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'Love's Refugees' Feel Betrayed by Denmark

Immigration and marriage laws send culturally mixed couples into exile.

September 06, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

COPENHAGEN — The train is sleek and fast that each night carries Christina Reves away from her country and toward her husband. It races through Denmark's scattered marshes and clicks over a bridge and across the water, stopping 35 minutes later in Sweden.

Reves, a Dane, is married to Walid Badawi, an Egyptian. The couple -- and more than 1,200 like them -- will tell you that love knows no bounds until it encounters Danish immigration laws. This nation is increasingly anti-foreigner, and its strict marriage regulations are sending hundreds of culturally mixed couples into exile each year.

"I cross what is known as 'Love Bridge' every night to Sweden, and we joke that we're love's refugees," said Reves, who is training in Copenhagen to be a real estate agent.

"I feel betrayed and sad. It's not just the rightist politicians. It's the Danish people too. We've become very small-minded. We're such a rich country, but those of us who married foreigners can't share it with our spouses."

Suspicion of immigrants has helped propel the rise of the right-wing Danish People's Party, which won 12% the vote in the last federal election and is a key member of the coalition government. The party's platform, according to its website, is clear: "Denmark belongs to the Danes and its citizens must be able to live in a secure community ... developing only along the lines of Danish culture."

The European Council in July criticized Denmark's legislation on immigrants as a threat to human rights. The laws are a complicated mix of financial, housing, age and national loyalty requirements that critics say deter mixed marriages.

One of the most contentious provisions holds that both partners be at least 24.

Rightist politicians say the legislation prevents poor immigrants from overrunning the welfare system and protects Muslim girls from forced marriages, which Integration Minister Bertel Haarder has described as an "offense" to freedom. Immigrants and asylum-seekers make up about 8% of Denmark's population of 5.3 million. Three percent of the population is Muslim, and the government has imposed some of Europe's toughest restrictions on Islamic clerics.

The rights group Marriage Without Borders is active in Denmark and Sweden, and many couples are seeking to outmaneuver Danish laws. A Dane living in Sweden for two years is eligible for Swedish citizenship. With a Swedish passport, the native Dane can return to Denmark with his or her foreign spouse under the protection of European Union regulations.

"When you turn on the news in Denmark, all they talk about is democracy," said Mohssine Boudal, a Moroccan married to a Dane and living in Sweden. "But look at our situation. We can't live in Denmark. That's not democratic at all. It's a contradiction."

Anti-immigration sentiment is spreading across a historically liberal northern Europe and Scandinavia, a region that these days worries about diluting national identities and funding the world's most generous health and social programs. Attitudes toward foreigners have hardened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and as records show a disproportionate number of immigrants committing crimes.

Danes in mixed marriages say they suffer discrimination that most Westerners seldom encounter. They move away from friends and family. Because they live in Sweden, they often cannot vote in Denmark, yet many of them pay as much as 38% of their wages in Danish taxes.

They are caught in an odd commuter existence, shuttling twice a day between Copenhagen and Sweden, weighing love and prejudice and the lost entitlements between.

Officials in Malmo, the Swedish city on the other end of the Love Bridge, estimate that 1,200 mixed-marriage couples from Denmark have migrated across the Oresund strait since 2002. Fifty to 60 more arrive in Sweden each month.

"It's not Walid's rights that have been violated here. It's mine," said Reves, who is the daughter of a bank executive and a pharmacist and grew up in an affluent Copenhagen suburb. "Europe has been at peace for 60 years. Most Danes haven't suffered. They've forgotten about compassion. They don't understand how foreigners struggle. Danes have become so frightened someone will take something from them."

Reves met Badawi in 2001. He was living in Egypt and was visiting his father, who decades earlier had moved to Denmark as a guest worker. The couple married in Cairo in November 2003. Danish law required that if they wanted to live in Copenhagen, Reves would have to earn enough to support Walid, keep a balance of $8,600 in her bank account and have a permanent apartment. Mixed-marriage couples are not permitted to live with their families.

"I lost my patience," said Reves, who studies and works in Copenhagen while Walid, who has an economics degree, works 70 hours a week as a cook in Malmo. "I said, 'If they don't want us, we'll live somewhere else.' I wouldn't want to bring up children in a country like that."

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