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© Katryna Mahoney
Paulius Mackéla on the Malmö bound train, following his border control check

Denmark, like much of Europe, has a long history of immigration. Under guest worker schemes in the 1960s to 70s, the government contracted seasonal workers from countries including Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Pakistan, to take up low-skilled jobs (Jørgensen and Thomsen, 2013). The 1980s to 90s witnessed a new migration trend: that of family reunification, as these guest workers settled in Denmark and their families followed. Since the late 1990s, the number of migrants and descendants of migrants have steadily increased and in 1999 Denmark enacted the Act on Integration, a comprehensive – if controversial – policy on migrant integration (Hedetoft, 2006). More recently, Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ has challenged the immigration laws and policies, infrastructures, moral values, as well as ideas of culture and identity in countries across Europe, not least Denmark, where around 18,500 migrants applied for asylum in 2015. In January 2016 it introduced temporary border controls on its German border in response to Sweden’s announcement of checks for all arrivals, which effectively pushed back the Swedish border to Denmark. As Migration Studies students, our recent trip to the two cities on either side of this border, Copenhagen and Malmö, allowed us to explore first-hand part of the migration landscape of Western Europe and to critically examine the very institutions that design and enforce such controversial policies.

‘Work from day one’

Our first port of call was the Ministry of Immigration and Integration in Copenhagen. This ministry is comprised of the Department on Integration, Department on Immigrants, and the Department on Management. Representatives from the Division on Integration Policy spoke with us about the Danish Integration Act[1] and when they opened with an explicit acknowledgement that they are not politicians, rather civil servants implementing policy, perhaps we knew something of what to expect.

They spoke of the Integration Programme as one constituent part of the Integration Act, which puts the labour market at its heart, alongside a language training approach. This programme is more like an individual contract for refugees and reunified family members over the age of 18 who have been granted residency. It functions very much like a reward system where, for example, a bonus is given to the municipality when a migrant enters employment, education, or passes the Danish language exam. Economic incentives ‘as an instrument politically are very important,’ we heard, as the ultimate aim is self-sufficiency. The Act was reformed in 2015 based on the 2016 tripartite agreement between trade unions, employers, and the Danish government, to advocate for a ‘work from day one’ approach where every migrant is considered ‘job ready’.

On the MSc we discuss meanings of ‘integration’ as being socially and culturally inclusive, albeit limiting or problematic in scope; the Danish conceptualisation of integration however takes an economic, labour-oriented approach. The Danish model thus appears to prioritise integration and assimilation over diversity, in which Danish norms and ‘values of democracy, equal rights, and equal rights between men and women’ must be achieved.

The Copenhagen approach

Our next stop was Copenhagen’s Town Hall, where we met with representatives from the City of Copenhagen Municipality, to discuss the role of the municipality and the challenges for refugees. Copenhagen has approximately 600,000 inhabitants, with a growth rate of 10,000 per year. 132,000 (or 22%) of its inhabitants are migrants or descendants of migrants from countries including Turkey, Pakistan, and Iraq. For those who are refugees, once asylum is granted, whether through the UNHCR or as ‘spontaneous’ refugees[2], the municipality is accountable for their integration. At the time of writing, the city of Copenhagen has taken in 167 refugees and anticipates this to rise to 186 by April 2017.

The integration programme we learned about earlier intends for refugees to achieve – with support from the municipality – ‘regular employment, regular education, and self-reliance’ within one year (although an extension for a maximum of five years can be granted). Seven hours per week is committed to job hunting, 15 hours to Danish language training, and another 15 hours for vocational training. The municipality representatives told us that this intense training has proved beneficial, as there is now a waiting list of Copenhagen employers to hire refugees.

