In the last decade of the 20th century, Western Europe threw open its doors to those fleeing the collapse of Yugoslavia. Today, Denmark says integration has failed and is pursuing a worrying experiment in dismantling immigrant ‘ghettos’.
By Dimitar Ganev
Avni still remembers the crisp white bed linen the night he arrived in Denmark from his native Kosovo, via a squalid refugee camp in the foothills of northern Macedonia.
It was 1999, and Europe had thrown open its doors to Kosovo Albanians fleeing the last act in the disintegration of federal Yugoslavia.
Hundreds of thousands found refuge in Western Europe in the 1990s as Yugoslavia’s bloody demise triggered the largest displacement of people on the European continent since World War Two.
Housed in a former military barracks in the town of Randers, close to the centre and most amenities, Avni, then 10 years old, recalled organised bus trips to the best swimming pools, schooling nearby in English, Danish and his native Albanian, trauma counselling and football in the park with Danish children.
Many refugees from the 1992-95 war in former Yugoslav Bosnia had already settled in the neighbourhood, he said.
“I remember those white sheets, so clean and nice, coming from a refugee camp with dust and everything,” said Avni, now 30, who spoke on condition his real name not be disclosed.
“It was basically a country where you could heal from the war and feel welcome.”
In the 20 years since Avni’s stay, this prosperous, socially progressive Nordic country has actively made itself a far less appealing destination for refugees and immigrants, and instituted a package of laws designed to forcibly integrate those who are already settled.
By linking benefit payments to kindergarten and school attendance, doubling punishments for certain crimes committed in heavily immigrant neighbourhoods and selling off or demolishing social housing, Denmark has vowed to break up so-called ‘ghettos’ where residents are accused of shunning Danish language and values while reaping the benefits of the country’s generous welfare state.
Though more radical than others, Denmark’s hard line on immigration reflects a shift to the right across the continent.
“It has been going on for like 20 years,” said Anders Asbjorn Host of Action Aid Denmark, which aids refugees. “But it was never as bad as it is now.”
‘It was shocking for me’
Avni’s family spent a little over a year in Denmark, turning down the opportunity to stay permanently in favour of returning in mid-2000 to Kosovo, by then a United Nations protectorate setting out on the bumpy road to independence from Serbia.
Many from ex-Yugoslavia, however, opted to settle, benefitting from Denmark’s generous social housing system and setting down roots in areas such as Taastrupgaard, a suburb of the capital, Copenhagen.
“Back in the nineties, people came from Bosnia as war refugees and they were put directly into neighbourhoods like these. They got a flat and they stayed there,” Claus Bjorton of the KAB Housing Association, which manages some 70,000 social housing apartments in Copenhagen, said of Taastrupgaard.
Now, however, Taastrupgaard is one of dozens of neighbourhoods in Denmark declared ‘ghettos’ under new laws to address what authorities say is the failure of efforts to integrate immigrants.
Immigrants and their descendants account for around 8.5 per cent of Denmark’s 5.8 million people, a proportion that is forecast to rise further.
Hostility towards them has grown particularly since a wave of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa – many of them Syrians fleeing war – began reaching Europe’s shores in 2015.
Whereas the likes of Avni were immediately immersed in Danish society, Syrian refugees arriving in Denmark today can expect to be housed in isolated camps, “not in regular societies,” said Bjorton. “After a period of four to five years they get a flat.”
Though not familiar with conditions in Denmark today, Avni said his work had taken him to neighbouring Sweden in 2016, where he visited a refugee camp. “It felt very different,” he said. “They were really monitored… They were in the suburbs of the city, kept isolated, but we were not,” he said.
“It was shocking for me, 16 years later, to find out the differences in the way refugees were being treated.”
During his stay in Denmark, he said, “you were not told, ‘you are a refugee, you cannot do this…’”
‘Set aside your liberal values’
And while it rolled up the welcome mat for new arrivals, Denmark in 2018 introduced a package of laws that the then government said would tackle the rise of immigrant ‘ghettos’, targeting 28 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves where families would be compelled to integrate with Danish society.
Among the new measures is a requirement for all children in such enclaves over one year of age to spend 25 hours per week in kindergarten, where they will be taught Danish language and traditions. Parents who fail to comply risk losing their child support benefit.
Another measure gives courts the right to double the punishment for certain crimes if they are committed in any neighbourhood classified as a ‘ghetto’ based on income levels, employment status, education levels, crime rates and non-Western ethnicity.
A more liberal government that took power in June 2019 has largely stuck with the legislation, despite complaints from rights group that the laws are deeply discriminatory.
“As a liberal party, we don’t believe in forcing people to do anything,” said Anni Matthiesen, an MP from Denmark’s second biggest party, Venstre, and one of the authors of the legislation.
“But there are some exceptions.”
Matthiesen said Danes on the left and right of the political spectrum were of the same opinion that integration measures over the past 30 years had not worked.
“For me personally, it was a big thing to decide that the children have to go to nursery at one year old. But I believe it was the right solution. Sometimes you have to set aside your liberal values, especially when the children are lagging behind so much in language.”
“Personally, I think there are certain areas in which we have gone too far. But the concern is that if we don’t do anything, the youth will get stuck.”
