The new head of Save the Children, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is best known abroad for having taken a selfie of herself, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. In her native Denmark, she will be remembered as a hard-liner on immigration, writes Peter Kenworthy.
Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s appointment as chief executive of Save the Children has made headlines in Denmark because of her anti-immigration position and for her party’s support of a new immigration bill. Many have criticized her policies, including the Danish branch of Save the Children.
‘Children’s protection, rights and development have always been close to my heart, and I look forward to doing everything I can to help us deliver on our bold but simple ambitions: that no child under five dies from preventable causes.’
The words are Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s, commenting on her new appointment – a position that she will take up on 4 April. Thorning-Schmidt is married to Labour MP Stephen Kinnock and served as Danish Prime Minister from 2011 to 2015.
But what are ‘preventable causes’ and has Helle Thorning-Schmidt really done everything she could to save the children while in office?
She certainly spent a large part of her time as Prime Minister pursuing anti-immigration policies that have, amongst other things, barred children in war-zones such as Syria from being reunited with their families and thus put them in grave danger.
In her New Year’s speech to the nation on New Year’s Day 2015, she gloated that her government had made family reunification and asylum more difficult for refugees. ‘It is the first time in 12 years that this has happened,’ she told the Danish population.
And in her election campaign later that year (which she lost to the Liberal Party), large posters were seen all over Denmark that promised that she would continue to be tough on immigration.
In mid-January, her party voted for a bill proposed by the Liberal government that specifies that refugees must have stayed three years in Denmark before they can apply for family reunification. The new bill builds on similar legislation put in place by Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s government in 2014 that restricted the right to family reunification and was heavily criticized by the Danish branch of Save the Children, Red Barnet, at the time for being ‘inhumane’.
According to Red Barnet, the new bill is in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention states that ‘a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will’ and that ‘applications by a child or his or her parents to enter or leave a State Party for the purpose of family reunification shall be dealt with by States Parties in a positive, humane and expeditious manner’. Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrat Party will support the new bill even through it could literally risk the lives of children.
But after it was announced that Thorning-Schmidt was appointed by Save the Children, the organization’s Chairman Alan Parker said that the organization is very pleased to have appointed her and Red Barnet called her ‘the right person to create tangible improvements for vulnerable children.’
The new Danish bill has been heavily criticized by many other organizations and individuals both in Denmark and internationally. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that the measures were ‘an affront’ to the dignity of refugees and has urged the Danish government to scrap the bill. The Danish Institute for Human Rights called it ‘a violation of international law’, and the Danish Refugee Council, the Danish Association of Social Workers and the Danish National Council for Children have voiced similar criticisms.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, wrote to the Danish government on 12 January that he was ‘deeply concerned’ by the new changes to Denmark’s legislation on asylum and immigration, including the parts that will make it ‘more difficult for beneficiaries of international protection to request family reunification’.
And a fellow Social Democrat of Thorning-Schmidt, Mette Gjerskov, who served as a minister in her government and is presently the party’s development spokesperson, criticized the bill for ‘refusing children the right to see their parents for over three years’. She would be voting against the bill, she said.
Even the Danish branch of Hell’s Angels has criticized the Danish government for their anti-immigration policies, stating in a press release on 13 January that ‘it is not the fault of immigrants that they look to a place where they can enjoy safety and a better life’.
Thorning-Schmidt stated that she ‘is fully behind’ her party on the issue of the new bill. She has not wished to comment on the discrepancies between the ideals of her new employer, an organization that was formed to help starving children during a post-WWI blockade and who envisages ‘a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation’, and that of her political standpoint on immigration as a both PM and MP backbencher.
‘For the past seven months [since losing the election] I have stayed out of Danish politics. I will continue to do that,’ she told the Danish media.
She also had ‘no comment’ to questions about whether her policies on immigration when she was Prime Minister were brought up during her job interview with Save the Children.
Peter Kenworthy is with Afrika Kontakt.