We heard about ‘Welcome House’ in the Valby neighbourhood of Copenhagen, which opened in June 2016. Welcome House is part of a larger Welcome Center that consists of two entities: 1) The residence, that temporarily houses up to 125 people until permanent housing is secured (usually in no more than six months) and 2) Welcome House, which is a volunteer centre – an open platform for refugees, volunteers and civil society to meet, create and engage in common activities. In addition to the challenges of navigating the ‘overloaded and expensive’ housing market, accessing education is another difficulty, with more than half of refugees lacking primary or any formal education. Questions we asked about possible discrimination in these areas were negated, however, just as the Immigration and Integration Ministry had glossed over the same topic, countered with claims that Danish language acquisition and financial stability as being vital to integration. It was useful meeting consecutively with the ministry, who gave prominence to the role of municipalities, and with the Copenhagen Municipality itself, who spoke to the demographics and challenges.

‘It was chaos from the beginning’

On the second day we left Denmark, boarding the 8:36 AM train to Malmö, Sweden – the third largest city in Sweden and main point of entry into the country. Upon arrival in Swedish territory (still on board our train, which travels over the Øresund Bridge connecting the two countries) we saw the Swedish border control in action. Several policemen and policewomen came to our carriage and asked to see our passports. They questioned our travel plans: what we were intending to do in Malmö and for how long? When the 24 of us were cleared along with the other passengers, we departed for a discussion about just such checks with representatives of the Swedish police, at Rättscentrum, Malmö’s district court.

‘Suddenly we had the migration problem since September 2015,’ said one of the representatives, ‘everyone is welcome but we have to have papers for that’. Discussing the initial arrival of refugees to Malmö Central Station on 7 September  2015, another said, ‘it was chaos from the beginning’. Their team anticipated that refugees would go to Denmark, Greece, Germany – nearly any country but Sweden – but that day was the first of many more. They described how hundreds of people arrived at the train station and roughly 150 on a daily basis via ferries at the port of Trelleborg. While many people did in fact want to continue to Finland and Norway, Swedish officials enforced the law and demanded that people claim asylum – if not, they were to return to Denmark or be subject to deportation. ‘There was nothing to relate to’ when handling the numbers of refugees, said one of the three representatives, adding that there was initially no order, no water, and no health and safety measures put in place.

A total of 163,000 people arrived in 2015, with 10,000 arriving per week. In mid-November 2015, the Swedish government decided to introduce border controls with neighbouring countries Denmark and Germany. Justifying the action, it was framed as a question of identification: it was important to know ‘Who’s coming to the country? Who’s allowed to stay and so on?’ The following month, in December 2015, the Swedish parliament voted in favour of identification controls, enacted in January 2016. Transport companies complied in ensuring that all passengers had to show proper identification on entering Sweden. These ID controls (different from border controls) essentially pushed the border back to Denmark, thereby restricting people from reaching Swedish territory. In practice this meant that fewer people could claim for asylum in Sweden: in 2015, the police reported 162,877 processed asylum claims, against 28,939 in 2016. As of March 2017, only 4,401 claims had been made.

Ultimately, we were told, the purpose of the implementation of border controls in 2015 (still enforced today, as we saw on our train journey) is to ‘maintain public order and safety’. ‘It wasn’t that they came,’ he added, ‘it was the large size’. That made it challenging to manage, especially as refugees became more susceptible to victims of violence and a growing number of youth went missing[3]. The police representatives acknowledged terrorism as being a concern in the sense of the risks of undocumented people entering the country, some of whom may be involved in planning, or have carried out, acts of terrorism, but concluded that ‘the main thing we have to know is who you are, what you want, so we can make the best situation here’.

Education and social engagement

A representative from NGO Refugees Welcome – one of seven speakers at our convention at Malmö University with master’s students from the International Migration and Ethnic Relations (IMER) programme – countered this depiction of the initial arrival as ‘chaotic’, telling us that the NGO was prepared to welcome people. Thanks to a strong activist network, volunteers knew of the precise arrival time and approximate number of refugees that were to arrive in Malmö.

Malmö, once a working class, industrial town, is now a burgeoning city of education, culture, and social engagement, with one third of its population born abroad. Sweden has 12% of asylum seekers in the EU, including 700,000 children that arrived in 2015–16. Another speaker, an associate professor of human rights, said that this phenomenon is undeniably an issue of a ‘refugee crisis’ but more so an issue of the right to asylum and protection. The arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers revealed the inefficacy of the asylum system, she went on, and while the government has devised a comprehensive return policy it has yet to succeed in a welcome policy. The introduction of border controls in November 2015 has been described in the press as a slap in the face for open borders, she continued, while politics reasoned this as representing the need for ‘breathing space’[4].

