T-minus 10. The Final Decade of the Danish ghettos

Gellerupparken, Mjølnerparken, Vollsmose are unlikely destinations on the tourist map of Denmark. Yet, these districts, belonging to the Danish ‘ghetto list’, are as Danish as Carlsberg and the Little Mermaid.

The Danish ‘ghetto plan’ has less than 10 years left. The government intends to reduce public housing and dismantle the most deprived districts across the Danish map. However, the ‘ghettos’ are home for many, particularly immigrants who have moved to Denmark. The plan will separate families and evict people from their homes. As a result, those residing in the ‘ghettos’ face an unsettling future.

Former Danish Prime Minister (PM), Lars Løkke Rasmussen, in his 2018 New Year’s speech to the nation, envisioned the plan, A Denmark without parallel societies- No ghettos in 2030, for eradicating the ‘ghettos’ by 2030. By the end of this decade Denmark should return to a ‘ghetto-free’ country, but the human cost could be high.

What is the ‘ghetto’?

Denmark’s ‘ghetto list’ (ghettolisten in Danish) appeared in 2010 as a way of defining the most disadvantaged pockets in Danish society. In 2017, the government introduced new guidelines which considered ethnicity and race in the assessment criteria for the ‘ghettos’. It was the first time this racialisation was used to alter ‘ghetto’ policies. The criteria now explicitly link immigrants, first, second-generation and beyond, to the ‘ghettos’. The ‘ghettos’ are synonymous with immigrant enclaves, a separated ‘other’ from Danish society. This stereotype of the ‘ghetto’ makes the integration of immigrants and life in the ‘ghettos’ more challenging. As of July 2020, 28 ‘ghettos’ exist, broken down into ‘ghettos’ and ‘hard ghettos’.

The ‘ghettos’ are categorized on the basis of a population of over 1000 people, and where over 50% of the population is of non-Western nationality or heritage. Alongside these criteria, at least two of the following criteria must be met: over 40% of the residents are unemployed or in higher education; over 2.7% of residents (over the age of 18 years) are convicted for criminal, weapons or drug crimes; over 60% of 30-59 year-olds possess only basic education; or the average income of taxpayers is 55% lower than that of other taxpayers in the same region.

If a region meets the necessary criteria, it’s a ‘ghetto’. If it remains on the ‘ghetto list’ for five years, it becomes a ‘hard ghetto’.

Inside the ‘ghetto’

In 2010, PM Rasmussen defined the ‘ghettos’ as holes in the map where Danish values are no longer centre stage. Mouritsen, associate professor of Political Science at Aarhus University, notes that the ‘ghettos’ are an amalgamation of “low-income earners, people who are unemployed, or people who suffer from disabilities and have to fully rely on Denmark’s welfare system. There is also a percentage of recently arrived immigrants and refugees”. They are communities who need affordable housing; many live in “common family housing” (a Danish form of social housing, run by self-governing housing associations) and are supported by the state. The racial profiling of the ‘ghettos’ since 2017 highlights the real crux of Denmark’s problems with the ‘ghettos’, they are a symptom of Denmark’s rejection of multi-ethnic diversity. The government’s ‘ghetto plan’ states that “social control is more prevalent among persons with non-Western background”, that immigrants are passive in Danish society, and that these immigrant communities have no desire to integrate. Individuals of non-western backgrounds are seen as being in opposition to Denmark’s way of life, values, and aspirations. ‘Non-Western’ has essentially become the Danish code word for Muslim.

Presently, immigrants of non-western origin make up 8.9% of the Danish population. Yet they disproportionately live in these ‘ghettos’; 80.5% of Copenhagen’s Mjølnerparken is non-western in origin; Gellerupparken, in Aarhus, is 80.8%; Vollsmose, Odense, has 76.6%. These communities house a substantial proportion of Denmark’s non-western immigrants and their families.

