Skip to content

Migration will be the biggest challenge of the 21st century

Speech delivered by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Danish Foreign Policy Society February 4th 2016 – unofficial translation

Dear listeners, dear Foreign Policy Society, dear Lykke and the University of Copenhagen. I am really happy to see so many people interested in foreign policy here today. And there is certainly enough to be interested in!


I would like to begin with Awer Mabil. Awer Mabil is 20 years old. He got his debut with FC Midtjylland's premier league team - my team – on October 16, 2015 playing against Randers. He is a technical player - perhaps the new Pione Sisto? And like Sisto, he is not born in my neighbourhood. Awer Mabil is South Sudanese and was born in 1995 in the refugee camp Kakuma, which is located in Kenya close to South Sudan. In Kakuma, he began playing football from an early age, because there was - according to him - not much else to do. He lived in Kakuma until 2006, when his parents were granted permanent residence in Australia, where he is now a national.


On Wednesday December 16 last year – exactly two months after Awer Mabil’s debut for FC Midtjylland – I found myself in Kakuma. There are about 180,000 people living there - the same amount of people living in Odense. It was my first visit to a refugee camp and what I saw there was need and desperation. On average, people have lived there for 18 years. And they do not have much to do. I spoke with a newly arrived family who had fled abuse and conflict. And I witnessed the poor conditions existing both in- and outside the camp. But I also witnessed hope and the will to live. I saw young people who held meetings on democracy and peaceful conflict resolution. I saw the single mother who, despite having seven children of her own and two of her sister’s, also took care of an orphaned child. And the young rappers who sang about the same challenges as other teenagers around the world. I also witnessed the great job that Danish and other NGOs were doing here - just as they do elsewhere in the world.


Kakuma - and Kenya and Africa in general - showed me that the way we handle the refugee crises, migration and its root causes, will be the greatest global challenge of the 21st century. We can see it with the naked eye and we can see it when we study the figures for how the world will look in 2050. It is at the top of the agenda for the world’s leaders. And it is the one political topic that is of most concern to Danes.


In 2050, there will be twice as many people in Africa and the Middle East than today. The large youth populations in Africa and the Middle East present both a challenge and a solution. If managed wrongly, they can become a ticking time bomb beneath stability and prosperity - also in Europe. If managed correctly, they can become the key to growth, stability and development.


Migration affects us all. Both the countries that are losing people; the countries through which the migrants are passing; and the countries in which the migrants settle down, if they get that far. Right now, migration is affecting the Europe we know and love - a Europe with freedom of movement, beneficial economic integration and a high degree of security.       
Migration also affects our values. European societies are changing character, both because the newcomers are bringing other values and thought patterns with them, and also because we may change our attitude towards the world when faced with massive challenges. And values matter.


My message is clear: We have a responsibility to ensure Denmark’s security, growth and prosperity - not to mention our values - in this situation. And in order to do that, we need to use our entire foreign policy toolbox - security policy, EU policy, development policy, policy of growth and value policy.




Before I elaborate further on migration, I will briefly give you my view of 2016 from a foreign policy perspective, and of this year’s major challenges for Danish and European foreign policy. Since I became Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have dealt with a great deal of the topics on the global agenda, but I will not be able to name all of them here today. This does not mean that they are forgotten.

There are many heavy challenges in the world of 2016. Within our own neighbourhood, we must ensure that Denmark will get solid agreements with the EU after the ”no”-vote last year, so that we can ensure the safety of Denmark. We must do our best to ensure that the UK remains in the EU. We need to work for freedom and security for Ukraine, while hopefully it will become possible to create a better relationship with Russia with full respect for maintaining a unified EU position on this matter. And we need to continue to prioritise the Arctic and peaceful cooperation in the region.


A little further away, we must work for stability in the neighbouring areas. We must strengthen the fight against ISIL; despite being under pressure on several fronts, their horror organisation continues to spread to still more places in the Middle East and North Africa. And we must actively counter the threat of extremism and terror that hit Europe and the rest of the world so hard in 2015. A political solution to the conflict in Syria and increased stability in the Middle East are crucial priorities in 2016.


We must work towards concluding the negotiations on the free trade agreement between the EU and the US to the benefit of our economies and our consumers. And we must continue the struggle for human rights, for the eradication of poverty and for a world-order based on the rule-of-law and freedom.

These are heavy, hard and challenging agendas. And I cannot blame anyone for feeling pessimistic. But we must not forget that the world in many areas also has become a better place. There are also progress and bright spots.


The world can actually come together on important global decisions. This was demonstrated by the adoption of the new sustainable development goals in New York in September and the climate agreement in Paris. In both instances, Denmark and the EU played a constructive part. Also, the previous 2015 goals have resulted in a sharp decline in child mortality rates and a large reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty.


In 2015, the world community and Iran – with the EU in the forefront – signed an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. Regardless of regional tensions, the agreement provides a perspective for a more peaceful world as well as economic opportunities for Danish companies.