We heard that further, repressive measures were implemented by Migrationsverket (the Swedish Migration Agency) for those asylum seekers whose applications were denied. These included limiting rights to accommodation, an increase in deportation, and age assessments that unreliably determined the age of unaccompanied children, often falsely concluding them to be older than they actually were. We heard from a post-doctoral student who highlighted statelessness as another issue facing refugees in Sweden. Though the Swedish Migration Agency carries out ad hoc assessments during asylum and other immigration procedures, he said, there is no law, policy, or procedure that explicitly determines statelessness. The implication is that stateless refugees, who are denied official status, may be deported to a country with which they are not familiar, further intensifying their vulnerable status.

‘We want a counterpoint’

Our final visit of the day was to Kontrapunkt. Swedish for ‘counterpoint’, this culture house uses culture as a tool ‘by the people and for the people’. It had the feel of a warehouse – a multi-coloured, dimly lit, open industrial space. Founded eight years ago, it serves as a space for people to convene under one roof. ‘We want a counter point, we want an alternative place,’ was the explanation offered to us of the name and place. With about 300 volunteers and 30,000 support members, Kontrapunkt uses culture as an organising and financing tool to get the community involved. It receives people from a wide range of countries, both Swedes, refugees from countries like Syria and Afghanistan as well as migrants from Romania and other EU countries. The ‘people’s kitchen’ serves free vegetarian and vegan meals using produce that would otherwise be thrown away, and a free shop provides free clothes and hygiene products to those in need. It also holds weekly asylum support sessions, creative workshops that include photography and bike repairs, and runs ‘project night open’, where people can rest during the night between the cold months of December and March.

Chiming with the Refugees Welcome representative’s interpretation of the first day arrival of asylum seekers in Malmö, Kontrapunkt said while there was chaos, that situation was ‘overturned’ thanks to their preparedness and accommodation on site. Kontrapunkt identified some of its longer-term challenges as funding, increasingly hard to access as the NGO has become more outspoken, securing additional sites, and building suitable housing. When discussing the living arrangements of refugees they told us that the Migration Agency settles families in the woods without contact with society or the outside world via the internet, or TV. ‘It’s like a ticking bomb,’ its representative said, for people with traumatic experiences to be isolated and with nothing to do.

Kontrapunkt works to counter isolation through strong collaboration within civil society, such as with the Red Cross, Refugees Welcome to Malmö, the Turkish Mosque, and community members and neighbours – including the mosque next door to their facility. They too feel that the issue is not so much immigration, which actually reflects broader issues around the lack of welfare state and housing, in which structural racism plays a role. They flagged that a big issue now is that of homelessness among young non-citizens – ‘teenagers who are grown up on paper who do not have papers’.

The Swedish Migration Agency

One our final day we trekked to the Migration Agency, many of us looking forward to meeting with what could be seen the antagonists of many of our previous discussions. With six regional offices: South, West, East, North, Middle and Stockholm, the Migration Agency is responsible for regulating immigration and enforcing the law. Specifically, they process applications from individuals seeking protection, work, visit and study permits in Sweden. There, we spoke with representatives about the asylum-reception and acommodation process for asylum seekers and the agency’s goals for the year.

‘It’s an obstacle course,’ through Europe, one said when describing the journey migrants embark on to Sweden. When they arrive, whether via the bridge from Denmark or through other routes, they are stopped by Border Police or Customs and are driven to or being asked to travel to an Application Unit where claims for asylum are made. Here, biometric information is collected and an initial interview is held for the reasons for the application. Also, initial information about rights and obligations of being an asylum seeker is provided. The further asylum investigation is being held after a couple of weeks to a year. If the asylum seeker is approved he or she takes up residence. If the claim is denied by the Migration Agency, the person can accept the decision or appeal it, which will be assessed by the Migration Court[5]. While some of our specific questions went unanswered, such as those on the topic of trafficking – as it was out of the representatives’ scope – the visit was valuable in that we heard directly from the primary institution in Sweden responsible for migrants.

