Rotten in the Welfare State

Denmark sounds the death knell for immigrant neighborhoods

Residents of the designated ghetto Mjølnerparken protest demolition and mass eviction. 2019. Mjølnerparken, Copenhagen.
Photo credit: Tobias Nilsson

My neighborhood is a ghetto. Not because the residents call it that. Not even because that is the impression outsiders have of this Copenhagen neighborhood with around 16 red-brick buildings, each four stories tall and equipped with large balconies, lawns and playgrounds. Actually, I don’t even think my superintendent is aware the neighborhood is a ghetto. So, how can I say with utter certainty that is what we are dealing with? Because that is what our prime minister has declared my neighborhood to be.

Each year, Denmark decides which of the country’s neighborhoods are ghettos—the only state in the Western world to do so. This determination, which has serious consequences for the affected areas, appears on a dreaded list published each December 1.

For the neighborhoods stuck on that list, the consequences can be fatal. Therefore, housing associations and stirred-up residents fight every year to get off the list again. And, if they cannot achieve this within a four-year timespan, their neighborhood will be eliminated. That is the fate my last neighborhood, Mjølnerparken, is facing now. Since it has been featured on the list for four straight years, the area is regarded as a “hard ghetto.” As a result, half of the apartment blocks were slated to be sold to a private investor, who could then renovate the apartments and raise the rent, meaning regular people would no longer have the means to live there. Indeed, the property was almost sold to the US firm Blackstone. Luckily, that did not happen, but it is still uncertain who the ultimate buyer will be. Meanwhile, we have plenty of Danish “Blackstones” on the eternal hunt for profitable opportunities. If any housing association with a neighborhood marked as a “hard ghetto” refuses to sell 60% of its property, the buildings will be demolished.

This whole thing sounds like an urban, dystopian horror story. If the Powers That Be don’t like an area, they flatten it. The story does not become any less terrible when you realize that the absolute, determinative criterion for which areas will acquire the ghetto label is the percentage of residents with an ethnic background. Or, more precisely, the percentage that are “immigrants and descendants from non-Western countries.” Of course, in principle we are talking about the majority of the world’s population, but Danish politicians have never struggled to hide who it is they do not wish to have in the country: Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. It does not matter whether these individuals are war refugees, people who have lived in Denmark for decades or children who were born and raised here. Every single one helps to determine whether or not their neighborhood is a ghetto.

Ibrahim El-Hassan is 20 years old and lives in Vollsmose, the country’s largest ghetto, with around 7,000 residents. He has lived here with his family his entire life. He, his siblings and his parents are also part of the statistic that calls for the area’s elimination as a ghetto and the demolition of nearly 3,000 people’s homes.

“I can’t understand why my ethnicity means that I contribute negatively to Vollsmose,” Ibrahim El-Hassan told us when we visited him last summer. “I am what you call a non-Western descendent, even though I was born in this country, am a Danish citizen and completely feel that I make a positive contribution. But just because of my family’s origin, I contribute to making Vollsmose a ghetto, and I think that is extremely absurd.”

The “ghetto list” and the laws that enable it have been condemned, both in Denmark and internationally. Residents and organizations have held demonstrations, and recently, more than 55,000 people signed a petition, originally started by El-Hassan, to the Danish parliament, Folketinget, calling for abolition of the ghetto list and a halt to the sale and demolition of neighborhoods. The UN has also repeatedly urged for the discriminating list to be suspended. The prime minister has repeatedly dismissed the critique.

Something’s obviously rotten in the state of Denmark. In order to explain the structural racism embedded in our housing policy, we must look to the past.

• • •

First off, the neighborhoods on the ghetto list are all devoted to what we call “social housing.” They are partly owned by the municipality where they are located and, since the middle of the 20th century, have been built with the goal of providing all Danish citizens with a decent place to live for a reasonable rent. To achieve this ideal, the rent must remain low, and the housing association is required to maintain the apartments and common areas. That means that if my oven falls apart or my faucet drips, someone will come fix it. The stairwell is kept clean and the lawn mowed, all as part of the rent.

