Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmark's official ghettos

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Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmark's official ghettos

Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmark’s official ghettos The Observer Denmark Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmark’s official ghettos As cultural assimilation intensifies, lifelong residents feel increasingly isolated in a place once known as a haven of tolerance

Ayah, a niqab wearer, and a policeman embrace at a protest
Ayah, a niqab wearer, and a policeman embrace at a protest. Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Martin Henriksen and Sabah Qarasnane don’t have much in common. He is an outspoken, virulently anti-Muslim politician from a rightwing populist party who thinks weari ng a headscarf is incompatible with Danish identity.

She is a Moroccan-Danish community organiser from a part of Copenhagen the government has officially dubbed a “ghetto”, proud of her country, her religion and her headscarf.

But they do share one thing â€" both are nostalgic for the Denmark of their youth. Henriksen because he remembers a less diverse country, and Qarasnane because she remembers a more tolerant country. “When I came to Denmark in the 1990s, it was more welcoming and open,” she said. “I decided to build my life here, and I gave my children to Denmark, to Danish society, with the expectation that they would be fully accepted. And now it is not clear if that is happening.

“I dealt with being an immigrant, but my kids are not,” she added. “They were born here. They don’t have another identity to claim if they are being marginalised.”

Henriksen and Qarasnane are at the heart of an intensifying debate about what it means t o be Danish as rightwing nationalists gain political ground in a country once known as one of Europe’s most tolerant. Henriksen’s populist Danish People’s party (DPP) got the second-highest vote tally in the most recent parliamentary elections, and its votes prop up the centre-right coalition, although it refused any ministerial posts.

Instead, its controversial rhetoric helps drive Danish politics from the wings. A ban on full-face veils, which came into effect earlier this month, was pushed into law by their campaigning, and has helped to cement Denmark’s new image abroad.

The ban was the spur for a controversial newspaper column last week by Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary, who compared fully veiled women to letterboxes and bank robbers â€" while arguing that the Danish ban was the wrong approach. Johnson’s remarks sparked anger across the political spectrum and were branded “inflammatory and divisive” by the Equality and Human Righ ts Commission.

In Denmark, too, such a law would once have been unacceptable. But the DPP has pushed debate, particularly on issues of integration and immigration, to the right â€" including making the country’s unusual and already controversial “ghetto” policy even harsher. Denmark is the only western democracy to mark out official “ghettos” â€" the word is virtually identical in Danish to English, with similar connotations â€" where residents are subject to different rules from the rest of the country, simply by dint of their address. The first “ghetto lists” were drawn up nearly a decade ago. But in recent months the government has pushed through policies that demand far more extreme intervention in their residents’ lives.

Laws passed in March require children to spend a minimum of 25 hours a week in state-approved Danish language childcare from the age of one. Proposed new laws, expected to come before parliament in the autumn, could include extra j ail time for “ghetto” residents when they are convicted of a crime, or stricter sentences for crimes committed inside the ghetto areas.

Martin Henriksen of the Danish People’s party. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Martin Henriksen of the Danish People’s party. Photograph: Janus Engel Rasmussen for the Observer

Henriksen and the DPP would like even more extreme controls. He recently proposed that children who live in “ghettos” should be subjected to evening curfews, enforced by wearing ankle bracelets.

The regulations are part of a raft of new legislation that the government says is aimed at protecting Danish society and values. Opponents say they are cover for scapegoating minorities and peddling xenophobia to win votes.

“I feel stigmatised. I’ve lived here for 40 years. My daughter grew up here and I gave her a good childhood, says 74-year-old Rita Tiell Langeland.

“Our politicians are trying to make everything about race, but my best neighbour was Moroccan and my worst neighbour was a Danish man.”

The “ghettos areas” are defined by a series of factors, including income, unemployment, crime rates, family background and education levels â€" although only education taken or validated in the Danish system counts, so a Syrian doctor whose medical degree had not been transferred would not be considered a professional.

The government argues that these guidelines mark out hotspots of deprivation and crime, and has vowed to eliminate them all by the end of the next decade. Yet politicians are constantly shifting the guidelines as to what makes up a “ghetto”, according to Troels Schultz Larsen, associate professor at Roskilde university in Copenhagen, who researches housing and stigmatisation.

“Because they have changed standards that define the list, we can’t even use it to measure developments [in crime and deprivation] over time,” he says. “We have actual political production of territorial stigmatisation.”

Henriksen was surprisingly frank when asked about the Danish People’s Party’s key aim in supporting the ghetto policy. He didn’t even mention crime, instead taking direct aim at the idea of a multicultural Denmark.

“Basically, we hope to achieve that some of the people who are here and have been living here for many generations, maybe they will start to turn away from the culture of their parents and grandparents,” he said.