All play a role

All those we encountered – from official ministries to border police and civil society – play a role in the implementation, management, and outcomes of migration policy. Although some organisations could not disclose certain information, we were able to interrogate and to compare and contrast opposing views of events – particularly the initial arrival of people to Malmö – as well as approaches to migration policy. As expected, the associations had differing perspectives on what the ‘refugee crisis’ is and to whom it is a crisis. It was useful to learn first-hand about the implementation of border and ID controls in Sweden as these are, effectively, restrictive policies to deter migrants from arriving, examples of which we read about so often in the news and literature. Still, the tightening of borders often means migrants find innovative solutions and draw upon their networks to overcome such obstacles. Our study trip to Copenhagen and Malmö was a memorable bonding experience, not to mention an opportunity to learn about the unfolding of migratory events and subsequent measures taken by a range of institutions. Many thanks to our organisers: Ana Powell, Danny Liu, Audrey See Tho, Oana Dumitrescu, and Ruben Andersson for crafting such an inclusive and intensive study trip, and to the representatives of the agencies with whom we met.

Postscript 23 May 2017

Since this piece was published it has been announced that Kontrapunkt facilities will be closing down and all its activities suspended. For more detail read the recent statement from Kontrapunkt.

About the author

Katryna Mahoney is studying for an MSc in Migration Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @katrynamahoney

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.


Jørgensen, C. (2016) ‘Denmark: Tripartite agreement on integration of refugees.’ Eurofound. Available from [Accessed 30 March 2017]

Jørgensen, M. B. and Thomsen, T. L. (2013) ‘Crisis Now and Then—Comparing Integration Policy Frameworks and Immigrant Target Groups in Denmark in the 1970s and 2000s.’ Journal of International Migration and Integration, 14:2, 245–262.

Hedetoft, U. (2006) ‘Denmark: Integrating Immigrants into a Homogenous Welfare State.’ Migration Policy Institute.

Ray, W. (2016) ‘Denmark opens welcome centre for refugees.’ CPH Post Online. Available from [Accessed 30 March 2017]


[1] The Danish Integration Act, passed in 1999, is intended to ‘ensure that newcomers are granted the possibility to utilise their resources and capabilities in order to become participating, self-sufficient and contributing fellow citizens on equal terms with the society’s other citizens in accordance with the basic norms and values in the Danish society’. This legal framework emphasises ‘newcomers’ or those categorised as ‘non-Western immigrants’ and refugees, and equally distributes the responsibility of their integration among local municipalities. These 98 municipalities are given a quota of newcomers and instructed to provide housing, language classes, and welfare benefits of 6,000 kroner per month, as long as migrants comply with compulsory trainings. Although the objective of the allocation scheme is to share the responsibility and disperse refugees (and subsequently ‘avoid ghettoisation’), considerations are made, such as family reunification, medical attention, employment availability, and the number of refugees allocated in previous years. See Jørgensen, M. B. (2014) Decentralising immigrant integration: Denmark’s mainstreaming initiatives in employment, education, and social affairs. Brussels: Migration Policy Institute Europe, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration. Integration in Denmark. Available from

[2] Spontaneous refugees are those asylum seekers who claim refugee status on arrival of a country. Quota refugees are those recognised as refugees by the UNHCR and are allocated to a country. Refugees Welcome Denmark reports between 3,000 to 7,000 refugees arrive as spontaneous refugees, while 500 refugees come as quota refugees. See and

[3] CNN (2017) ‘In Sweden, tensions temper pride over refugee policy’. 23 February. Available from and SverigeRadio (2012) ‘600 child asylum seekers in hiding’. 18 May. Available from

[4]  The Guardian (2015) ‘Sweden slams shut its open-door policy towards refugees’. 24 November. Available from

[5] Migrationsverket (n.d.) If you want to appeal. Available from

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