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As Sweden offers shelter, Denmark tries to discourage refugees

September 4, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
Two Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden and Denmark, are handling the European migrant crisis in vastly different ways. While Sweden has taken in the largest number of refugees in relation to its population of all EU nations, Denmark is implementing policies to discourage asylum seekers. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant explores the two approaches.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A week away from an emergency summit to discuss the refugee crisis, the countries of the European Union remain deeply divided over how to handle it.

Sweden, the nation which has taken in the most refugees in relation to its population size, is calling for every E.U. nation to take its fair share and to be more civilized. But its neighbor Denmark has just introduced new welfare benefit restrictions aimed at discouraging asylum-seekers from heading there.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on the north-south divide in Scandinavia. He begins in Southern Sweden.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Journey’s end. Syrians Khaled al-Habash, in the blue shirt, and Nouri Shkais are relishing their new sanctuary. But Habash is missing his children. He didn’t dare entrust them to the Mediterranean. He hopes Sweden will reunite them safely.

The reception center in a country that regards itself as the world’s conscience is shared by people from Eritrea, sometimes called Africa’s North Korea. Habash can’t comprehend how some Europeans are hostile towards refugees.

KHALED AL-HABASH, Refugee: We are not come here to as tourism. We are coming from wars. And I think who do like that, he must — they must go to Syria and see what happened in Syria. We are — our — my children now under the bombs. I am very — my — they don’t have water for one week, one week without water.

I want — throw us out, throw us out — you must go to Syria and see what happens. We are not tourism here.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Nouri Shkais left Latakia, the hometown of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, to avoid being conscripted into the army. The destination was an easy choice.

NORI SHKAIS, Refugee: In Sweden, you can get a residence permit for a long time and you can get citizenship after four years, unlike — not like Danish.

MALCOLM BRABANT: It wasn’t just war that compelled saxophonist Mohammed Diab to seek refugee in Sweden. In Syria, his homosexuality could mean torture and a brutal death. He’s rehearsing in Copenhagen with his old Damascus band mate, Nour Moura, who was granted asylum in Denmark.

They want to relaunch their careers in Europe. And while they wait, they have the cushion of welfare benefits. But from this week, Moura, the guitarist, will be the poorer of the pair. His benefits will be cut by 45 percent.

NOUR MOURA, Refugee: I’m sad about this decision. I don’t know why. Sweden not make this — and Germany not make this, the government. They want me to work and just I need to work. And this — I make this concert to know the people, to know the artist or musician, to make something with them to work. I don’t know — to sleep.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The center-right minority government introduced the law to dissuade refugees and economic migrants from heading to Denmark. It has the full support of the Danish People’s Party, which came in second in June’s general election.

Martin Henriksen is their integration spokesman and sets the tone for the country’s immigration policy.

MARTIN HENRIKSEN, Danish People’s Party: In the past, we have taken a lot of refugees in Denmark. And we have come to a point where we have to say, enough is enough. We can’t take anymore. We can’t handle this type of immigration crisis. Simply, it’s too heavy a burden on a small country like Denmark. So let’s just step on the brake.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As the new law was being passed in Parliament, 2,000 people protested in a Copenhagen square. Opponents warn the cuts will inflict poverty on newcomers to one of the world’s most expensive societies.

MAN: I’m actually rather ashamed about it, because we didn’t used to be like that. There are lots of people who don’t agree with the government approach to the global problems.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At the Refugee Council, Secretary-General Andreas Kamm despairs at the lack of European solidarity and fears the Danish government’s strategy will be copied by other countries.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANDREAS KAMM, Danish Refugee Council: It will maybe lead to discrimination, to marginalization, to ghettos, whatever. And I’m afraid it will not lead to a positive integration, where people will get work, et cetera, et cetera.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But the new government is considering tightening citizenship qualifications and making it more difficult for refugees to bring their families to Denmark.

Three Syrians are on hunger strike in protest against the family reunification process, among them, 13-year-old Osama Bilal, who left the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus with his uncle after his parents were killed by bombs that also injured three of his eight siblings. Osama says he has been trying for a year to get asylum for the other orphans in his family.

The immigration service won’t comment on individual cases, but acknowledges that there have been some delays over the past year because applications have increased.

OSAMA BILAL, Refugee (through interpreter): If I can’t bring my brothers and sisters here, then I will go back to Syria. I will not stay here without them. A life here without my brothers and sisters is not a life worth living.

MALCOLM BRABANT: If anywhere symbolizes the deep divisions within Europe over the refugee/migrant crisis, it’s this bridge which links Denmark to Sweden. The two countries are diametrically opposed.

Denmark believes that Sweden’s open-door policy is hopelessly naive. The Swedish government declines to publicly criticize Denmark. But it’s quite clear that, in Stockholm, they believe that their southern neighbor is being distinctly uncharitable.

Sweden’s center-left justice minister, Morgan Johansson, is prepared to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees this year, which equates to a 1 percent increase in the population.

MORGAN JOHANSSON, Swedish Minister for Justice and Migration: We can do this, but only if we share the responsibility within Sweden, of course, but also within Europe. And that’s one of the problems, I would say, that in the long run, we cannot have a situation where Sweden and Germany takes half of the responsibility. All countries have to do their share.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But such talk infuriates country and western-loving supporters of the right-wing Sweden Democrat Party. They feel excluded from the immigration debate, look to Denmark for political inspiration, and, according to one opinion poll, are now the most popular single party in Sweden.

WOMAN: I’m very angry. Yes, I am.

QUESTION: Because?

WOMAN: Yes, because you feel powerless, frustration. And I think it’s time people wake up.

MAN: It’s too many people who come to Sweden. And they have no place to live. They have no place to work. And that’s the big problem in Sweden right now.

MAN: Society will break up. We will not have cohesion between the different groups in this society. So there will be a split in the society, which can — it can turn out in terrible, terrible political consequences.

MAN: In this country, you only need to say I support the Sweden Democrats. Everybody says, oh, you’re a racist, you support Hitler and everything. You like the Holocaust, just because you support the Sweden Democrats. And that’s wrong. It’s a very big difference between Nazis and patriotism.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Party leader Jimmie Akesson is a divisive figure in Swedish politics and requires strict security because of his outspoken views on immigration.

JIMMIE AKESSON, Leader, Sweden Democrats (through interpreter): The government is raising taxes by $7 billion, $7 billion. Denmark, which is just a few hours from here in that direction, has far more reality-based politics. In Denmark they have a completely different level of immigration. And in Denmark, they are now choosing to lower benefits for non-citizens. In Denmark, they are succeeding with what it is claimed is impossible to do in Sweden.

MALCOLM BRABANT: There are more extreme forces at work across Scandinavia. These Swedish right-wingers marched on a refugee center after a rejected Eritrean asylum-seeker was accused of stabbing two Swedes to death in an Ikea furniture store.

And in western Denmark late last month, an asylum-seeker took this video in the car park of his hostel as it was vandalized and attacked. Growing reluctance of refugees to head to Denmark means this reception center will close soon.

But new arrival Moheddin Hajazieh is relieved to be here. He left Syria to escape being conscripted into President Assad’s army and dreams of opening a barber’s shop.

MOHEDDIN HAJAZIEH, Refugee: I will try to trust them what this country gives me. Like, if they give me I.D., or nationality or anything, I don’t know, I will try to make good with this country. It’s my new country. Maybe I will be a Denmarki.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At the protest rally, other Syrian asylum-seekers demonstrated their gratitude. Like Sweden and other European countries, they want Denmark to be more hospitable, but it’s doubtful there will be any compromise in this corner of Scandinavia.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Copenhagen.

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