Strangers in the Ghetto: Politics of Growth and Grievances
by Yohan S.R. Lee
The sculpture "The Refugee Ship" is made by the Danish artist Jens Galschiot.
The sculpture was exhibited at Nyhavn in Denmark. Photo by Jens Galschiøt
The Kingdom of Denmark is reputed for happiness, sustainable energy and security. It is equipped with what has been called an enviable, highly functional welfare state and boasts a community of people like no other; welcoming to a fault. Though small and hardly a contender for hard international news stories, it is no stranger to making history. From displaying exemplary leadership as the earliest state to ratify an experimental refugee convention, being the first country to come out of the proverbial closet in support of same-sex unions, to taking the bold step to legislate the liberalization of pornography, it was Denmark. But even champions falter and, today, everyone's talking about it. To borrow from Shakespeare, one might say 'something is rotten in the State of Denmark'.
It is the stuff legends are made of; a bandage of an expression that has been applied universally as a tool to place focus on a situation in which something is notably wrong. Still, it is not often that ancient thinking captures current day occurrences so aptly, let alone have this be in the non-fictional, current day Denmark. And while there is no alignment of plot or themes between the discourses of Hamlet's Denmark and that of real-world Denmark, there is, at the core, a brewing conflict. Purveyor of law of the land — the Lars Rasmussen led Government, and previous six parliaments, have taken issue with non-western subjects who have been welcomed into the Kingdom but have yet to show their appreciation by acclimating to acceptable levels of 'danishness' through select indicators.

March 1, 2018, was a typical, cold day in Mjølnerparken. But, on this Thursday, there were powerful throngs of people stationed, bearing placards and awaiting the arrival of the Danish Prime Minister. They stood in the foreground of imposing buildings that are tastefully high, of classic Danish red brick design, seem a bit dated but with a distinct small town charm, albeit in Copenhagen. Graffitied walls are not scarce and one could see more than a few cigarette stubs and other items of trash strewn. All in all, nothing you could not find anywhere else.

Minutes hurried by and the Prime Minister's company of eight ministers passes. The indistinct chatter becomes an audible uproar, drowning out the hum of nearby traffic. The temperature seems to go up a few points, as protesters become incensed by their presence and impending message. As the speech ensued, a long repressed anger was freed. Bystanders found voice in the written words on their placards that they now wave fervently in the air. One, with a hidden face, had these words to say: "They tried to bury us, but they did not know we were seeds." Meanwhile, an elderly woman asked, "Where else should we live, Lars?" Another simply stated, "All are welcome here".

These sentiments were not happenstance. One could say they have been years in the making.

A month earlier, a statement bearing the name of representatives of the Danish People's Party, Liberal Alliance, Venstre and Conservative People's Party, referred strongly to a situation that has been a common thread in rhetoric and policies by consecutive governments since 1994 — ghettoization by immigration and subsequent threat to a cohesive, familiar Denmark.

"The Parliament notes with concern that, today, there are areas in Denmark where the proportion of immigrants and descendants from non-western countries is over 50 per cent. It is the Parliament's view that Danes should not be in minorities in residential areas in Denmark," the statement said, leaving onlookers to arrive at the interpretation that the capacity of immigrants to become Danish is questionable, and take note of the denial of the status of those who have passed through legal hoops to be settled. Despite some concession that the wording could have been less clumsy, the Government and its allies maintained that there is a need to prioritize the composition of residents. And that it did. The Danish Government, elected into office in 2015, issued a "final call" as it set out to deal with what it says are "holes in Denmark's map", which have left parts of the country unrecognizable.

The most recent version of the Danish effort to rid the country of 'underprivileged areas' takes the form of the "One Denmark without parallel societies — no ghettos in 2030" Ghetto Plan. This piece of policy has been put to parliament and is expected to pass with the purported purpose of integration. But, at the first opportunity, Prime Minister Rasmussen sought to make it clear that the plan is not about race or religion; it is a strategy to get non-western residents to contribute positively to society, through a legislated push to integrate. It is this sentiment, in combination with a number of contentious elements in the policy, aggressive public discourse and consistent anti-immigration politics that has begged the question, 'Why has the latest version of the 'Ghetto Plan' materialized?

