Same shame but different

This week, Danish politician Inger Støjberg was sentenced to two months in prison for illegally ordering the separation of migrant couples. This is an extraordinary form of accountability. It is more remarkable, however, when you consider Støjberg’s policies were substantially modelled on Australia’s.

Støjberg was immigration minister when the Danish government announced it would conduct a fact-finding mission to Nauru and Manus Island. She was the minister who proposed sending refugees to a small island in the Baltic Sea, previously used to conduct research on sick animals.

She taunted on Facebook that these refugees “will be getting a new address”. She wrote, “When you are unwanted in Danish society, you should not be a nuisance for regular Danes.”

It was Støjberg who thought to take out advertising in foreign countries, just as Australia had done, telling refugees not to come to Denmark. “The advertisements must contain sobering information about the halving of benefits and other constraints we are going to adopt,” she said at the time. “This kind of information spreads.”

It was Støjberg’s idea to take jewellery from refugees who entered the country, using its meagre value to pay for their processing. Guards in the end refused. Of course, as with our own system, it was never about money: it was about taking away another little piece of a person’s humanity, about making them a non-person. It was about taking what memories might exist in a thin gold chain and saying, “Your past is ours now and so is your future and we refuse to give you either.”

There are small differences between Denmark and Australia. As minister, Støjberg lied about children at a childcare centre, saying they were banned from eating pork because of the pressure from Muslims. Here, Scott Morrison lied about staff on Nauru, saying they were “allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests”.

The elements are common, however. The fears are the same: children being mistreated by an unknown other, either Muslims or activists. The Australian government ultimately paid compensation over Morrison’s claims, but he never apologised. Nor did Støjberg, although she admitted she should have checked her lie. “It was a story I was told at a private party,” she said, “by people who I trust.”

When Støjberg passed her 50th law restricting immigration, she celebrated with a cake decorated with fruits and chocolate piping. There was grim whipped cream and a marzipan flag. Morrison marked his time in Immigration with a novelty trophy of one of the fishing boats that brought to this country the innocent men and women whose suffering he turned into political gain. Different slightly, but also the same: smug, cruel and morally gauche.

The fact of Støjberg’s conviction is astounding. Essentially she is being punished for the viciousness of her politics. She will likely serve her sentence in the community, as is right. Morrison got three years, and spent it in The Lodge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Same shame but different".

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