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Danish Government Dealing With Refugee Crisis At Home And Abroad


Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden make up what's called the Nordic Council. And the leaders of all five are in Washington today for a summit with President Obama. All are known for high standards of living and generous social safety nets, traditionally benefitting smaller, homogenous populations. That's been less and less true over the last few years. And this past year, the flood of migrants into Europe has become a major challenge to even these countries in the far north of Europe. In the studio with us now is the foreign minister of Denmark, Kristian Jensen. Good morning.

KRISTIAN JENSEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: You know, let's talk about some of what has changed, especially over this last year. Denmark really startled people in other parts of the world when it reinstituted border controls for the first time in 50 years, primarily with Germany. Remind us what prompted that move.

JENSEN: Well, first of all, it was our normally good neighbor, Sweden, who started border controlling towards Denmark. And we were sitting in a position where we would end up with a lot of refugees wanting to go to Sweden but couldn't get there. And instead of waiting for chaos to happen in Copenhagen, the capital, which is right next to Sweden - then we imposed border control to Germany so that we could kind of match what Sweden did to us. And I'm...

MONTAGNE: Let me just interrupt briefly to give a geography lesson here. Yeah, no - the migrants were start - coming to Germany, passing through Denmark to get Sweden.


MONTAGNE: And you were in the middle, like a bridge.

JENSEN: Yeah, we were, like, stuck between Germany and Sweden, two of the countries that most refugees wanted to go to. And those coming through Denmark - most of them actually wanted to get beyond Denmark to Sweden or to Finland or to Norway. And then when Sweden blocked the borders towards Denmark, we felt it necessary to block to Germany. And to be frank, this is not something that I'm pleased of. I'm in favor of the open Europe where people can move and work and travel and invest across borders. But we were afraid to have a chaotic situation in Copenhagen.

MONTAGNE: Well, as part of the reaction to this, though, Denmark created a plan to seize valuables from migrants to help pay for their housing and other needs. How much has really been collected or confiscated?

JENSEN: Nothing. Nothing at all. Just to give you a few details about the background of this - in Denmark, if you come as a refugee, you get free housing, free food, free education, free health care, and if you are staying in the same position that you need to have help from the public authorities, we tell you must sell your valuables before you can get any help from the government, from the municipalities. So the Danes were saying, why are you giving stuff free to refugees when we have to pay for ourselves? And we said, well, OK. Let's have the same rules for refugees as for Danes. So if you come with cash or if you come with something you can easily sell that is not personal to you, then you should also pay for yourself before you get from the government. And this legislation was much debated, but looking back now a few months later, no one has ever been stopped and been asked to give in any valuables to pay for themselves. And I think that's because many of the refugees, when they get to Denmark, they have been passing through a lot of countries and paying a lot of human smugglers so they don't have that much refugee. So it's more a legislation to tell the Danes that we don't discriminate refugees positively towards Danes. We never expected to have a huge sum coming out of this legislation.

MONTAGNE: Let me get to the cause of this recent mass migration, the turmoil in the Middle East - especially the war in Syria. Your country, Denmark, has announced it's sending fighter jets and 400 troops to a military base in Turkey by this coming summer to join the fight against ISIS. Break it - just briefly break that down for us. What are these troops going to be doing?

JENSEN: The troops we have already - because we have already troops, they are in a base in Iraq training the Iraqi forces and doing quite well. The fighters in the base in Turkey will be active together with the U.S. fighters in taking out ISIS targets, both in Iraq and in Syria. And what we're doing actually now extra is to sending in our special operation forces to train the militias in Syria - the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces in the north of Syria and Iraq - as well as some of the forces in Iraq to help get ready for the difficult battles, you know, the battles of Mosul, the battles of Raqqa - the two major cities that ISIS still holds. And these are difficult cities to win. And we know that we want to support them, so our troops are going there to - in the start - to train and then perhaps to assist.

MONTAGNE: Right, and of course Denmark is part of NATO. Thank you very much for joining us.

JENSEN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Kristian Jensen is the foreign minister of Denmark. All five Nordic countries are in Washington today for a summit, and there will be a state dinner at the White House tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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