He said he would not consider any practising Muslim woman who chose to wear a headscarf Danish, regardless of her home, language or commitment to Danish values. “First you should take off your headscarf,” he said. He is one of the politicians who pushed through the ban on full-face veils or niqabs, and one of his next goals is a restriction on headscarves (hijabs). Soon after it was passed, he accepted an award from “For Frihed” (For Freedom), previously the Danish branch of far-right Pegida.

Community organiser Sabah Qarasnane. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Community organiser Sabah Qarasnane. Photograph: Janus Engel Rasmussen for the Observer

Ayah, a 37-year-old niqab wearer, is furious about the law but says she tries to ignore politicians like Henriksen. “This is not my Denmark,” she says. “My parents are Danish. I was born here and raised here and this is not the country I grew up in. They changed it. They sp eak a lot of hate.”

She is determined to stand her ground, going about daily life despite intensifying abuse, including yelling and spitting. She has also been attending demonstrations, and a photo of her weeping behind her niqab, as a uniformed policewoman hugged her, went viral in Denmark.

That is the country she loves, and the one she plans to fight for, she says. “Who is oppressing me? I don’t have a husband, I don’t have a Muslim family. I was brought up and told I can choose anything, that I am free as a Dane. But when I chose the niqab I found that is not true.”

Alex Jorgensen, head of the neighbourhood housing association in Husum, another so-called ghetto near Copenhagen, is worried about how Danish society is reacting to his family’s decision to give his children Arabic names that reflect their mother’s heritage.

His home doesn’t look like most people’s idea of a ghetto. In Husum, low-rise apartment blocks, where balconies are lined with geraniums and lavender, cluster around playgrounds and grassy lawns with picnic tables. Appearances, however, are somewhat deceptive. There have been several shootouts in recent months, gangs operate in the area, and Husum was designated a “ghetto” at the end of last year. And so when his eldest son, Yunus, started school recently it triggered intense surveillance from the system, with teachers only relaxing when they realised the family speak Danish at home.

Jorgensen is not totally opposed to the ghetto laws. After a bullet cracked into an apartment downstairs, he hopes they might bring more focus on cutting gang crime. “There are some ‘ghettos’ where they convicted a lot of young people and kicked their families out; I hope it might work here.”

But he worries they are part of a political shift that will make life harder for his children as they grow up. “I can see my co-workers with the same education [but names that aren’t ethnic Danish] get a harder time,” he says. “It’s incredible that it’s still happening in 2018, but it is.”

His fears are not unjustified, according to Aydin Soei, a Danish sociologist and author who has focused on marginalised urban youth. Current “ghetto list” policies are more likely to fuel marginalisation than feed integration, he says.

“It amazes me that even though the crime rate has fallen and the educational level has risen, these areas are more stigmatised and are portrayed more negatively from parliament. And so many teenagers in these areas believe in that portrayal of themselves and their neighbourhoods,” says Soei. “A lot of young men feel that they are not recognised as equal citizens … The narrative of ‘counter-citizenship’ is a heavy risk factor when it comes to potential recruitment for criminal groups such as street gangs and militant Islamist groups.”

Michala Clante Bendixen, chair of campaign group Refugees Welcome, is particula rly frustrated by an approach she says is destroying areas that have often proved a positive force for integration, and attacks that marginalise immigrants and refugees that Denmark needs in order to function, from doctors to delivery drivers, cleaners to engineers.

“What they overlook is the potential [in the ‘ghettos’], these areas are integration factories in a way â€" there is a lot of money, with projects and voluntary work being focused on these areas for integration. And it is working, I find. There are positive results â€" people move out when they are ready for it.”

Muayad Yas’s situation points at the gap between government rhetoric and Danish reality. An 28-year-old Iraqi doctor who qualified in Baghdad, he has been in Copenhagen for eight months at the invitation of the Danish government. A sponsorship programme designed to address a shortage of doctors allows him two years of funding to learn Danish and pass national medical exams allowing him to practise there.

He is very happy to be in Denmark. “It’s lovely. There’s freedom,” he says. He has found Danes very kind over practical matters but hard to form friendships with. He hopes that when he starts work â€" his visa for now only allows study â€" that might change.

“Being unable to work is a limitation to meeting new people,” he says. He hasn’t been following politics and so hasn’t heard about the ghetto policies, but has picked up on currents of xenophobia.

“I came to stay,” he says, but he sometimes finds himself wondering if, despite the official invitation, he is really welcome. “The question I ask myself is: do I belong here, will I belong here? There are good days and bad days.”

Additional reporting by Janus Engel Rasmussen

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Source: Google News Denmark | Netizen 24 Denmark

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