European Deterrence Politics and the End of Humanitarianism

The refugee policy of EU has revealed fundamental problems, and the Danish government played an active role in creating them – analysis from one of Denmark's leading researchers

Photo: Brian Esbensen; Hungarian border summer of 2015

The Danish elections of June 2015

Following a tight election victory – secured by a single mandate - the power of Danish government shifted in June 2015 from an alliance between Socialdemocrats and Socialliberals to a minority government consisting solely of the Liberal Party, but supported by the Conservatives, Liberal Alliance and Danish Peoples Party. 

In some ways, this minority government reflected the reverse of the election result: The Liberal Party had a historically poor election, losing 12 mandates, while Danish Peoples Party and its head, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, had a historically good vote, winning roughly the same amount of mandates. And the Socialdemocrats, who lost the prime ministry, actually won a few mandates. But in terms of the ensuing policy-making, it was clear that the real winner was Danish Peoples Party, now the country’s second-largest party after the Socialdemocrats, as the Liberal government’s immediately turned its focus to anti-immigration policies.

A series of policies were quickly implemented, intended to meet the main campaign promise of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen: A drastic fall in the number of asylum seekers coming to Denmark. To bring about this situation, the government introduced massive cuts in the social welfare paid to refugees (called the “integration benefit”) and in the allowances paid to asylum seekers. Further initiatives included advertisements in Libanese and Turkish newspapers giving refugees the impression that their conditions would be hard in Denmark.

Then, in November, a second law package was introduced (L87), which included 31 further restrictions; 3-years delay for family reunification for Syrian war refugees, the forced move of families and refugee children back into asylum centres, and the construction of several tent camps for asylum seekers. The November package also gained notoriety via the idea of confiscating valuables from refugees upon their arrival at the border. 

Both law packages were based upon the same rationale: That worsened conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in Denmark would send signals to other people to seek protection elsewhere than in Denmark. The common ground for these policies was thus a logic of deterrence towards arriving refugees, and a logic of deflection towards neighbouring countries.  

Deterrence as neoclassical reception policy

Viewed as a national policy of reception, the deterrence logic is based on a neoclassical economic mind-set in two ways: Firstly, since it is based on the well-known assumption of economic incentive: If refugees become poorer, they will be more motivated to find jobs. Secondly, the very same policy also accords with the deterrence logic in so far as it views the migration process as a model of push- and pull-factors: War or poverty work as push-factors; protection or welfare benefits work as a pull-factors. Consequently, this simplistic logic goes, by lowering the standards of the Danish asylum and integration systems, states can scare off refugees. In other words; by combining these two neoclassical understandings of asylum and integration politics, the Danish Liberal government believes that it can both scare off and better integrate refugees via one and the same policy; cutting refugees’ benefits in half.

Only, the dynamics of refugees and integration politics are not as simple as the neoclassical assumptions would have it. For one thing, scientific investigations, by the Danish Economic Councils, of a similar Danish cut to refugee benefits, “the starthelp”, which was introduced in 2003, and dismantled by the incumbent Socialdemocratic/Socialliberal government in 2011, found that while it did help 6% in finding a job faster than those on normal cash benefits, it also pushed the remaining vast majority of refugees, and in particular women, even further away from the labour market, and deeper into poverty. Contrary to massive job creation via incentives for all refugees, then, the integration benefit’s precedent, the starthelp, was in fact found to create barriers for integration of refugee children to participate in civil society activities and for this reason too argued to be counterproductive to the goal of integration.

Criticism of the Danish push-pull rationale

Critics also pointed out that it is highly questionable whether welfare benefits actually constitute an overriding pull-factor for the vast majority of refugees. On the one hand, independent experts and organizations like Danish Refugee Council and the UNHCR pointed out that major systemic factors, like the historic Syrian crisis, overburdened regions of origin or a dysfunctional EU reception are much more likely to impact the volume of asylum seekers to countries like Denmark, than the implementation of deterrence policies. On the other hand, British and Norwegian research on refugees’ choice of destination countries does not confirm a statistically significant causal relationship between benefits and choices, but suggests instead that other reasons matter more for refugees, such as existing social networks, safety, democracy and future prospects for family life, in so far that refugees actually have an option to chose destinations, which many people do not. Also, it has been pointed out, the push-pull argument for refugee benefits cannot explain why, if benefits matter that much, around 90% of the world’s refugees do not travel to states with high benefits and higher protection standards, but instead choose to remain in their regions of origin. 

Indeed, the very same dynamic was also the case for most of the Syrian refugees during 2015: While 7,6 million were displaced within Syria, around 4 million remained in the country’s neighbouring regions, displaced in Libanon (1 million), Jordan (600.000) and Turkey (2,5 million). By September 2015, only around 250.000 had reached Europe. Most of these had in fact already chosen to remain in Syria’s regions of origin, but this choice was undermined by the lacking will of wealthy states to donate sufficient support to UN mechanisms, such as the World Food Programme. Between 2013-2015 the average monthly support to Syrian refugees in the Libanon, Jordan and Turkey fell from $34 to $10. By September 2015, 400.000 refugees in Jordan lost all access to aid, which reinforced the boat-refugee outflux from the Western Turkish coastline to the Greek islands. This tendency seems to continue: At the London donor conference in February 2016, the participating countries managed to find €6 billion to allocate here-and-now – but the necessary minimum pleaded for by the UNHCR was €8-9 billion. 