Democracy made advances in several places in 2015. Tunisia appeared as a democratic ray of light in a region where democracy has difficult conditions. We have to support that. Burkina Faso maintained democracy despite severe pressure from coup-makers and, most recently, terrorism. Solid progress was made towards a peace agreement in Colombia and a fairly democratic election was carried out in Venezuela. We also saw a democratic development with the election in Myanmar.


In the midst of all the gloom, opportunities and chances are also to be found. These must be promoted and seized, all the while we handle the challenges as good as we can. That is the essence of Denmark's foreign policy. We do not dictate where the world should go. But if we act wisely and prioritise correctly, then our efforts might help to set the agenda and tip the balance and the development in the right direction.




Migration will – in a broad sense – become the greatest global challenge of the 21st century. And we cannot solve this challenge on our own, no matter how many fences, we may put up. Since World War II, Denmark and Europe have made enormous progress, thanks to the four freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. We have thus ensured both peace and the market economy. The four freedoms are the foundation of this success – and I do not wish to see European progress be undermined. I will therefore make a number of initiatives in the near future.


Firstly: We must manage migration in order to safeguard the Danish welfare society and to ensure that the Nordic Region remains an open and attractive region. A lot has been said and written about Denmark recently. Not everything has been accurate and not everything has been fun to read. I would therefore like to make clear that Denmark is a country that is aware of its responsibility. We have nothing to be ashamed of, when you take into consideration that last year Denmark received 21,000 asylum seekers and is one of the countries that provide the most humanitarian aid to Syria and other neighbouring areas per capita.


But our society is not equipped for mass immigration. We have a very collective public social support system, which only functions when everyone in Denmark work within their abilities and contribute with high taxes. At the same time, we have a society with many unwritten rules and norms and mutual trust. It is a big challenge if you do not know the unwritten rules.


This is why there is a limit to how many refugees and migrants Denmark can integrate. And it is why we have sharpened the course and taken the required steps forced upon us by the special circumstances. But it is important that we do not allow the enormous challenges we are facing to make us abandon the values that are specific for Denmark and worth preserving. Openness, trust, freedom, tolerance and equality. The solution is not to close the borders and restrict our international relations. The solution is to adapt our institutions to function better and cooperate more efficiently internationally with relevant countries and regions.


The situation has led to Danes and Swedes for the first time in over 50 years not being able to cross our common border freely. If we are to realise the full economic potential of the Nordic countries and the Øresund region, we must re-establish the free passage in the Nordic region and maintain Denmark and the Nordic countries as open and attractive to those people and businesses, we would like to settle here.


Denmark needs to be able to attract highly qualified labour in order to develop our economy and ability to compete - and thus our welfare society. The government’s platform clearly states that we will ensure Danish companies easier access to skilled foreign labour. Here, too, the government and I are of course aware of the foreign debate on Denmark's immigration policy.
It is important that we spread the facts about the Danish measures, in order to debunk the any myths. And we must continue to highlight Danish strengths and the international responsibility that Denmark takes.


Secondly: We must manage migration, to ensure that we do not lose some of the key benefits of EU cooperation. The number of asylum seekers in the EU doubled from 2012 to 2014 and doubled again from 2014 to 2015. In 2015, around 1.3 million people came to Europe. This has put the EU under tremendous pressure; EU's external borders, the Schengen area and the EU's decision-making power and solidarity. It is vital that we find common European solutions and that we not squander the progress which we have fought to achieve for more than 50 years. Young Danes have never experienced anything else than open borders, that are easily crossed, and I think that many overlook the fact that the four freedoms rest on several generations of hard work. They are freedoms that we might risk losing again.


Right now the biggest problem is that EU's external borders are not functioning. This must be at the top of EU’s agenda and all countries have a responsibility to ensure that EU's external borders work. The EU is considering how to give the EU more instruments to secure the external borders and the government is open to looking at better working solutions. The EU could also consider adding more vessels to the patrol of the EU's external borders and to give the EU a more robust mandate to reject unjustified asylum applicants and send them back. One thing is certain – the internal problems cannot be solved properly until the EU's external borders are secured. If the community cannot solve the problems, the individual countries will try on their own.


The EU should also lead a much more coherent neighbourhood policy. The EU and its member states need to spend more money to counter the reasons why people flee and be ready to use political muscle in getting partner countries to take back more of their nationals, who hasn’t been granted asylum. But the EU must also be ready to open its markets much more to countries in the neighbourhood, controversial as it may be.


Here lies one of the keys to solving the problems. If goods are not allowed to cross the borders, then people - and at worst soldiers – will do so too a much greater extent. Free trade helps to ensure thriving communities worldwide.


Thirdly: Conflicts create refugee flows and refugee flows create conflicts. We need to deal with the world's conflicts at an early stage and in a much more fundamental way, to prevent conflicts and fragile states from creating more refugees, more migration, crime and terrorism.


4.2 million people have fled Syria. And more than 125 foreign fighters have travelled there from Denmark. In Afghanistan the Taliban are fighting to come back, driving people on the run, just as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are doing in Africa. In Burkina Faso terrorists can suddenly strike, although the country has undergone the most promising democratic development in the region. And the conflict in Libya makes it easy for smugglers to send people from all of Africa over the Mediterranean.


