The Guardian view on asylum in Europe: the closing north

 | Editorial

The comment was chilling and memorable, but it came not from Saga Norén or Sarah Lund, but a real-life Scandinavian police officer. Commenting on the closing of Scandinavian borders against refugees, Michael Hansen, a policeman at the central railway station in Copenhagen, told a Swedish newspaper that if he were ordered to pull the gold teeth from the mouths of refugees he’d do it. As a policeman, he said, he could only follow the law. It is not – yet – the law that Danish policemen should do that, although the Danish government is considering a law that would confiscate all the valuables that a refugee brings into the country to help pay the costs of granting them asylum. But Mr Hansen’s cheery boast shows just how far the discussion has moved from last summer’s Europe-wide flood of generosity towards the Syrian refugees. It also suggests, sadly, the direction of future travel. Although there remain millions of people across the continent who are happy to welcome those fleeing war and persecution, as the success of the Guardian’s Christmas appeal shows, the main line of political calculation has swung towards brutality.

The Danes have always been less well disposed towards immigrants than their Swedish neighbours, and the hardening Danish line is to some extent only a reaction to the turnaround in Swedish policy towards refugees that came into force on Sunday morning with the introduction of ID checks for everyone entering Sweden from Denmark. The bridge over the Öresund – that televised Scandi-noir icon – which had been a symbol of the borderless peace and prosperity between Denmark and Sweden is now a place of checkpoints and divisions. This has more than symbolic effect. What had been a commute as quick and painless as any in Europe now takes twice as long or more.

The Swedish measure is aimed at bringing down the number of refugees dramatically: last year, Sweden received 163,000 applications for asylum, compared with 20,000 in Denmark. Both countries are still far more hospitable to refugees than Britain, which, with a population more than 10 times that of Denmark, received only 33,000 applications last year. But Sweden and Denmark have now followed the British example of imposing harsh controls, with the intent of discouraging people from even reaching their border. This is a competitive game and it has no obvious end in sight. Finland has already imposed controls on ferries from Germany. Now the Danes, too, have imposed controls on the German frontier. Under the twin strains of refugee traffic and terrorism the Schengen agreement has almost expired – and Mr Hansen stands ready to pull teeth.



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