Besides these serious international problems, the insistence on across-the-board implementation of the deterrence logic also generates domestic issues. In effect, the policy conflates of the political spheres of asylum and integration. Hence, the lowering of benefits for admitted refugees in order to scare off prospective asylum seekers is an apt example of how a tool for integration is used for a distinct goal of asylum policy. This fact is also what made diverse stakeholders to the integration process, like the Institute for Human Rights, Danish Social Worker Association and Save the Child, protest the new legislation. They argued that a predictable consequence would be the impoverishment of refugees and their children, their loss of social networks and their disproportionate rise in health risk- and crime-statistics. Adding to this, the association of municipalities in Denmark, further complained that the lowered benefits meant that not only would new refugees not be able to afford available housing; the retroactive nature of the legislation would also mean that tens of thousands of refugees who already had been settled in houses, would no longer be able to afford them, and effectively be forced to move again, which of course also means moving their children to new schools. 

These actors therefore argued that recent experiences showed how the deterrence policy can generate massive socioeconomic barriers for integration efforts, and more generally, that the conflation of restrictive asylum politics with politics of integration therefore would be counterproductive both for humanitarian protection, but also for sustainable integration efforts. As is known, the government ignored these warnings, and the socioeconomic price of its desire to send deterrence signals to potential refugees has therefore been the creation, and not the prevention, of so-called parallel societies, with the accompanying increased risk of gender bias in employment policy, social stigmatisation and radicalisation of vulnerable youth.

The dismantling of protection and integration policies

Such critique is, however, not likely to affect a view that argues against any integration of refugees, and which finds that asylum systems, meant to offer refugees protection as they are, in themselves constitutes an undesirable pull-effect to be closed down. And this is in fact the position held by Danish Peoples Party, who has proposed that Denmark should not try to integrate refugees, but rather place these in geographically isolated camps for years until they can be deported. In the meantime, the Party holds, no interaction must takes place between the refugees and the surrounding society. From the perspective of Danish Peoples Party, then, there is nothing to prevent any government from using the continued lowering of asylum and integration standards in order to deter refugees from Denmark. After the 2015 elections, large parts of the Danish political establishment, including the Liberals, Conservatives, Liberal Alliance, but notably also the single largest opposition party, the Socialdemocrats, have followed the this logic, and in the process shifted from viewing asylum and integration policy as a tool for protection, to seeing it as a legitimate instrument of deterrence.

There are significant moral implications with this political process: During and after the election campaign, the Liberal and Danish Peoples Parties explicitly argued that the various deterrence policies were intended to send signals to future asylum seekers. But this justification is remarkable for its instrumentality as it assumes it both morally and politically legitimate for a state to deliberately lower the life conditions of some people as a means send signals to others. And not only that, the lowered conditions have to be so significant that they can actually be used to produce such signals. Finally, in the case of the integration benefit, those targeted for such worsened conditions are the very people that the Danish state does in fact recognized as genuine refugees, that is, as a specially vulnerable ad persecuted group of people, who is therefore needing and deserving protection.

Deterrence as dysfunctional migration management

Viewed as a policy of migration management, the deterrence logic turns into its international mirror-image, namely a deflection rationale that aims at passing the responsibility for receiving refugees onwards to other states. But this is very short-term planning, as it does not take into account how other countries react to the deflection. Accordingly, this narrow temporal horizon can help explain not only several other policies implemented by the Danish Liberal government, but also how the EU as a collective has created massive problems for its own refugee policy.

For instance, the Danish November-decision to construct tent camps for asylum seekers was based on a bureaucratic comparison with the conditions for asylum seekers in Denmark’s neighbouring countries, Germany and Sweden. These countries had clear reasons for building these camps: In 2015, Germany registered 476,649 asylum applications, and Sweden 162.877, which led to a short-term shortage in housing for both countries. By comparison, the Danish decision to build tent camps was not due to a similar volume of arrivals (Denmark received 18.492 asylum applications), and nor by housing shortage (according to Danish Red Cross there were many available places within the existing asylum centres). Instead, the justification given by the Liberal government is to convey the message that the Danish reception standards were no better than the (much criticized) German and Swedish tent camps. The same rationale also guided the infamous law to confiscate refugees’ personal belongings over a certain estimated value.

As 2015 moved on, Denmark was not the only country to speculate in deflection policies as a few other countries, such as Hungary and Austria, introduced policies of their own. The common ground between these countries, was their role as “first mover” in the European race to the bottom of restrictive and deflecting refugee policies, but it is important to remember that the transitchain started earlier – with countries like Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia. However, within the EU-system the aforementioned member-states gained a disproportionately large negative influence on the European efforts to collaborate on the relocation and resettlement of 160.000 refugees internally in Europe.