It is within the security policy interest of Denmark to combat this and we will need to have a robust security policy if we are to make a difference. Demark must continue to deliver militarily to the resolution of the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. We need to be present in both Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - and other places where the refugee- and migration flows originate. Therefore, operations "further down" in Africa such as the Horn of Africa and Mali are absolutely necessary - and we will eventually see more such operations. Mali is only one border away from Europe and unrest in Mali affects our security.

At the same time we need to think further ahead – Danish foreign policy should also help to stop and prevent the next conflict, which has not yet occurred!


Denmark is good at contributing to stabilisation in conflict areas, because we take a comprehensive approach, combining all of our instruments ­– military, political and diplomatic, civilian reconstruction, training of local authorities, humanitarian aid and development aid, to counter the causes of conflict and create growth in the EU border regions. We need to push for the UN and the EU to take a comprehensive approach as a standard procedure in conflict resolution and prevention.


Taking a comprehensive approach involves difficult choices and significant risks. It is always – and this should not be misinterpreted – relatively easier to bomb from the air. However, on the ground the choices are harder. We must be prepared to cooperate more with all actors – except for terrorist organisations.

I would also like to see us spend more of our resources to support risky projects such as police training in Aleppo and the delivery of services by local authorities in Afghanistan. We must take risks to get involved, despite of difficult conditions. For I believe that it will lead to bigger rewards and more security for the local populations – and for the Danes.


Fourthly: We must contribute to emerging and developing countries making sustainable choices for their societies, enabling them to handle climate challenges and demographic changes.


There are major migration challenges both in emerging countries in Asia and in developing countries in Africa. The emerging countries are among other things pressured by climate change, the soaring need for resources, changes in demography, and mass migration from rural to urban areas. Today nearly 4 billion people are living in the world's cities, by 2030 that number will be around 5 billion. And towards 2030, the global middle class will grow by up to 3 billion.


This presents emerging and developing countries with considerable challenges. It also offers significant opportunities - for them and for Denmark. These countries need to make strategic choices about how to renew and improve their societies. And this is where Denmark must be ever more ready to help - as we are currently doing it in for example Asia. Danish solutions – many of them green – are in high demand and so are Danish companies. Within urbanization, energy, environment, food stuffs, health, welfare technology and so on.


The government is therefore very focused on Africa. In Africa, we bring all our instruments into play. Our ambition is to use a larger proportion of our development aid in Africa and to focus it more towards the UN Development Goals and combating the causes of migration. To raise more money for investments in Africa through public-private cooperation such as the Climate and Agriculture Investment Funds. To focus more on the creation of social and legal frameworks for growth and development. All the while not forgetting the fragile states, the poorest countries and the poorest segments of the populations. We focus on Africa – but we do not forget about the rest of the world.


My overall message about migration and the refugee crisis is that it is the biggest global challenge of the 21st century and that these challenges, broadly speaking, will come to define the foreign policies of Denmark and Europe. This will also be apparent when we present a new strategy for development policy later this year. But within these challenges there are also opportunities for Denmark, if we manage them properly and if we use the entire foreign policy toolbox.




Denmark must protect the traditional alliances that have meant so much to Denmark's security and economy – NATO and the EU. We need to strengthen cooperation with emerging countries, especially in Asia, both politically and in terms of societal solutions. We need to have development aid, and while it may have been reduced it remains world class, and we are in the process of developing it. We need to strengthen Denmark through free trade and exports.

Three indicators are important for me to finish with:


First, we need to find the right balance between interests and values – two things that I do not see as opposites. We also need to find the right balance between realism and idealism. Henry Kissinger was right when he said that the world needs both realists and idealists. Because a cynical realist has no goals. And a naive idealist has no means to achieve his goals. I prefer to be a realist with idealism intact. I know where I'm going. And I know which means I can use to get there.


Secondly, that I, as a Liberal, value mankind's pursuit of happiness and greatest possible number of options. Freedom and equality are the best means to ensure the individual's right to choose freely his or her own life and future. This is central to me. 


Thirdly, we must defend the right of every country to freedom and to choose for themselves their future and alliances. Inspired by the words of Woodrow Wilson, spoken in 1917, it is about making the world safe for democracies everywhere, especially small democracies like Denmark.


I would like to conclude with Awer Mabil from Kakuma and South Sudan. He began in a refugee camp and ended up in Denmark. His family got the opportunity and his talent did the rest. But Denmark and Europe cannot accept everyone who, because of conflict or poor conditions of life, are seeking a better life. What we can do with our foreign policy is to create a framework for a better life with less conflict, more freedom, more options, and better prospects for the millions of young people who grow up, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, in the coming decades.


This is the great challenge, it is not easy and there is much at stake! It is on the basis of how well prepared we were to handle this great challenge that we will be rated. This is the great challenge that will come to define Danish foreign policy in the coming years.


Thank you.