Government and 'Ghettos'

"In 1980, we were 5.1 million people in Denmark. Today, we are close to 5.8 million. The growth of the population comes from outside, both immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Most of the new Danes have non-western background," the Government lamented.

Ideally, all countries outside the European Union, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, North America, Australia and New Zealand, are considered non-western. Findings in the study, The integration of non-Western immigrants in a Scandinavian labour market: The Danish experience, state clearly that this increase was due to a combination of guest workers, refugees and family reunification exercises, which started in the 1970s and exploded post 1980. The non-western states in question are Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and former states in Yugoslavia — largely Muslim-identified cultures, replete with non-white people.

On its official website, the words (translated from Danish) 'the government will do away with parallel societies' are prominently featured. It is the preamble to a breakdown of five themes that characterize this tried, failed then retried and then some, strategy. These include the demolition and conversion of vulnerable neighbourhoods; robust control over who lives there; improved policing and higher penalties to combat crime and raise confidence in those settings; and a good start in life for all children and adolescents.

Parallel societies, according to this strategy, are to be found in areas that have been legally designated marginalized or ghetto. The infamous ghetto list contains communities across Denmark that fulfill two of the original criteria for being designated a ghetto, which include having more than 2.7 percent of residents who have been convicted of a crime; over 40 percent unemployed or without training; or over 50 percent are from non-western countries. However, if it is a community in which the share of immigrants and descendants from non-western countries is a troubling 60 percent, it may automatically be categorized as a ghetto.

These communities often adorned by satellite dishes and constructed as if to be secluded, have affordable housing solutions that many immigrants move to, often at the suggestion of Non-governmental Organizations. They also attract Danes who seek out lower-income housing.

Anne Jeppesen, a 34-year-old Podcast Producer is one such Dane. "I ended up living in Mjølnerparken after a divorce. It's really difficult finding a place to live in Copenhagen... Mjølnerparken was the only option at the moment." The newly single mother of one had never before lived in a designated ghetto area but lived nearby and had awareness. "In Denmark, the so-called ghettos can be very small areas. Mjølnerparken has a terrible reputation... I didn't expect to ever live there myself. I didn't think of it as a good place to live. I expected noise, aggression, and just trouble." After living there for some time, she had a different experience, one that would not prompt her to leave prematurely.

"Well, the actual experience of living there was quite good. I lived in two different places in my time there and both were very quiet. There are a lot of kids out to play all the time and a lot of social gatherings on the public spots, but the vibe was very low key most of the time. It just feels like a family place, basically." Jeppesen conceded, however, that there was a downside to living there, as the buildings are in very poor shape. The main door to her building could not be closed properly, and hallways were extremely dirty.

But of concern for the Danish Government is what has often been described as a string of illicit activities, including gang violence; abstention from schools and the workforce and dependence of welfare assistance; an inability to speak adequate Danish and, most importantly, consistently turning a blind eye to traditional Danish values.

Jeppesen agreed that there were noticeably more immigrants and second-generation immigrants living there alongside her, some of whom did things she has questioned, but she is not certain it made the community feel any less Danish.

"I'm not sure which Danish values they are talking about. I never really felt that anything was missing ... In my experience it's mostly normal, friendly family people living there ... It didn't feel like a 'parallel society' living there at all," she continued. She was eventually displaced by renovations that are underway.

Denmark is not an Immigrant Country

Based on a 2017 United Nations commissioned assessment and public opinion, Denmark has been ranked the 10th best place to be an immigrant. However, in the early 2000s, Danish officials would be quick to reject any notion that suggested Denmark was a place for immigrants, where they may become embedded. But, as time elapsed and rules in the EU grew more in favour of alleviating the plight of refugees, Denmark's tone appeared to soften somewhat. It gave in to the flow of immigrants that found its way there due to the geographic position of the country. That was short-lived. Anti immigration and ostensibly anti-Muslim rhetoric became mainstream in Scandinavia, exacerbating a trend of shifting from centre-left to centre-right governance, resulting in ultranationalist politics, a form of nationalism that seeks to put forward the interest of one state, in this case Denmark, over other nation actors that are perceived as threats to its existence.