Forced choice between family and school
Some Danes, however, are deeply uneasy about the effect of the ‘ghetto’ measures on children, fearing that in some cases they may put further strain on bonds within immigrant families, where children become more immersed in the society of their adoptive country while their parents struggle to adapt.
“Lots of research shows that children at a certain age have to choose between school and family,” said associate professor Signe Hvid Tingstrub, a specialist in pedagogy at University College Copenhagen.
“And that’s not a fair choice. Because if you choose school, you implicitly choose to go a different way from your family.”
In June 2019, the Danish Folkeskolen, which reports on the education sector, reported that over 5,000 school pupils had accumulated absence rates of more than 15 per cent, jeopardising child support payments to their parents.
However, 69 per cent of those pupils were of Danish decent, the rest being immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Some school administrators have also rebelled against the requirement to report such pupils.
Supporters of the measures say a perception of Denmark as forcing one-year-olds to go to nursery is unfair, pointing to the fact that about 90 per cent of children in Denmark as a whole attend kindergarten by the age of three.
Denmark’s education minister, Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil, declined to comment for this article, as did UNICEF-Denmark.
Housing has become another front in the battle over integration.
In any neighbourhood designated a ‘hard ghetto’, only 40 per cent of apartments can continue to have the status of social housing, a highly developed and widely used system in Denmark. The rest must be privatised, the theory being that it will draw in tenants of different backgrounds.
In practice, the result is that most of the existing tenants have to move out and since many old buildings are not considered attractive enough for private investors to own or rent, they end up being demolished or renovated.
“The problem is there is no easy solution. It takes time,” said Venstre’s Matthiesen.
“Perhaps it will take at least 10 years before you make more mixed communities. And that is also why some of the municipalities are asking if it is possible not to tear down some of the buildings.”
Some 200 apartments, for example, have been earmarked for demolition in Taastrupgaard. Under the new measures, 60 per cent of accommodation in the neighbourhood should become privately-owned, removing it from the social housing system.
Such a step is unprecedented since the 16th century, said Bjorton, from the KAB Housing Association, when the Danish king moved 200 families off the island of Amager to make room for Dutch farmers.
Half a million flats – a fifth of the total number in Denmark – are classified as social housing, including high-end dwellings in sought-after neighbourhoods.
Bjorton speculated that the move was not just about integration of immigrants, but about an ideological shift towards private ownership.
“It says basically that to own your house is good, to be a tenant is bad,” he said. “But social housing as a social movement in Denmark is very strong and very old. The welfare state is in some ways founded on it, though not entirely.”
Housing officials stress that no tenant will be forced out or left homeless, but will be offered alternative accommodation nearby.
Referring to the planned privatisation of 260 apartments in the ‘hard ghetto’ of Mjolnerparken, a housing project in Copenhagen, Greta Kerrn Jespersen, leader of the Bovita social housing plan, said it was no “big disaster”.
But, she said, “You don’t take away people’s house without creating anxiety and troublesome thoughts and feelings.”
The problem, said Bjorton, lies elsewhere – “People think that we lie, that we are dishonest, racist and have a second agenda,” he said. The residents are not aggressive, he said, but disappointed.
Host, from Action Aid Denmark, said the end result, however, would be to push poor people out of the increasingly expensive capital.
“It is getting more and more expensive to live in Copenhagen,” he said.
“I think that when you are doing what the government is doing with social housing in the hard ghettoes, you are pushing people out of the city… There’s no room for these people in the city anymore, and they’re just travelling around.”
“Our young people, they feel offended, and they feel stigmatised, and have to be ashamed of where they are living,” said Host.
“When they are doing a job application, they don’t write where they live, because then they don’t get the job. They are not proud of being where they are from. They are experiencing discrimination in the classroom, because of the stigmatisation of where they live.”
‘This could backfire’
Whether or not neighbourhoods such as Mjolnerparken are eventually freed of the ‘ghetto’ designation, critics of the policy say its residents will continue to wrestle with the same problems.
They argue that the issue is more complex than merely integration, but speaks to questions of inequality, racism and discrimination in Danish society.
“Too many children leave the Danish school illiterate and the percentage is so high that it doesn’t have anything to do with ghettoes,” said Jespersen. “It has something to do with poverty and social heritage.”
Bjorton said: “My impression is that a lot of people see this not as a ghetto, or parallel society legislation, but as anti-Muslim legislation. This could backfire.”
“The idea is that the political establishment wants to show to the public that they are tough on crime and tough on Muslims. You see that everywhere – from Britain to Hungary, to the US. It is part of the right wing populist wave.”
Tingstrub, the associate professor, concurred. “I think the problem’s more a problem with economic and chance inequality, rather than with integration,” she said.
“If you come from an ethnic minority, your chance of getting education and job is lower than if you’re from an ethnic majority. And I think that has to do with racism and discrimination to a large extent.”
Dimitar Ganev is a journalist and media expert, who conducts research and writes stories, analyses, comment pieces and interviews for multiple international and Bulgarian media outlets. His writing has appeared in international media such as Deutsche Welle, Euronews and Euractiv.
The Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU is funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police.
The of this story is the sole responsibility of BIRN and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.