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When it comes to refugees, Scandinavia is deeply divided

Migrants, mainly from Syria and Iraq, walk at the E45 freeway from Padborg, on the Danish-German border, heading north to try to get to Sweden on September 9, 2015. The migrants arrived in Denmark on Wednesday morning on a train from Germany and were placed at a school from which they fled.
Migrants, mainly from Syria and Iraq, walk at the E45 freeway from Padborg, on the Danish-German border, heading north to try to get to Sweden on September 9, 2015. The migrants arrived in Denmark on Wednesday morning on a train from Germany and were placed at a school from which they fled. AFP/Getty Images

To some Americans, Scandinavian countries might all seem basically the same: They lead the world’s rankings, be it in education or health care, and seem to be centers of innovation.

These days, however, northern Europe couldn’t be more divided. What is separating these wealthy nations? The question of how to deal with refugees.

Sweden has so far taken in the most refugees per capita among all European nations. Meanwhile, in neighboring Denmark, authorities have taken the opposite approach. They placed an ad in Lebanese newspapers, carrying an unspoken yet unmistakable message: Don’t come to Denmark. On Wednesday, Denmark stopped all trains connecting the country to continental Europe through Germany for an undetermined time to prevent refugees from being able to cross the border.

Earlier in the week, the Danish newspaper Information published a photo by Sigrid Nygaard of a man spitting on refugees who were passing under a bridge. The image was widely circulated on social media sites. What does this photo represent? Is it the country’s real face?

It certainly isn’t the image most Americans have of peace-loving Scandinavia. And yet, such tensions could hardly surprise close observers of Scandinavian politics.

“Until 2001, Norway, Sweden and Denmark could be seen as a fairly liberal bastion in the north of Europe,” Rune Berglund Steen, the director of the Norwegian Center against Racism, told The Washington Post. Since then, Norway and Denmark have drifted away from Sweden.

“In Denmark and Norway, the political climate has been dominated by right-wing populist parties peddling in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, something Sweden – at least until the recent rise of the Sweden Democrats – has been spared from,” Berglund Steen explained. He said the evolution of the political discourse in those countries has led to different attitudes toward refugees.

Already in 2012, Patrick Kingsley observed in the British Guardian: “Denmark, then, is a tale of two opposing mindsets – one indignant and xenophobic, the other tolerant and communal.” The country’s strengths, which include its strong inter-community relationships, are also partially responsible for its current levels of xenophobia.

“Danes reimagined their society as one defined by togetherness,” Kingsley, who published the book “How to Be Danish,” wrote. Consequently, Denmark has become a highly homogeneous society, making it difficult for some foreigners to assimilate.

After the Liberal Party, which is categorized as center-right, formed a minority government in June, it drastically curtailed refugees’ rights. Denmark continues to isolate itself from the influx of newcomers to Europe and has cut generous benefits to discourage asylum seekers from coming to the nation.

Denmark is hardly the only northern European country opposed to more migrants. In the first half of this year, Norway, Finland and Iceland also took in fewer than 15,000 refugees each – compared to 75,000 who came to Sweden – though Sweden has by far Scandinavia’s biggest population with about 10 million citizens.

Northern European countries are among the world’s richest.

Except for Finland, these countries are extraordinarily wealthy, partially due to oil revenues, which allow them to fund a generous welfare system. Norway’s Government Pension Fund is financed through the country’s surpluses in oil sales and is currently worth about $870 billion, for instance. Norway has the world’s sixth-highest gross domestic product per capita, which means its citizens are among the world’s richest, on average.

But Norway has not done nearly as much as Sweden to help refugees. When some tried to enter the country from the Arctic Circle, crossing the Russian-Norwegian border, the government threatened to charge anyone who helped them with human trafficking.

“These days, a popular conception in Sweden seems to be that Norway is a rather racist country, while a popular conception in Norway is that Sweden is a very naïve country, blind to the supposed hazards of immigration,” Berglund Steen said. “While both views are strongly oversimplified, there is little doubt that sadly, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric generally has had more resonance in Norway.”

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