Last year on a cool fall morning, I stepped off a plane in Copenhagen with anticipation and excitement. My parents were born and raised in the oldest Danish community in Canada – New Denmark, New Brunswick – so when I finally had the opportunity to visit Denmark, I could not help but to feel a sense of ‘coming home.’
Denmark is a model country with an efficient welfare system that aims to provide social security for all citizens. Danes are known to be happy people with an excellent quality of life.
However, Denmark has a problem.
Immigrants to the country are not enjoying the same success as the natives and the Danish feel that this threatens their utopian society. As a result, the Danish government has targeted 25 vulnerable areas and has aggressively labelled them as ‘ghettos.’ Vulnerability is defined by social problems, such as unemployment, criminal activity, low income, and minimal education. However, it is a requirement that these areas have a proportion of more than 50% immigrants and descendants from non-Western countries.
Denmark has failed to see that an approach that starts with a deep understanding of the culture and values of people is a significantly stronger approach than one that starts with imposing a culture and values.
The ‘Ghetto Plan’ includes 22 bills that offer incentives for communities to lose their ‘ghetto’ status. Initiatives that have received significant attention include, forcing children as young as one-year old to attend a mandatory daycare where Danish values are taught, having harsher penalties for criminal activity, and the already planned demolition of some ghetto areas.
The message coming from government is clear – meet our expectations as a member of society or leave.
Danes pride themselves on their values of individual freedom, equality, respect and tolerance. The forceful assimilation of immigrants is going against the very values the Danes are trying to protect. How do people that have created one of the most successful societies in the world resort to such draconian measure of assimilation?
Frustration and fear come to mind.
It is a pattern that has been repeated over and over with minorities and those “different” from those that hold the power. Whether it is the Indigenous populations and residential schools in Canada or the melting pot in the United States, this approach has been tried with the best of intentions and the worst of results.
Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen first announced the ‘Ghetto Plan’ in his 2018 New Year’s speech and has gone as far as calling these ghettos “black spots on the map of Denmark.” The plan passed through a majority parliament November of the same year with plans to eliminate these ‘parallel societies’ by 2030.
The desire of a coherent Denmark is threatened with the rise of people with a non-Western background. This proportion of the population has increased from 1%-8.5% since 1980. While many immigrants are active members of society, many end up isolated from their surrounding community. They have limited education, are unemployed and cannot speak Danish.
Unfortunately, these issues can be cross generational. There is a large gap in education outcomes when comparing migrant to native children. Second-generation immigrants have more difficulty finding a job; therefore, a significant proportion do not integrate into the labour market. Finally, non-Western immigrant children are observed to have poorer health outcomes with a higher prevalence of diabetes, obesity and mental illness.
These gaps are viewed as a failure that must be corrected by enforcing a Danish approach to success. While there is merit to allocating resources that allow immigrants to become productive members of society, is eliminating choice and forced assimilation the path to go down?
I can understand the goals of the Danish government – the provision of a society where all can be productive members and thrive in an environment that nurtures and supports growth. However, the “how” this will be achieved is as important as the “why”. History has demonstrated that doing things “to” people versus doing things “with” people, is not the path to success.
When the first Danish settlers came to Canada in 1872, they made roots in a town that came to be known as New Denmark, New Brunswick. 147 years later, this community is still rich with Danish culture. I am proudly Canadian and I am very proud of my Danish heritage. It is possible to live in a country that respects both and allows for diversity and inclusion.
I hope that Denmark can find their way back to their citizen centric approach which has proven so successful. What they must realize is that they have new citizens, who they need to take the time to listen to, understand and involve in policies that will support them in achieving the success that native Danes have achieved. Inclusion in developing the right path is more reflective of Danish values than assimilation. They must do better.
Paige Paulsen, from Keswick Ridge, New Brunswick, is studying in the Masters of Public Health program at Memorial University of Newfoundland.