Denmark's ruling liberal Venstre party plans to start an ad campaign in international newspapers designed to keep refugees away from its shores. Speaking with DW, Venstre lawmaker Marcus Knuth defended the idea.
DW: Mr. Knuth, what does your party aim to achieve with this campaign?
Marcus Knuth: We want to send a clear message to human traffickers. We believe that they have very detailed information as to which European countries pay the highest levels of social welfare assistance to new arrivals. Since the liberal government has been in power we have cut welfare payments to immigrants in order to relieve the extremely heavy burden that illegal immigrants are placing on the Danish state.
You have also resumed controls on the German border. Have you seen results from these two steps?
As far as the border controls are concerned, I have no information that they have dramatically changed the situation, even though there has been much discussion about the move. But interestingly, since cutting social welfare payments [in early July], the number of immigrants arriving went down by a third, although it's still too early to know for sure whether the cuts were the reason for that.
So you think that word has spread quickly?
Absolutely. A very high number of refugees do not apply for asylum in the first EU country that they reach, such as Greece or Italy, but rather much further north. Through our meetings with the European border security agency Frontex, we've learned that the main reason for this is the much higher level of social welfare benefits paid out in northern European countries. Therefore, we have reduced such payments to the same level as those received by full-time students, which is still enough to live on, even if you have children.
A chart comparing social welfare benefits offered to asylum seekers by various European countries, among them Denmark and Germany, was recently published in the "Jyllands-Posten" newspaper and is supposedly making the rounds among human traffickers. Did that chart directly influence your decision?
The Frontex annual report was more important for us. The comparison chart was published after we had decided to make the policy changes. But we view the chart as one of a series of indications that show that social welfare benefits are one of the most important reasons for smuggling people into very specific countries.
Critics, however, say: "We are nevertheless in Europe, and no matter what individual countries may do, Denmark has a responsibility to protect people that need protection." What's your response?
Firstly, Denmark is on the front lines wherever people need help, for instance in Syria, where we operate one of the most comprehensive aid programs. As an aside: I led the Syrian aid program last year and saw firsthand how much more we do there than many other European countries. As far as those people who come to Denmark, every one of them is very well looked after. However, we find it unnecessary that our social welfare benefits be so much higher than many of the other European countries.
The Danish People's Party has suggested that the government produce a video similar to the one produced recently by the Australian government, in which it is clearly stated that anyone who enters the country illegally will never be able to remain there. What are your thoughts on that?
(laughs) Not if it's up to the liberal party. We want our campaign to be objective. We have no intention of fear mongering, like in the Australian campaign. We simply want to show people the numbers, and that Denmark has cut its social welfare benefits by about half. We think it's unfair, for instance, that when it comes to asylum seekers from Syria alone, Denmark took in some 7,000 last year, whereas Finland, a comparable country, only took in 150. That's why our voters keep telling us that we simply cannot deal with such large numbers of immigrants.
Your minister for integration, Inger Stöjberg, who wants to initiate the newspaper campaign, has the word integration in her job title. What does integration mean to you? Do you think that the entire integration project itself may be threatened by the large numbers of refugees?
Yes, we think so. But that's why we not only cut our benefit payments, but also added a bonus of roughly 200 euro ($220) per month for those who quickly learn Danish. And we will also add a number of other measures designed to get people into the workforce as swiftly as possible. Because one of the drawbacks of the earlier high welfare benefits payments was not only that Denmark was so attractive for refugees, but also that there were no real incentives to look for employment, because it wasn't really necessary. Therefore, integration is a cornerstone of our new policy.
Would you say that religion in general, and specifically Islam, is a hindrance to integration?
(sighs) I wouldn't put it that way. The main reason that we are trying to decrease immigration numbers at the moment is a lack of capacity. Our mayors all say that they simply do not have any more empty schools or pensioners' homes. Some municipalities are even beginning to build artificial villages. Of course, that also puts a financial strain on communities.
Marcus Knuth is a representative of the liberal Venstre party of Denmark.