Jailed Danish politician exemplifies growing anti-refugee populism

Dec 19, 2021
Refugees welcome rally
Something in Australia's immigration detention policies must change. (Flickr/Ilias Bartolini)

Denmark’s former immigration minister has been jailed for separating refugee couples — but her actions did not lack parliamentary approval.

It’s not the sort of thing you encounter regularly. A member of a government cabinet, responsible for arguably one of the country’s most important portfolios, found both wanting and culpable for their actions after leaving their post. But this is what former Danish immigration minister Inger Støjberg found when she was convicted of illegally separating asylum-seeking couples arriving in the country.

A Danish court of impeachment, in finding the former minister guilty of intentionally neglecting her duties under the Ministerial Responsibility Act, sentenced her to 60 days in prison. Of the 26 members of the court, only one found for Støjberg. It was only the third time since 1910 that a Danish politician had been referred to the impeachment court. The last was in 1993, when former Conservative justice minister Erik Ninn-Hansen faced proceedings for illegally halting the family reunification of Tamil refugees in 1987 and 1988.

The proceedings centred on an order that Støjberg issued in 2016 which directed that if a member of a married couple was underage, they should be separated and housed in separate centres. This was irrespective of whether they had children. At the time Støjberg argued that the measure was necessary to protect “child brides”. “They have to be separated,” the then minister told the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, “because I will not accept that in my system there could be examples of coercion.”

Twenty-three couples were mandatorily separated by the Danish Immigration Service without an individual examination of their circumstances. One couple, a 17-year-old pregnant woman and her 26-year-old husband, filed a complaint with the Danish Parliament’s ombudsman, who found the separation to be illegal. The impeachment court also found the policy to be unlawful and a breach of European human rights law as the arrangement did not include exceptions or individual assessments by the immigration service.

Ministers tend to find such intrusions by the law into their discretionary powers disconcerting: Were executive power to be curtailed by such legal actions, firm and fearless decisions would be hard to make. When the trial commenced, Støjberg was confident that the court would see good sense: “I know exactly what I said and did. That is why we are seeking an acquittal.” So confident was she of the outcome that the conviction came as something of a shock: “It’s the only scenario I had not prepared for because I thought it was completely unrealistic.”

Støjberg was quick on the draw regarding the principles she followed in making her decision. “I think it wasn’t just me that lost today, it was Danish values that lost today.” (Every political figure found fouling the law is bound to hide behind a set of values.) If, she said, she “had had to live with the fact that I had not protected these girls – that would actually have been worse than this”.

The values game is always precarious and immigration ministers claiming to protect the vulnerable are rarely trustworthy. Scratch the surface and you are bound to find a sadistic reactionary. For Støjberg, it meant adopting a stance against the swarthy hordes seeking sanctuary in Europe’s bosom that populist, anti-immigration figures found attractive. Between 2015 and 2019 she served in a centre-right government bolstered by the support of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party and presided over 110 amendments restricting the rights of foreigners. Memorably crass, she celebrated the passage of the 50th restriction on immigration with a cake.

Among those measures was the “jewellery law”, a stipulation that asylum seekers surrender their jewellery and cash above 10,000 kroner ($2100) to help fund their stay in Denmark. The Ministry of Immigration guidelines made modest concessions: wedding rings or engagement rings were to be left untouched, although individual officers could determine what sentimental value was attached to others.

Like her counterparts in other countries, Støjberg sought to place unwanted and undesirable arrivals on a remote island – Lindholm – a plan that raised eyebrows in the United Nations. While the facility was intended for the detention of foreign nationals convicted of crimes and set for deportation, UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned about “the negative impact of such policies in isolation, and (they) should not replicate these policies. Because depriving them of their liberty, isolating them, and stigmatising them will only increase their vulnerability.”

Støjberg, self-proclaimed protector of child brides, was merely contemptuous of such concerns. “I’m quite impressed that you can sit in New York and comment on a deportation centre when not a single shovel has yet touched the ground, and when we have clearly said that we will stay within the conventions we are signed up to.”

The modern immigration minister has become a plainclothes member of the police force. Suspicion is preferable over charity. Judgment comes before understanding. Separating families and tormenting parents and children are not infrequent. But in all fairness to Støjberg, her measures did not lack parliamentary approval or degrees of public support. Not only was she encouraging cruelty, she also was being encouraged to be cruel.

Indeed, Denmark’s harsh refugee policy is being further developed under the guidance of the centre-left Social Democrats, who have adopted some of the world’s harshest refugee policies. Recently, an agreement barring foreigners with suspended sentences from ever becoming Danish citizens was struck by the government with right-wing parties.

In June, Parliament gave the government a mandate to establish an internment camp system outside European borders to process asylum claims. “If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people stop seeking asylum in Denmark,” warned government spokesman Rasmus Stoklund.

The smug view expressed by such papers as Politiken, that no minister is above the law, ignores the point that Støjberg became a poster girl for reaction, a model emulated rather than dismissed. Had she tinkered more with her “child brides” order, conditioning it with less severity, she may never have faced court.

Immigration ministers in other countries should take note but the lessons of this case are unlikely to be learned in Australia, where immigration officials act with brutal impunity confident that their callous decisions are unlikely to ever face judicial eyes. No Australian immigration minister has faced proceedings for culpability in returning people to lands they have fled, only to endure torture, persecution and disappearance. Or for ruining the mental health of asylum seekers locked in indefinite captivity in a subsided Pacific concentration camp. They have set the standard, and countries like Denmark have been inspired. Støjberg might well count herself unlucky.

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