Social housing accounts for 20% of Denmark’s total housing stock. Membership in one of the 523 existing housing organizations that rent out apartments is open to all citizens. For a small annual fee, one can join a housing organization and get on the waiting list for as many of their apartments as they choose. Not everyone is aware of the possibility of living in social housing, and in some social circles, there is a stigma associated with it. For me, it’s a loophole in the capital’s housing market of ever-rising prices and rents. I pay about half of the average rental price in Copenhagen; it allows me to live well as a young journalist in an expensive city.

But the municipality also has the right to assign up to 25% of apartments in these areas to citizens. For many years, this meant ensuring that people who are somehow vulnerable had a place to live: those facing economic challenges; those with physical or psychological disorders or those who entirely lack both network and the possibility of finding housing in Denmark. This latter group includes immigrants in particular. Since the 1970s, “non-Western immigrants” from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and many other countries have come to Denmark to find work, or as refugees from war and turmoil, and today, they (and their descendants, who are considered immigrants even if they were born in Denmark) comprise almost 9% of the total population. Many first-generation immigrants have settled in the neighborhoods now termed ghettos, and with upwards of 80 different nationalities, these “ghettos’’ can be considered some of the most multicultural areas in Denmark.

And yet, the municipality’s stake in these neighborhoods also means that the government retains a certain amount of control and can collect a wealth of data on the residents: information such as country of origin, income, education level, job situation and criminal history—the very data points that formed the basis for the ghetto list. At some point, the government also became aware that the municipality’s allocation of vulnerable and foreign individuals to social housing blocks was producing a negative effect. When a large number of people with economic, physical or social challenges were collected in one place, they seemed to impact each other “unfavorably” and seemed to hinder the integration of foreign, Muslim individuals into a Danish, Protestant society. In this way, the state created the ghettos it now wants to destroy.

In 1994, then Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen launched the very first “ghetto package.” Since then, the various administrations—every single one of them, without exception—have introduced new ghetto packages with sharper rules and mandates. A ghetto package is a political action plan with concrete initiatives designed to change the composition of residents in a given neighborhood, so that the residents no longer fulfill the criteria that first resulted in the neighborhood’s ghetto label.

According to politicians, the multiple measures were drafted with an eye toward the population’s best interests. We will lower crime, relieve poverty, help ensure multilingual children enjoy a better school career, aid people with education or work, they seem to say. And, to be fair, some initiatives do seem devised with a reasonable and sincere desire to help the residents. Money is devoted to social initiatives such as providing homework cafes, Danish lessons and aid in the job search, and these services do improve conditions for those citizens who, everyting else being equal, have more to grapple with than native Danes. It is difficult to find a job if you do not speak Danish, and it can be difficult to be a school-aged child if homework help is unavailable in the household. Moreover, there are problems with youth crime and gangs in some of the neighborhoods, and this is still one of the most significant factors in the government’s intervention. And these social measures do work. Research shows that crime and unemployment are falling and the education level is rising—a direct result of the aid residents have received from municipalities and activists.

As far as Ibrahim El-Hassan himself is concerned, he is a product of the many initiatives he took advantage of growing up in Vollsmose. Today, he is engaged in neighborhood social efforts and has joined the area committee. And not because he comes from a disadvantaged family. Both of his parents are educated and have jobs, and, when we spoke with him last summer, he had just graduated from the gymnasium, a stellar student with five higher-level subjects instead of the usual four. Indeed, he thought it was awesome to grow up in an area that offered so many opportunities:

“I’ve gone to soccer and theater and participated in all sorts of activities in Vollsmose my whole life,” says El-Hassan. “My gymnasium is close, and when I was young, I pretty much stayed right around here. In front of our townhouse are meeting places and playgrounds, and behind it are beautiful natural areas and a lake with ducks and swans. Vollsmose has enough facilities that you never have to leave the neighborhood. It is a fantastic area, if you ask me!”

As an ethnic Danish woman, I have never experienced solidarity and community so strong as they are in the “ghetto.” When people get married, the custom is to stand on your balcony and wish the pair congratulations while there is music and dancing in the yard. When a man in my stairwell died, the neighbors cried and tossed flowers out their windows as the EMTs carried his stretcher through the main doors and into the ambulance. Older women fall into conversation on the stairs, where they end up standing for half an hour, and the parents of small children meet in the yard, swinging children on the swing set together. It is touching to experience such things in a society like Denmark’s, where the general populace is extremely private and would prefer to avoid greeting their neighbors or chatting with a stranger at the bus stop.

