Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmark's official ghettos
Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmarkâs official ghettos The Observer Denmark Stigmatised, marginalised: life inside Denmarkâs official ghettos As cultural assimilation intensifies, lifelong residents feel increasingly isolated in a place once known as a haven of tolerance
Martin Henriksen and Sabah Qarasnane donât 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 âghettoâ, 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. âWhen I came to Denmark in the 1990s, it was more welcoming and open,â she said. âI 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.
âI dealt with being an immigrant, but my kids are not,â she added. âThey were born here. They donât have another identity to claim if they are being marginalised.â
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 Europeâs most tolerant. Henriksenâs populist Danish Peopleâs 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 Denmarkâs 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. Johnsonâs remarks sparked anger across the political spectrum and were branded âinflammatory and divisiveâ 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 countryâs unusual and already controversial âghettoâ policy even harsher. Denmark is the only western democracy to mark out official âghettosâ 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 âghetto listsâ 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 residentsâ 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 âghettoâ residents when they are convicted of a crime, or stricter sentences for crimes committed inside the ghetto areas.
Henriksen and the DPP would like even more extreme controls. He recently proposed that children who live in âghettosâ 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.
âI feel stigmatised. Iâve lived here for 40 years. My daughter grew up here and I gave her a good childhood, says 74-year-old Rita Tiell Langeland.
âOur politicians are trying to make everything about race, but my best neighbour was Moroccan and my worst neighbour was a Danish man.â
The âghettos areasâ 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 âghettoâ, according to Troels Schultz Larsen, associate professor at Roskilde university in Copenhagen, who researches housing and stigmatisation.
âBecause they have changed standards that define the list, we canât even use it to measure developments [in crime and deprivation] over time,â he says. âWe have actual political production of territorial stigmatisation.â
Henriksen was surprisingly frank when asked about the Danish Peopleâs Partyâs key aim in supporting the ghetto policy. He didnât even mention crime, instead taking direct aim at the idea of a multicultural Denmark.
âBasically, 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,â 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. âFirst you should take off your headscarf,â 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 âFor Frihedâ (For Freedom), previously the Danish branch of far-right Pegida.
Ayah, a 37-year-old niqab wearer, is furious about the law but says she tries to ignore politicians like Henriksen. âThis is not my Denmark,â she says. âMy 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.â
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. âWho is oppressing me? I donât have a husband, I donât 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.â
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 familyâs decision to give his children Arabic names that reflect their motherâs heritage.
His home doesnât look like most peopleâs 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 âghettoâ 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. âThere are some âghettosâ where they convicted a lot of young people and kicked their families out; I hope it might work here.â
But he worries they are part of a political shift that will make life harder for his children as they grow up. âI can see my co-workers with the same education [but names that arenât ethnic Danish] get a harder time,â he says. âItâs incredible that itâs still happening in 2018, but it is.â
His fears are not unjustified, according to Aydin Soei, a Danish sociologist and author who has focused on marginalised urban youth. Current âghetto listâ policies are more likely to fuel marginalisation than feed integration, he says.
âIt 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,â says Soei. âA lot of young men feel that they are not recognised as equal citizens â¦ The narrative of âcounter-citizenshipâ is a heavy risk factor when it comes to potential recruitment for criminal groups such as street gangs and militant Islamist groups.â
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.
âWhat they overlook is the potential [in the âghettosâ], 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.â
Muayad Yasâs 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. âItâs lovely. Thereâs freedom,â 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.
âBeing unable to work is a limitation to meeting new people,â he says. He hasnât been following politics and so hasnât heard about the ghetto policies, but has picked up on currents of xenophobia.
âI came to stay,â he says, but he sometimes finds himself wondering if, despite the official invitation, he is really welcome. âThe question I ask myself is: do I belong here, will I belong here? There are good days and bad days.â
Additional reporting by Janus Engel RasmussenTopics
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