedes with the constant repetition of the message that 'you are not Danish'.

"We need to do a reclaim," she said. "It's not up to right-wing politicians to tell you, you are not a Dane."

Yet the question of how to treat refugees continues to reverberate within the country. This January, the immigration ministry announced a temporary halt to the forced expulsions of rejected asylum seekers who are ill following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, a move the opposition criticised as inadequate and far too slow, with several ill migrants already deported. As Denmark continues on its conservative bent - this February the government proposed a ban on burqas and niqabs - the climate for immigrants remains turbulent.

Hamed would like to get Danish citizenship, if only to have a proper passport- as a Palestinian he only has a travel document. But he also wants to return to Syria. His parents and siblings are there, and if the situation improved he would go.

Daas, meanwhile, is completing his master's of engineering at the Technical University of Denmark. Both his brothers are in Germany, but his parents and two sisters remain in Syria.

He is firmly committed to staying in his new home of Europe, but maybe not Denmark. Sweden is a 30-minute drive away and considerably more hospitable to immigrants. "We lost our friends, our family, everything," Daas said, shaking his head.

"We are just trying to be human beings - just to feel like we are citizens somewhere."

He notices the candle on the table and laughs: "Hygge."

Denmark and  refugees: the rules

There are three different ways that asylum-seekers can qualify for refugee status in Denmark. Under Article 7 of the Danish Aliens Act, individuals can obtain convention status, individual protection status or general protection status.

The 1951 multilateral United Nations treaty - the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees - lays out the qualification for refugee status.

If individuals applying in Denmark meet the UN requirements for persecution based on political, religious or social status then they qualify for refugee status as well as residency and family reunification.

If you are individually persecuted in your home country for reasons other than those outlined in the Refugee Convention - for example your life is at risk because you are fleeing a forced and violent marriage in your home country - then you still qualify for asylum under Danish case law through individual protection status. Once your case is processed, you are then entitled to family reunification.

Most of the post-2015 migrants arriving in Denmark, however, are not seeking asylum based on individual persecution.

Since the current government was elected in 2015, there have been numerous changes made to Danish immigration policy. Currently, if you are from a country where the situation is such that you require protection just by virtue of being from that country - due to its inherent volatility - your case does not fall under the UN requirement. Instead, you qualify for refugee status domestically in Denmark. But under this general protected status, your case will be assessed again after a period of time to see if you still warrant protection. With this status, individuals do not have the right to apply for family reunification for three years.

Wait for family

In November 2017, the Danish Supreme Court upheld a decision by a lower court that there had been no violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights in the case of a Syrian man with temporary general protection status who had to wait three years for family reunification with his spouse. The ruling also found that there had been no infringement of the prohibition against discrimination under Article 14.

Acquiring permanent residence status in Denmark is complex. In certain circumstances it can be achieved after four years, but in reality it normally takes closer to eight years.

The work requirement for the post-four year application ensures that it is very unlikely a refugee would qualify, stipulating as it does that applicants must have been either self-employed or a full-time employee for a minimum of four years within the last four years and six months. This would mean the newcomer had been working legally almost since arrival.

The usual requirement for permanent residence status, which is somewhat more realistic for refugees, is that a person must be legally living in Denmark for at least eight years before they apply to be a permanent resident.

Under the post-eight year application, individuals must have held full-time employment for at least three years and six months within the last four years.