2018’s new policies

Families living in the ‘ghettos’ face a different reality from those outside the ‘ghettos’ in Denmark. Many insist, if it were possible, they would move from these districts. In 2018, the Danish government introduced new laws for people living in the ‘hard ghettos’; a sharpened penalty zone (skærpet strafzone) system. Within these zones, the punishment for crimes or misdemeanors can be doubled. This means those caught can face more severe punishments than those committing the same crime in a more affluent area of the same city. The decision of whether a region becomes a sharpened penalty zone is left to the discretion of the police.

At the same time, the government introduced mandatory (minimum) 30 hours per week of daycare for children living in the ‘ghetto’ (colloquially now referred to as ‘ghetto children’). This policy came into effect in July 2019 and to ensure implementation, a family’s childcare benefits can be revoked if the child’s parent(s) do not comply with the policy.

Many immigrant families were settled into the ‘ghettos’ by the Danish government; this is their home in Denmark. The future ‘ghetto plan’ will demand that those placed in the ‘ghettos’ by the government will be the same group prevented from staying within the next decade.

Strategy for the decade

PM Rasmussen’s plan has the underlying aim of the removal of Danish public housing. Rising fear of ethnic diversity and the weakening of Danish values is permeating through Denmark. This was exemplified when former Minister for Immigration, Integration and Housing, Inger Støjberg, in 2017 celebrated her 50th regulation against immigration with a cake on social media. Since many immigrants of non-western origin reside in the ‘ghettos’, Islamophobia is a seemingly convenient strategy to set the ‘ghetto plan’ in motion. Since January 2020, the government is starting to reduce social housing to 40% in ‘hard ghettos’. This will be achieved through the demolition of vulnerable residential areas. The aim is to reduce the amount of “common family housing” in these neighbourhoods, paving the way for prosperous business property and private housing developments. Simultaneously, the plan will enable the termination of tenancy contracts and evictions of families upon the sale of public housing. The Danish government is working hard to ensure that there are mixed forms of housing and a more mixed resident composition.

MP Kaare Dybvad, current Minister for Housing, hopes for an end to the use of ‘ghetto’ in political discourse. However, ‘ghetto’ is now used in Danish law to describe these districts. Dybvad summarised that his party “take[s] the basic view that concentrating social problems increases social problems”.

What happens to these families?

The Danish government’s hope is that eviction equals assimilation. It is estimated that 11,000 individuals could be affected by the ‘ghetto plan’. Within Mjølnerparken alone, 228 families are expected to face eviction. In Vollsmose, 1,000 houses are marked for demolition. This is in the hope of a societal reshuffle that will result in having less concentrated problematic districts existing in Denmark. This is an unlikely outcome. The ‘ghetto plan’ will divide ethnically diverse districts and separate families. The government has stated that “people will be given appropriate notice, an offer of replacement housing for existing public tenants, and relocation assistance”. Residents in Mjølnerparken, in response to the ‘ghetto plan’, have filed a lawsuit against the government’s plan under the EU’s Race Equality Directive and the European Convention of Human Rights.

The gentrification of the ‘ghettos’ is already underway through the plan to reduce “common family housing” and replace it through development and more transport links. It is not clear where displaced families will go. Neither is it clear how individuals will access the help offered by the government nor how much choice they will have as to where they move.

The future

The future situation for families in the ‘hard ghettos’ and ‘ghettos’ looks dismal. The label of these districts as ‘ghettos’ is commonplace; but for many families, and individuals, these districts are home. The government’s plan is already underway, and the developments of gentrification and societal reshuffle will continue throughout the 2020s. COVID-19 has shaken the world, and Denmark is no exception. As COVID-19 continues to concern and challenge daily life, those in the ‘ghettos’ face the compounded problem of potential eviction and the dismantling of their lives.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Phoebe Williams
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Phoebe is an International Master’s student of Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian studies between the University of Glasgow, Tartu University, and Jagiellonian University. Her Master’s dissertation, is about Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová and women’s participation in Slovak politics. Phoebe's research interests include modern Native faiths, women’s rights and women in politics, and Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, she is based in Scotland.

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