As the immigrant question became central in the agenda, so too did the need to control the impact of non-western immigrants on the native space, culture and identity. Arguments such as a strain on economic and welfare state models in the region, catalyzed themes of fixing what is wrong in ghettos. To combat this strain, the government, which depends on a eurosceptic Danish People's Party (DPP) for a majority, has resorted to greater expenditure on an admittedly broad scale ghetto eradication plan.

According to Associate Professor in the Department of political science at Aarhus University, Per Mouritsen, all states desire the goal of integration. But, 26 years of research in citizenship, immigration and integration policy, as well as national identity has taught him to separate ends from means, leading him to situate Denmark's approach in the realm of nationalism. While he believes the intention is sincere, he rubbishes the tactics.

"The plan is stupid… We don't need the list … It's an extreme exaggeration when politicians and commentators say 'oh there are these black holes where people somehow don't get into the social mainstream and contribute...'" But, he continued, "there is a specific aspect of civic integration that is about values. Do people have liberal values, which are very strong in Denmark? It's framed as national. It's 'our' values."

In this light, the Danish government has stated emphatically that it wants "a coherent Denmark", suggesting there has been a disruption of the status quo at the hands of locally situated outsiders. This demographic of people, by simply being, pose a threat to achieving "a Denmark based on democratic values such as freedom and the rule of law, equality and liberality; tolerance and equality. A Denmark where everyone participates actively." To mitigate this, it must undergo a robust process of rebirth, which starts with reduction.

"The government and the parliament have implemented a series of tightening measures that have significantly reduced asylum flow and counteract parallel societies. The parliament calls on the government to continue working with a political goal of reducing the number of asylum seekers and the number of family members who come to Denmark," the joint Parliamentary statement continued.

Multiculturalism vs Homogeneity

By way of his own research, Denmark Between Liberalism and Nationalism, Mouritsen suggested that there are two explanations for what is happening in Denmark. One is that national identities are only accessible to original peoples, those with viking blood and shared history, and in this case, Denmark had simply left behind its liberal values and become very nationalistic. The second is an onboarding of a liberal paradigm, which is 'tough', 'perfectionist' and sets out to create liberal people out of third-world Muslim immigrants.

"Denmark must continue to be Denmark. In the places where we've got parallel societies, Denmark shall be Denmark again," the Government charges, rejecting the country's capacity for a non-western brand of multiculturalism. Queen Margrethe II has also publicly refuted Denmark's status as multicultural.

As Humanity in Action, an international non-profit organization that focuses on human and minority rights, justifiably states "...Negative stereotypes of immigrants have become common: refugees are routinely branded as "welfare scroungers" or "refugees of convenience" who unfairly take advantage of a system that was never intended for their benefit. Immigrants from the non-western world, Muslims in particular, have become singled out as objects of disparagement..."

Mouritsen contends, however, that 'Danes {in general} don't think so'. "... A significant part of the Danish population have very immigrant unfriendly attitudes. But support for sending immigrants back is something you find in small minority of right wing supporters. It's outside the mainstream. Mainstream discourse is that numbers matter and about how much can the society absorb. It is about integration capacity."

However, by enlisting to legally incite integration, while pointing the finger at one group of people to secure the interests of the dwindling percentage of native Danes, the politics grows increasingly problematic. Statistic Denmark's FOLK2 Table shows only 13.09 percent of the population is accountable by this group. After all, the combination of ultranationalism, rebirth of a nation, nativism and opposition to immigration is the theoretical foundation of neo-fascism, a term Mouritsen was not keen on applying.

Nevertheless, assimilation should not be forced. Back in 2014, Germany attempted to force the process along, also through exclusionary tactics and only managed to achieve low levels of integration. Recently arrived and established immigrant communities alike, were forced to learn German and have been German educated. The proposal was soon terminated but not before sparking social outrage and backlash among groups of people, all of who felt ridiculed. Similar policies have also gone array in the likes of France, Norway and Sweden.

Nor should integration mean homogenization, even if it is a characteristically Danish value that is being threatened by a sustained increase of less than one percent each year in the number of non-western immigrants and their descendants. But, as the study, Denmark: Integrating Immigrants into a Homogeneous Welfare State found, the standard of successful integration individual involvement and acculturation "to the mores of Danish life, since the Danish political system — unlike the systems of other Nordic countries — does not base itself on the recognition of minorities."

