‘Humiliating’ Syria & Iraq road signs spark refugee debate in Denmark

© Signe Marquard Rønn
Controversial road signs showing the direction and distance to Syria and Iraq were set up in a Danish municipality with the most asylum seekers in the country. They did not last long, though, as while some claimed it was a “fine initiative”, others branded it “racist.”

Unknown people planted the controversial signs ‘Syrien 4426’ and ‘Irak 5317’ with arrows pointing to the direction to the two destinations and indicating the distance in kilometers, on Friday, local media reported. The signs were set up in the municipality of Thisted, Northern Denmark, which houses six refugee centers.

Although the signs did not “survive” for long as they were taken down by volunteers, they managed to spark a heated debate between their supporters and opponents.

The signs did not go unnoticed by the nationalist Danes’ Party (Danskernes Parti), Thisted’s deputy mayor and a number of activists. While some of them praised the move and others chastised it, most of them agreed that the incident has prompted a lively debate.

“Fine initiative to create a debate”, wrote Thisted’s deputy mayor Ib Poulsen on his Facebook page as reported by Ekstra Bladet.

Being angry with how the government allocates its resources in the refugee crises, Poulsen welcomed the approach.

“…we have a finance minister who said that the influx of migrants costs the economy 11 billion [kroner] this year... It would have made a difference if we could use that money on welfare. I want to have a debate about the ways to spend the money on. This is as a way to generate debate on immigration - and it’s fine by me,” Poulsen told Ekstra Bladet.

Although Poulsen said it was illegal to post such signs “unless you have received a permit” he said they were a “fun” way to make people think about the refugee crisis and excite a dispute.

He pointed out that Thisted municipality is the area with the most asylum seekers living in the country. There are almost 1,200 refugees in the municipality.

The nationalist Danes’ Party (Danskernes Parti) leader expressed enthusiasm over the signs, but declined to take responsibility for the initiative.

“We have long planned a campaign in the city. One must assume that it is people from the area who have put signs up and we support obviously [them] for it,” Daniel Carlsen told limfjordupdate.dk.

The party posted a statement about the event on its website and expressed “a huge thank you to those who set up the signs”. They emphasized that the current debate would have “hardly had arisen without the installed road signs”.

Signe Marquard Ronn, one of the volunteers who took the signs down, said the signs have caused online disputes which resulted in “racist” comments.

“In my world, it is so distasteful, degrading, humiliating and as racist as anything can be”, told Signe Marquard Ronn limfjordupdate.dk.

“I think it’s a shame that people who have traveled thousands of kilometers to reach safety are greeted with a sign that shows them the way back and sends a signal to ‘scram’,” she told Jyllands-Posten.

According to the Danish Road Directorate, the signs did not have any legal grounds to be erected.

“If you want a sign up on state roads, you must apply for it. That has not happened in this case...” Soren Kjemtrup, the Head of the Danish Road Directorate, told Ekstra Bladet.

Despite the fact that Directorate called the signs illegal, they seemed to have hesitated to remove them, since they did not pose any danger to traffic.

“The signs are not dangerous [to] traffic, so it's not something we [would] move”.

READ MORE:‘Unsafe on streets’: Danish women ‘sexually harassed’ by refugees in at least 3 towns

Several incidents were reported in at least three Danish cities in the beginning of 2016, including Thisted when women complained they were harassed by asylum seekers and accosted in night clubs.

Denmark remains one of the top destinations for asylum seekers. More than 20,000 refugees claimed asylum in the country last year and some 25,000 are expected to arrive in 2016.