If the ghetto packages only contained positive social initiatives, things like theater classes and homework help, this article could stop right here: a fairy tale about the world’s happiest people, exactly as we Danes like the world to perceive us. Unfortunately, the truth is another matter. Within successive ghetto packages also lurk measures that are not nearly so attractive. One example is the countless white surveillance cameras that have been installed to film all that happens in my neighborhood around the clock.

Nurseries and daycare centers are compulsory for all neighborhood children over a year old because the environment in a “ghetto home” is assumed to hinder a child’s integration into Danish society. Or, take the measure that transformed ghetto areas into “sharpened penalty zones.” That means that if you commit a crime in a “ghetto area,” you will face a higher penalty than that same crime would exact in a different neighborhood. If I smash a street light on my side of the road, the one separating my neighborhood from the rest of the Copenhagen community, I risk a fine double what I would get if I had smashed a street light on the other side of the road. This measure has received criticism not only from the housing associations themselves but also from lawyers, many of whom believe that such sharpened penalty zones undermine a just society. And then there is the most egregious initiative: the fact that ghetto areas can be forced to part with 60% of their housing, either through sale or through demolition.

Women protesting the ban on burqas and niqabs the day before the ban was enacted. The Red Square, Copenhagen. 2018. Photograph by Tobias Nilsson.

Every single one of the initiatives mentioned are also part of former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s ghetto package, launched in 2018 under the headline “One Denmark without Parallel Societies—No Ghettos in 2030.” It was the toughest ghetto package yet.

Of course, on January 1, 2018, Lars Løkke Rasmussen had already made it clear that something along these lines was coming. It is an old Danish tradition for the prime minister to hold a New Year’s address on national TV. They provide an overview of the year that has passed and then air whatever political themes they want to focus on. In 2018, this was putting a stopper in Denmark’s parallel societies and “closing the holes in Denmark’s map,” as Lars Løkke Rasmussen put it.

“Many people with the same problems are clumped together. That creates a negative spiral. A counterculture…” said the prime minister in an address to the hungover populace. “I’m thinking of children growing up in an environment where parents going to work is not the norm,” he continued. “Where money isn’t a wage you earn but something you receive from the municipality or acquire through crime.”

If you were inclined to accept Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s premise—namely, that these conditions do exist in certain neighborhoods—they are still the same conditions present in certain “white” neighborhoods. So, how did the audience determine that the prime minister was not talking about the latter group but was exclusively addressing areas where at least 50% of the residents are from “non-Western” countries? That fact became clear when, in the same speech, the prime minister mentioned forced marriages and the fight against terrorism. Words designed to inform us that it is Muslims who comprise these environments and who threaten “Danish values” such as “equality, liberty and tolerance.” How did it come to this, the prime minister rhetorically asked. Then, he himself provided the answer:

“I am convinced that decades of lax foreign policy have done their part.”

The fact is, a neighborhood, no matter how high its crime and unemployment might be, simply cannot achieve ghetto status if it does not meet the essential criterion regarding ethnic origin. That being said, what is the actual poverty level of ghetto area residents? Furthermore, how many of these have actually adopted the criminal track? Thanks to the state’s massive, data-based surveillance of its citizens, we know the answer. These numbers are published every year along with the ghetto list.

Danish politicians have never struggled to hide who it is they do not wish to have in the country: Muslims from the Middle East and Africa.

In my neighborhood of Aldersrosgade, the residents make an average of 52% what is normal for people in the region. So, about half the normal income. However, it is also worth noting that my neighborhood is located in Denmark’s wealthiest area, meaning that, when it comes to calculating our income, we are competing with residents in the country’s 14 wealthiest municipalities. The residents in my area have an average income of more than $2,500 a month. The rent that I split with my boyfriend is around $1,400. With that, you can lead a decent life, buy healthy food and new shoes, even if your income is only half what the country’s wealthiest inhabitants make. Nonetheless, we are branded “poor.”