For Anne Jeppesen, there is a cultural difficulty among many Danes regarding how they understand ghettos and their occupants. "A lot of people don't know how to react when you tell them that you live in Mjølnerparken. You can just tell that everyone has heard of the place, and they haven't heard good thing. A lot of people, like me before I lived there, imagine a sort of dark, foreign place outside law and order — a parallel society."

Ghetto Eradication Diffusion

She believes there is some merit in the undertaking of enhancement exercises. "... Opening it up is such a good idea. People need to come see for themselves that the vast majority of the people living there [in ghettos] are not that different from people living anywhere else."

Nonetheless, the plan of action has, so far, perpetuated general negative stereotypes about all those who are foreigners, immigrants, non-westerners and where they congregate. Many are also set to be legally displaced as neighbourhoods are made more attractive to 'normal Danes' and harder for non-western people to infiltrate. Consequently, there is a redoubling of their minority status when racialization of an already existent xenophobia is in play.

"... Tearing buildings down to make room for shopping streets and new roads that lead into the area and break the isolation…" is the Government's failsafe to ghettoization — similar to what took place in New York in the 1990s, displacing poor African Americans and increasing pressure to assimilate or else but not eradicating social problems altogether.

Professor Mouritsen is not sure why this is the response but highlights the flaw in the Government's rationale, pointing to the fact that poor residents live there, not by choice, but by circumstance. Inciting the feeling of having no choice solicits the wrong response.

"Gentrification is likely, with some massive investments... It's probably not a good idea. Where will these other people go? They'll go to some of those other places that didn't quite make the list. And the people who go are those who have massive problems... and their new location will perhaps make the list next year. The problem will move elsewhere."

Dismantling communities with large numbers of non-western Danish nationals and rebuilding to so that 'normal Danes' can infiltrate will not automatically drive integration. Instead, it further polarizes and creates often-irreversible tensions among groups of people who already contend with intrinsic individual and cultural differences.


Some may believe Denmark has forgotten itself or it is too late to find a new, amicable path forward. However, a little Danish optimism goes a long way and it is believable that champions rise again, especially those who listen. Somewhere between the internal and simultaneous cultural superiority and inferiority complexes Denmark struggles with, is a place of balance where people can co-exist and the law is not tone-deaf. Here, politics are inclusive and instructive rather than divisive and aggressive.

As Denmark struggles to maintain what makes it unique in an increasingly globalized world, there has to be some flexibility in allowing for the subtle changes of community that has taken place all around the globe. The nuances of 'danishness' are hardly under threat and there is still some confusion as to what it truly means to be Danish, outside of language, image, blood and history. Some cultural clarity might prove useful. But until then, to create a context in which integration is more viable is to include the 'others' in crucial discussions that impact their very livelihood. Incentivize inclusion and civic participation rather than drop the hammer and force others into corners of the society, literally.

The way forward is to refocus the issue and recenter the principles of the unofficial Jante Law in ordinary societal functions and future policymaking. Immigrants, like Danes, should work, earn, abide by law, become educated and bear the responsibility of their own expenses and offsprings. However, they are also entitled to autonomy of choice, dignity of feeling equal and freedom of expressing and embracing culture. A hierarchy of Danish values above non-Danish values is an anachronistic caste system that is bound to implode. Similarly, a penchant for systematically targeting and delegitimizing entire groups of people, their identity and culture does no one any good. Diversity must be prioritized, especially in a context where internationalism is purported and promised.
About the author: Yohan S.R. Lee has a Bachelor of Arts, with double major and first class honours, in Journalism and Gender & Development Studies from The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus (2016). He is the first Jamaican recipient of the Erasmus Mundus scholarship to pursue the Joint Master of Arts in Journalism, Media and Globalization at Aarhus University and University of Hamburg. He typically approaches content generation – academic, opinion or journalistic – using gendered lenses in order to broaden and give nuance to discussions, as well as promote gender sensitivity in media. Lee is also a recent recipient of a national honour, the Prime Minister of Jamaica's Youth Award for Academic Excellence for 2017. His ambition is to become a major player in the international media and communications industry and frontrunner of the human rights movement.

Yohan S.R. Lee
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