Refugee crisis: Why Scandinavian countries are trying to look bad

Refugees in Norway battle to find hope
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Story highlights

  • Seeming more unfriendly and closed is the only path open to desperate politicians facing exploding costs
  • Sweden alone expected to receive a colossal 190,000 asylum seekers in 2016
  • Scandinavian countries are attractive prospects due to their generous welfare states

Kasper Fogh is a former policy adviser to the Danish Social Democratic Party and Director of Media Relations for the City of Copenhagen. He currently works as a Communications Director for NGO, The Food Organization of Denmark. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

Copenhagen, Denmark (CNN)Denmark has had its fair share of bad press lately.

In British newspaper The Guardian, an opinion cartoon depicting Danish PM Lars Lokke Rasmussen as a Nazi with a pork fetish was a new low in the press coverage of the small kingdom, which normally attracts praise for its happy people and social equality.
Just days ago, the New York Times deemed a new set of policies relating to refuges "cruel." Elsewhere in Scandinavia the same reversal of policies is taking place -- all designed to reverse the image of the Scandinavian countries as welcoming societies.
Besides the fact that it must be hugely uncomfortable for the Danish premier to appear as a Göring-esque figure, and the fact that Danish business leaders are warning of damage to the nation's brand, it is, however, strangely welcome. Seeming much more unfriendly and closed than other countries is the only path open to desperate politicians facing exploding costs and seemingly insurmountable integration issues. And darker measures may still lie ahead.
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Denmark has been leading this policy of looking bad ever since the country's new government took out ads in Lebanese newspapers warning asylum seekers that welfare benefits to refugees had been cut. Sweden's Social Democrats forced a reversal of its open-border policy this fall, leaving the responsible minister crying on television as the country started signaling that the once "humanitarian super power" couldn't take any more.
Norway too has tightened legislation to deter asylum seekers, creating some of the toughest regulations in Europe. Sweden, Denmark and Norway are among the countries hosting the most refugees per capita in Europe.
Even Denmark, which has been the most "unwelcoming" in terms of its international PR-strategy, received more than 20,000 asylum seekers in 2015, according to its Integration Ministry, while neighbors Sweden expected to receive a colossal 190,000 asylum seekers last year, according to the country's Migration Ministry.

Elaborate welfare states 

Scandinavian countries are in a different situation than most countries. Their elaborate welfare schemes, the ones Bernie Sanders so admires, put the expenses of housing refugees and their families at a much higher level than the societies with more modest welfare schemes. Denmark and Sweden has the highest expenses to refugees measured as a percentage of GDP in Europe.
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Swedish immigration authorities estimate the cost to house and subsidize refugees will be in the region of 60 billion Swedish kroner ($7 billion). This is roughly the same as the cost of its entire health service. So there's a desperation among lawmakers there to work out how to cover the staggering costs of admitting tens of thousands more refugees.
The problem is there's no tool available to control the tidal wave of refugees and migrants. And the expectation is that the exodus will continue for years. Europe's ability to deal with this -- the Dublin Accord stipulating that refugees should be dealt with wherever they arrive in Europe -- has collapsed, creating a human train that stretches right across Europe. Many ultimately seek the generous welfare states of Scandinavia and Germany, where they're guaranteed better conditions. Under the UNHCR refugee accord, asylum seekers are guaranteed the right to seek asylum in a country of their choice.

Less friendly signals

It is in this context that it makes sense for Danes, Swedes and Norwegians to start sending out less welcoming signals to refugees. The Danes have started putting refugees in tents, although it is almost comically difficult to argue that there is no available free housing -- for example, one tented city lies next to an abandoned army facility. 
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And a symbolic piece of new legislature gives the opportunity to remove cash end expensive jewelry from refugees so they contribute to their stay. The New York Times deemed this to be stealing from refugees. But Denmark, like other European countries, has long had in place legislation for ensuring that asylum seekers with independent means pay as much they can of their own expenses. The intention is to deter refugees, communicating through the international press, that Scandinavia is not a land of milk and honey.
Simultaneously the Swedes threatened the deportation of 80,000 asylum seekers, while the Norwegians have started returning refugees to Russia through the polar region, where the two countries share a border. All these measures are designed to deter and create stories of unwelcoming Scandinavians in the media.
The problem is that it isn't really working. The Danish government's most likely conservative projection for 2016 is that a further 25,000 asylum seekers will arrive there.
Scandinavia continues to wait for a European-wide solution to relieve the enormous economic pressure the refugees are putting on its generous welfare states. But if this doesn't happen, and soon, whispers of abandoning the international conventions on refugees will inevitably be heard in the corridors of power across this region.