The countries’ disproportionate influence had to do with their policies, but perhaps more so with their geographical location. Thus, the location of Hungary meant that it was the very first EU country to receive refugees after their trek over the Balkan route. Hence, the explicitly anti-liberal Orban-government was also the first to react by erecting fences, and by letting refugees transit onwards to neighbouring countries. This had massive impact on the prospects of a common-European solution because this dual policy effectively put the neighbouring countries under great pressure. And the more countries succumbed to the transit policy, the greater the arrival influx became to the country at the end of the route. For every country replicating the deflection policy, it became harder and harder for any one country to stand alone with the resulting flow of refugees arriving over a very short period of time.

At the same time, Hungary and other Eastern European countries refused to partake in the relocation pilot, and as Denmark and the United Kingdom also used their opt-outs to the EU-project to openly resist it, it became clear that the authority needed for the EU-pilot was undermined. As in a domino-effect, the deflection dynamic was copied by evermore countries, until the point where only Germany and Sweden kept their humanitarian stances towards Syrian refugees. Consequently, they became the dumping ground for the transit policies of the other EU and non-EU countries. The famous Balkan-route was thus created not by refugees, but by the many states, which were unwilling to receive the refugees, and therefore sent them onwards.

Here, the geographic location of Denmark played a crucial part. Instead of working towards international collaboration – if not within the EU, then within the United Nations – to alleviate the pressure on Germany and Sweden, the new Danish government opted to do the opposite and sped up its deterrence and deflection-policies. As tens of thousands of asylum seekers passed through Denmark and over the Öresunds Bridge into Sweden, the Swedish reception system began to buckle. Using the free movement of Schengen as a pretext not to enforce stringent asylum registration in Denmark, the Liberal Danish government in fact copied the very transit-policies of Italy and Greece, it itself – alongside the Socialdemocrats - had criticized as irresponsible during the election campaign only a few months earlier.

The end of humanitarianism?

In November, the Swedish government approached its Danish counterpart, urging collaboration on an international solution beyond the self-interest of every state. As no Danish policy change followed, the Swedes then imposed registration at all Swedish border crossings. After more Swedish requests for international cooperation in December also went unheeded by the Danes, the Swedish government claimed that its hand had been forced and imposed ID-control and carrier sanctions on its borders to Denmark and Germany on January 4th 2016. Denmark immediately reacted by imposing border control at the Southern border to Germany. Around the same time, Germany also pulled back its decision to admit all Syrian asylum seekers regardless of the Dublin system’s first country of arrival-rule. 

Sweden and Germany seemed to have put their hope in setting good examples, to be followed by the other EU member states. Yet the opposite happened. With a few countries functioning as first movers, the thin European solidarity was quickly unravelled, and more and more countries subscribed to the beggar-thy-neighbour logic in the form of deterrence, deflection and transit-policies. This created a ripple-effect, which increase the influx to the few countries who tried to resist the restrictive policy drive. 

And so, the decisions of Sweden and Germany to go back on several aspects of their humanitarian stances was the result of a massive European inertia laid bare for everyone to see – and exploit. As more and more EU member states started following the deterrence-logic, a fundamental weakness in the unions foreign policy became evermore obvious: de lacking will of individual European governments to receive more refugees created a collective action problem, which meant that the union was incapable of establishing a fair and functional reception system. This in turn exposed the union to pressure from those neighbouring countries, which long had received far more refugees than the European countries. It is in this context that one must view how Erdogan’s Turkish AKP-government allowed smuggling-operations along the country’s western coastline to expand dramatically, leading to historically high numbers of refugee crossing the Aegean Sea, and forced the EU, characterized by internal struggles to avoid refugees, to the negotiation table, granting concessions in the form of economic support to Turkey and a promise of a new visum-agreement with the union. 

This foreign political weakness is not new to the EU, as it also characterised the unions relations with the Libyan Gaddafi-regime, and before that the Morrocan regime. These efforts were widely heralded, but in reality, the union has moved from a “Moroccan solution” over a “Libyan solution” to now a “Turkish solution” – without solving anything. And as the union simultaneously has postponed the construction of a sustainable reception system because national politicians have shied away from defending a premise that there might be periods with more rather than fewer refugees on the domestic scene, the political weakness has been expanded. The historic Syrian refugee crisis, coupled with those in Afghanistan and Iraq, has brought this weakness into the light for all to see.

The EUs attempts to contain refugees in Greece and Turkey, and its historic decision to use the military power of NATO to do so, has made it clear not just that the September plans to relocate and resettle 160.000 people has drowned in the lacking will of European member states. It is also clear that the logic of deterrence is now gnawing at the very foundations of the international system of refugee protection created in response to the tragic failure of European states to accept Jewish refugees during the 1930s and 1940s. As more and more countries replicate the Hungarian and Danish approaches, the contours of a sustainable, fair and humanitarian solution to the historic refugee crisis seems to face the biggest obstacles in several generations. The lessons from the recent European history now seems to be both pushed ever further away, while the ghosts from the same periods are moving frighteningly closer.