Impressions from #FLYGT2016 Conference at Christiansborg

After more than 16 years in Denmark, 17 May 2016 was the first time that I stepped foot inside the Danish Parliament, Christiansborg.

I took part in the #FLYGT2016 conference organized by the University of Copenhagen. The presenters were researchers from the dry faculties of university (Law, Social Science, Theology and the Humanities), high ranking politicians (including the infamous Minister for Immigration, Integration and Housing, Inge Støjberg and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kristian Jensen), and voices from the EU (including the principal advisor for the European Commissions General Directorate for Research and Innovation and Head of the EU Migration Task Force, Octavi Quintana-Trias).

The goal of the conference, as I understand it, was to encourage the use of academia to better inform policy decision-making in the handling of the so-called refugee crisis. The three streams presented and debated were the asylum seekers in Europe and the response and reactions of European states; the asylum seeker and refugee situation in Denmark with regard to labour market integration; and Denmark’s engagement in conflict zones in the Middle East.

I have little knowledge of the Middle East and so confine myself to the discussions on Denmark and the EU.

With my social scientist glasses on, I found the conference both educational and disappointing. The main positive thing I learned was that the EU has not been as passive as I had thought: we were informed that there have never been as many ‘top meetings’ in their history, and the challenge with the ‘refugee crisis’ has been getting co-operation, nevermind consensus and solidarity, from the Member States. The disappointments were that, as Jakob Skovgaard Petersen suggested, there was next to no discussion of the social and cultural challenges facing the current wave of asylum seekers, arriving in Europe: their integration is not only about labour market participation, which was a dominant point of discussion throughout the morning. Furthermore, I had the feeling that the politicians were passive recipients of the wealth of knowledge and evidence that was presented to them.

I continue with some of the major issues raised be a selection of speakers.

Martin Lemberg-Pedersen stated that perhaps EU Member States do not fully understand what the consequences are of their restrictive border policies and criminalisation of seeking protection are. He drew our attention to the atrocities that are happening in the refugee camps in Libya, and suggested that in the future we will discover mass graves in the desert full of the very asylum seekers that we closed our doors to. I agree that this is likely to happen, but I fear that nobody will be held accountable. I also disagree that the Member States do not understand what the consequences are of their actions, as people (in Denmark at least) are being prosecuted for saving lives.

Rebecca Adler-Nissen highlighted that this is not a crisis for the EU – it is a humanitarian crisis. I agree, yet the media and the way the situation is being discussed continues to frame it as such. As Octavi Quintana-Trias pointed out, in the EU, we are only talking about caring for what is equal to 0.3% of the EU population, so what is the problem? He stated that policy is being made based on perception rather than scientific evidence which is why research needs to play a greater role. His statements are backed up by a recent article in Der Spiegel International, which shows convincingly that the impression of ‘unprecedented mass migration’ that the refugee debate is creating is ‘completely incorrect’.

Inge Støjberg’s opening comment was that we are now at a stage where information does not cost anything; her point being that all asylum seekers have perfect access to information and therefore target countries like Denmark which has a strong welfare state that they can rely on. She opened with defence; defence of her party’s questionable tactics to deter asylum seekers from trying to reach Denmark. This opening statement was somewhat ironic. A Google search of ‘internet users worldwide’ reveals that only approximately 40% of the world population uses the internet (and according to one estimate 3.7% of people in the Middle East and 9% in Africa). Furthermore, if we look at the richer countries, namely those in the OECD, the figures range from over 90% in Korea and Northern Europe, to under 60% in Italy and Greece, and even less than 40% in Mexico. The remainder of Støjberg’s presentation highlighted the measures the government is taking to integrate residents with refugee backgrounds into the labour market.

Søren Kaj Andersen emphasized that it is those with more resources who are able to flee war zones. As such ‘our’ snobbery as to whether their qualifications match ‘our’ standards is somewhat irrelevant. Furthermore, pushing refugees into low-skilled positions is not a sustainable strategy for labour market participation, as in the future there will be a significant excess of low-skilled workers. There are other ways into the labour market, and Andersen points to the importance of networking as a strategy in Denmark. Thank you Søren. Networking is so powerful in Denmark that many foreigners liken it to what is labelled as nepotism in other countries. Networking is one of the important aspects of the work that numerous volunteer organizations and movements are doing in Denmark currently.

Jens Elo Rytter spoke vehemently about the strategy the current government is taking to ‘deter’ asylum seekers from coming to Denmark. He stated that “violating human rights is not a method that should be used to limit the influx”; that this strategy creates a parallel society and that civil society need to fight for human rights. And there are many in civil society in Denmark who agree. Unfortunately, the latest tactic of government is to personally attack individuals who make a noise and get their voice heard in the mainstream media, as we have seen in the case of Anne-Lise Maarstrand Jørgensen who dared to comment on the treatment of the residents of Haderslev refugee camp.

Brian Arly Jacobsen thankfully commented on the inflammatory nature of the rhetoric used in the public political debates on refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark, and the psychological impact these words have on the resident population and the newcomers. He raised important questions as to how such a discourse impacts the reception the new arrivals have and their possibilities for ‘successful’ integration.

Other important issues raised included the tendency we are seeing of states trying to get out of international conventions rather than encourage and support them; our willingness and (lack of ) engagement in cross-border social solidarity; the changing nature of war, i.e. that wars are no longer won or lost, and that ‘Victory’ is no longer an outcome; the worrying current global trend of xenophobia; and the need to discuss the protection of minorities rather than the advocacy of (the ‘Western’ idea of) democracy in the Middle East.

Thank you to the organizers and participants of #FLYGT2016 for taking the discussion to Christiansborg.

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