South of Copenhagen, Denmark’s Baltic coastline is a sleepy warren of low-lying islands and inlets. Often ice-bound in winter, the region is a summer playground for many Danes who flock to the campsites and yacht marinas.
The tranquillity has been punctured by the Danish government’s latest plans to deal with foreign criminals – part of a wide-ranging crackdown on immigration.
Two kilometers offshore from the tiny harbor at Kalvehave lies Lindholm Island. The locals have labeled it Denmark’s Guantanamo Bay, referring to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Lindholm Island has been designated as a future home for up to 100 foreign criminals.
“It’s a disaster. It’s a disaster on the Danish reputation all over the world,” says Knud Bondesen, a long-time local resident who took VOA out on his boat for a closer look at the island.
Two-hundred meters from shore, Bondesen cuts the engine.
Lindholm Island has been off limits since the 1920s, when it was purchased by the state and turned into a scientific laboratory. It’s still being used as a veterinary research center for deadly diseases like foot and mouth, and mad cow disease.
The government plans to spend over $100 million over the next three years converting the island into what will be in effect an open prison. It will house foreigners convicted of serious crimes who have served out their sentences but who cannot be deported for legal or other reasons.
They must sleep on the island. During the day they will be free to take the ferry to the mainland – and will arrive at the tiny port of Kalvehave. Local residents are fearful.
“What are they going to do with those persons that are not showing up at the ferry when it goes back in the evening? So we feel very unsafe about this because it could really have a negative impact on our lovely town,” says Joachim Brix-Hansen, the director of a local manufacturing company.
Human rights groups say the deprivation of liberty would likely breach European law. Denmark’s immigration minister defended the plan, writing on Facebook recently: "They are unwanted in Denmark, and they will feel that."
Later this week, citizens of the European Union vote to choose their next Members of the European Parliament, who will shape the course of the EU over the next five years. In one of the most hotly contested campaigns so far, migration and identity are playing a big role. The mayor of the local Vordingborg region, Mikael Smed, says the government is stoking migration problems.
“I think that many people have opened their eyes to this issue about migration, that it’s not a thing that we in Denmark can solve ourselves. We will have to cooperate with other countries – the EU and perhaps other countries in the world to solve these issues about migration,” Smed told VOA.
The issues are being debated from the far eastern shores of Europe to the windswept islands of the Baltic Sea.
In Denmark, as in the rest of the EU, migration and identity are playing a key role in the minds of voters as they decide the path of Europe.