Opinion | Venstre shamefully ignores the facts about asylum

What does it say about Denmark’s biggest party when they manufacture their own reality and hold persecuted migrants hostage in order to fish for votes?

Are asylum seekers flocking to Denmark because of the government’s policies? If it were true, there are no facts to support it. But that has not stopped Denmark’s biggest party Venstre from repeatedly blaming new government policieswhich were introduced to make the lives of some asylum seekers more hospitable, for the rising number of asylum seekers.

It’s highly disappointing, but not surprising, that Venstre would choose to ignore the facts in order to manufacture a truth that conveniently fits an ideology. This is, after all, a party that spent its ten years in power until 2011 repeatedly tightened immigration regulations. So while the party’s anti-immigration credentials are already well-known, what is shocking is how far from reality it is willing to go to make the point.

The situation casts a shadow over the party that is likely to lead the next government. If they are willing to ignore any rational analysis that disproves their intuition, can they really be trusted to run the country?

The facts

My argument rests on two main facts:

1) The centre-left coalition changed immigration law when they took power in 2011, easing the conditions for family reunification, raising the level of benefits that migrants can claim after arriving in Denmark, and allowing asylum seekers the right to live and work outside asylum centres after six months in the country, as long as they agree to help with their repatriation.

2) The number of asylum seekers has steadily risen since the current government took power. In 2011 there were 3,806 asylum applicants, in 2012 there were 6,184 and in 2013 there are expected to be more than 7,000 – the highest number in a decade.

In a series of articles published over the past month, Venstre has attempted to connect (1) with (2). In the latest article, published in Berlingske newspaper on June 9, immigration spokesperson for Venstre, Inger Støjberg, said the following:

“More asylum seekers are coming to Denmark. These are not necessarily people who are persecuted but people who are trying their luck. You can’t discount the idea that asylum seekers from Somalia, for example, would head to Denmark because the conditions are better here than in other countries.”

She added: “We are a magnet for asylum seekers from all over the world.”

In a nutshell, Støjberg is suggesting that marginal changes to the way asylum seekers are treated while they wait for their claim to be processed is responsible for more asylum seekers finding their way to Denmark.

But there are two major problems in Støjberg’s analysis. Firstly, the increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria has led to a rise in asylum numbers all across Europe, not just Denmark. According to UN figures released yesterday, these conflicts significantly contributed to the 45.2 million people who have been internally displaced around the world. This is the highest figure in 18 years.

Secondly, the current government has not changed the rules for being granted asylum. It is no easier now to gain asylum now than under the previous government. In 2012, 40 percent of applicants were successful whereas the success rate fluctuated between 36 and 60 percent between 2006 and 2011, when the formed Venstre-led government was in office.

And, if Støjberg is worried about migrants using the asylum system as a backdoor for migration, she shouldn’t be. The recent influx of Serbian Roma asylum seekers clearly indicates that the system can easily identify manifestly unfounded asylum applicants and swiftly return them home.

The fact is that Venstre has no facts to back up its claim that the government is responsible for the rising number of asylum seekers. When I first reported this story in May, I asked Venstre to provide me with the evidence, but they couldn’t. I suspect this is because they haven’t carried out detailed studies into the motivations of asylum seekers and refugees, or were unable to document how marginal changes to asylum regulations have encouraged migrants to seek asylum here rather than Germany or Sweden. If they have such data, I welcome them to publish it.

The experts disagree with them, at any rate. The Red Cross in Denmark and the Danish Refugee Council have both dismissed Venstre’s claim as groundless. Eva Singer, head of asylum at the Danish Refugee Council, told The Copenhagen Post in May that asylum seekers – “are sometimes en route from their home countries for many years and many of them don’t know where they are going to end up. So these are small details in their quest to obtain protection”.

Correlation vs causation

But let’s be generous and assume that maybe Venstre simply made the not-so-uncommon error in confusing the concepts of correlation and causation.

For example, there is a correlation between changes to asylum practice and a rise in immigration numbers – changes took place and asylum numbers rose. At first sight there seems to be a logical connection. But simply because they are correlated, because one followed the other, it does not mean that one caused the other. They need to prove the causal link.

To give another example, the number of pirates declined as carbon dioxide levels started to rise. But while the two are correlated, it’s not true that one caused the other – global warming did not kill pirates and the dropping popularity of piracy as a profession did not lead cause an increase in CO2 emissions.

Venstre simply cannot prove a causal link and should not pretend that there is one. They are simply speculating that Denmark’s reputation as a more caring provider for asylum seekers has seeped its way back into war-torn regions of the world and encouraged migrants to pay smugglers a small fortune to help them travel the thousands of kilometres to Denmark, and not other equally peaceful Western states, to seek asylum.

Wilful ignorance and a return to the dark ages

I have two problems with Venstre’s speculation. The first is that the party polling at a third of the national vote thinks it can blame the government for a phenomenon based on a hunch and completely disregard all evidence to the contrary. In fact, the evidence threshold used to arrive at their position was so dangerously low that one can only wonder whether they actually take their jobs seriously and scrutinise policy as they are employed to.

The second is what the story infers about their view on asylum seekers, namely that they are an undesirable burden and that measures should be put in place to make Denmark as unattractive to seek asylum as possible. It’s true that the asylum system does place burdens on the state. The economic cost of Denmark’s asylum system has risen significantly from 460 million kroner in 2008 to 1.2 billion kroner in 2012, while some asylum seekers have also been known to abuse their position to commit crime  last December residents at Sandholm asylum centre had to be split up after revelations that it was being used as a base for drug dealing operations.

But these challenges should be dealt with through an informed debate about how Denmark should use its role as a wealthy and stable country to help the millions of people around the world who face persecution. Instead of regarding the asylum system as a troubled but necessary system that has offered thousands of persecuted people refuge, and which Denmark should be proud of, Venstre seems to suggest that it ought to be limited at all costs.

Støjberg is not unintelligent and the only explanation for her wilful oversight of the facts is that her party is tapping into anti-immigration sentiment in order to draw more voters to the centre-right parties ahead of the next election. Immigrants and asylum seekers have again become objectified in the battle to win votes from those who worry that a few thousand asylum seekers present a fundamental threat to Denmark’s autonomy.

Politicians are keen to point out the past indiscretions of their opponents in order to call their character into question. So I ask, given that Venstre is likely to lead the next government, does this latest incident suggest that Denmark can look forward to a return to the age before reason, and a time when leaders acted without account to the citizens they were supposed to serve?

The author is a journalist for The Copenhagen Post.