Politicians launch a flurry of rhetorical gymnastics, all the while accepting the ironic self-contradictions that make the ghetto list functional. Still, aside from the criterion regarding ethnicity, neighborhoods must also meet two of the other four remaining criteria set around low income levels, low education levels, high unemployment and criminal background levels. As neighborhoods have improved, however, these criteria have grown tighter and tighter—meaning all the hard work that housing associations and residents undertake in order to get off the ghetto list feels like an impossible battle waged under unreasonable terms.

For example, after the crime rate fell, the boundary for the number of persons with a criminal record allowed to live in an area was lowered from 2.7% to 2.27%. In my region, 2% of the residents have a criminal record, so we do not meet that particular benchmark. In the ghetto containing the highest percentage of residents with a criminal record, that number is 3%. Both totals are higher than the country’s average. However, if this allows us to assert, in keeping with our politicians, that the majority of people in these neighborhoods have embraced crime in order to make a living, that I cannot say.

When it comes to Vollsmose, the only crime Ibrahim El-Hassan ever witnessed was a few kids setting a trash can alight. Not that he downplays the challenges. He simply thinks that ghetto packages are far from the correct solution. “There are some concrete social challenges that we should address as a society,” says El-Hassan, “but I do not feel this ghetto package here does anything but address the symptoms. The ghetto package demolishes housing and scatters people across the country, but it doesn’t solve the problems. I don’t think getting tossed out of your home reduces your challenges. I don’t think you get a job or a bachelor’s degree by being forcibly relocated. To me, that is a strange thought process.”

If my neighborhood is still on the dreaded ghetto list by December, that will make four years in a row—a death sentence.

When it comes to unemployment in my neighborhood, we also do not meet the criterion of having too high a rate. On the other hand, our education level is too low. Regarding this specific criteria, the politicians have determined that it is only people above 30 who will count in the statistics. In social terms, I drag my neighborhood down. I have a graduate degree but I am not yet 30. So, I am only included as having a basic education. The same is true of Ibrahim El-Hassan in his neighborhood. He is too young for his education to matter, but not too young for his ethnicity to be taken into account.

• • •

I do not know how long I will stay in the “ghetto.” I dream of having children one day, and if I do, I might dislike having to send them to daycare from the time they are a year old. Or I might believe that, as teenagers, they should live in an area where they are not viewed with suspicion from day one, where video cameras capture their every step and where the penalty for graffiti is double what it would be one street over. Of course, it is unclear whether that choice will even be mine to make or if the state will instead make it for me. If my neighborhood is still on the dreaded ghetto list by December, that will make four years in a row—a death sentence.

The government has just issued a new political proposal, which, among other things, drops the “ghetto” label for neighborhoods. When you first hear the news, it sounds extremely positive, but when you read deeper into the proposal’s content, you realize that the word ghetto will be replaced with the phrase parallel society. The government wants to lower the boundary for how many people of non-Western origin can live in these areas from 50% to 30%. But in order for these changes to take place, the government needs political backing from the parties that supported the 2018 ghetto package.

I have not lived here particularly long, and even though I enjoy the low rent and the good location, I could still find another place to settle down if I was forcibly evicted. The situation, however, is entirely different for those residents who have lived in the area for 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years. They were placed here by the municipality when they first came to Denmark. Some have raised children here or were themselves born and raised here, and their memories are part of the red brick walls, along with their families and life-long friends. People like Ibrahim El-Hassan and his parents. If their home is sold or torn down, the housing association is required to provide them with a new apartment. There is no telling where in the country that would be, or whether it would be more expensive or smaller than what they have now. In short, a family risks losing jobs, changing schools and leaving behind their circle of friends, not to mention the city where they have settled. All due to their ethnicity.


Sally Jensen

Sally Jensen is a Danish investigative journalist specializing in human rights, identity politics and environmental issues.

With this guide, you’ll get a new and fascinating look into Scandinavia. Dive into freezing waters, where ice swimming is once again popular. Bask in the joys of kräftskiva, the summer crayfish celebration. Tour Norway’s humane prisons and learn the ...

Related Content