Aghiad Ghazal, a researcher in nano-technology at the Technical University of Denmark, was looking forward to having his parents come over from Damascus to see their first grandchild.
But when the Danish embassy in Beirut rejected the application, Ghazal started wondering whether he might need to quit his job and leave Denmark. The embassy said there was no pressing reason for his parents to visit, and cited a concern that, if they came, they’d never leave.
The 34-year-old, who is a Danish citizen, says he was “disappointed and surprised. It made me think about moving to a more welcoming place.”
The irony is that Denmark is struggling with some of the worst labor shortages on record, and is in desperate need of skilled workers, especially those with technology backgrounds. But a string of embarrassing immigration episodes that have upset highly qualified professionals now risks leaving some experts reluctant to consider a future in Denmark.
With employment at an all-time high and unemployment around just 3 percent, businesses in Denmark have been complaining about a lack of workers. Microsoft, Oracle and Netcompany, a local IT consultant, are just some of the tech firms that have called for a change in Denmark’s approach to immigration.
Drugs giant Novo Nordisk says lowering the drawbridge is essential to running a multinational business. Economists say immigrant workers have taken up 40 percent of new jobs created in Denmark over the past five years, helping the country avoid a bottleneck that might otherwise have led to overheating.
But more foreign labor is needed. In January, the Confederation of Danish Industry said the percentage of manufacturers reporting production limits caused by a lack of skilled workers rose to 9 percent, from 6 percent a year earlier. Last week the group issued a fresh warning.
“The competition to attract talented foreign workers is getting tougher and tougher, and we cannot take for granted that we will be able to continue bringing in employees from abroad,” the confederation’s chief executive officer, Karsten Dybvad, said in a statement.
According to Nykredit chief economist, Tore Stramer, labor shortages are part of the reason why Denmark has seen a slowdown in quarterly economic growth.
“We’re vulnerable,” Stramer said in an interview in Copenhagen. “The supply of labor could very quickly fall behind demand, and that would trigger overheating.”
Denmark’s center-right coalition government is conflicted.
Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen says Denmark should stop “scaring away the people we need,” while his finance minister, Kristian Jensen, says he’s trying to drum up support in parliament for rules that allow more foreigners into the labor market.
The hard-line wing within the cabinet is represented by Integration Minister Inger Stojberg, who this month courted fresh controversy by urging Muslims to stay away from work while fasting for Ramadan. Stojberg is the same minister who called for jewels and other valuables to be seized from refugees fleeing conflict in Syria or Iraq in 2015 — an initiative that at the time drew comparisons to Nazi Germany. Contacted about Ghazal’s story, her office said it does not comment on individual cases.
Adding to the complication is the fact that Rasmussen’s minority coalition relies on the support of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party to stay in power. The DPP, which argues that Denmark needs to ensure its coveted welfare system isn’t overrun by immigrants, says the rules are functioning as intended.
“There’s no need to change the rules whatsoever,” said Rene Christensen, DPP’s financial policy spokesman. He says there’s “still potential to attract people from within the EU.”
The government says it has already enacted measures to boost the labor force, for instance by raising the retirement age. But Rasmussen concedes more needs to be done, calling for “more political courage” at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting.
With a visit to Damascus off the cards (the Foreign Ministry “strongly advises” Danes against traveling to Syria), Ghazal and his heavily-pregnant Danish partner, Sheila Kristensen, are left pondering what to do next.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever felt discriminated against in Denmark,” Ghazal said.
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