Denmark’s ‘ghetto plan’ and the communities it targets

Residents of largely Muslim neighbourhoods face increased penalties for crimes and ‘Danish values’ lessons for children.

Denmark low income housing feature
Windows in Mjolnerparken are covered in stickers from Almen Modstand, a group organising against forced re-locations. The stickers read: 'Our home is not for sale!' [Jamila Versi/Al Jazeera]

At the end of each year, the Danish government publishes a list of what it classifies as the country’s “ghettos”. There are currently 28.

Areas where more than 50 percent of residents are immigrants or descendants of “non-Western countries” can be designated a “ghetto” based on the following criteria: income, percentage of those employed, levels of education and proportion of people with criminal convictions.  

Denmark is currently executing its controversial national “ghetto plan” – One Denmark without Parallel Societies: No Ghettos in 2030 – introduced by the previous government in March 2018, and now passed into a set of harsh laws and a housing policy.

This involves the physical demolishment and transformation of low-income, largely Muslim neighbourhoods. Residents of these areas – working-class, immigrant and refugee communities – say the measures are aimed at containing as well as dispersing them.

The term “ghetto”, with its negative connotations of festering crime, unemployment and dysfunction is a source of anguish for residents who believe the plan stigmatises them further while offering no improvements to their conditions. Anger, confusion and a feeling of betrayal are mounting among those deemed to be living in “ghettos”.

Residents of “ghettos” are now subject to a different set of rules. Penalties for crimes can be doubled. Certain violations, for example, which are normally finable offences could mean imprisonment.

Laws passed last March require children from the age of one to spend at least 25 hours a week in childcare to receive mandatory training in “Danish values”. There was even a proposal from the far-right Danish People’s party that “ghetto children” should have a curfew of 8pm, although that was rejected by the parliament.

But perhaps one of the most insidious rules is that public housing in so-called “hard ghettos” will be limited to only 40 percent of total housing by 2030. This means that public housing is now either being torn down, redeveloped or rented to private companies. The fear is that thousands across Denmark may have to leave their homes. By some reports, that number could be more than 11,000 people.

Poul Aaroe Pedersen, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Transport and Housing, which is overseeing the housing changes, said in an email that the aim “is to prevent parallel societies” by integrating “socially disadvantaged residential areas” with the surrounding community through the development of different types of housing.

Pederson said it is not possible to provide an exact number for how many people would need to move.

According to lawyer Morten Tarp, two communities, one in the city of Helsingor and the other in the town of Slagelse, whose residents he is working to support, will receive the country’s first housing contract termination notices in early 2020.

Mjolnerparken, a so-called “hard ghetto”, is a four-block housing complex situated in Norrebro, a lively, multicultural and gentrifying district in Copenhagen.

There, 260 residencies will be sold. Residents have been informed through the housing association that they will have to move and are being encouraged to relocate to other areas. Many are uncertain about what will happen next.

We visited Mjolnerparken and spoke to four residents about how the regulations are affecting their lives and their fears for the future.

Lisbeth Saugmann, 76, pensioner: ‘I’m being forcibly relocated’

Lisbeth Saugmann grew up and spent most of her life in low-income housing, referred to by some as ‘ghettos’ [Jamila Versi/Al Jazeera] 

Lisbeth has lived in the residence for elderly people in Mjolnerparken for almost a decade. She has been informed by the housing association that she will have to move.

“I was born in Arhus and spent most of my life in public housing and shared houses. Then eight years ago, I decided to move here, because my family all moved to Copenhagen. I wanted to live with others, because, you know, when you’re new in a place it can be a bit overwhelming and the older you get it can be harder to make new friends. So I was happy to find a place here. 

“I’ve been very happy here. I really like Norrebro. I like that it’s such a mix of people. I’m very glad to not be, sorry to say it like this, living with a bunch of rich as**oles.

“We found out about the ‘ghetto plan’ when all the politicians and police came here, but they never spoke to us. They want to sell Mjolnerparken, but there are other “ghettos” in the country where they want to tear down healthy houses just because they don’t like the people living there.

“I was a kindergarten teacher. I’ve dealt a lot with kids that weren’t very stimulated, but that has nothing to do with skin colour. You have to use other methods to solve it. All the research will tell you this [plan] won’t do anything.

“In the other housing associations where I lived, we had the same [social] problems, but everyone was white. They [the authorities] went in and they gave more opportunities for jobs and that helped.

“I see it [the plan] as something that’s harming people, cutting at emotional ties and economically, it’s also just a waste of money. That’s how it is for people who don’t earn a lot, or are sick, or aren’t in some way a part of the system.

“People are very sad. I think friendships are going to fall apart, and I think it will expose some vulnerabilities from people who are already struggling, especially if they’re told, ‘You can’t live here because we don’t like you.’

“I’m being forcibly relocated. In the seniors’ residence, we’ve been able to get confirmation that we won’t be separated as a group. And we’re the group that’s white. I think that’s been part of the reason we’re getting different treatment than the others.

“But we still have to pay much higher rent than we can afford. Especially now that I’m getting older, how will I pay for my medicine?

“It’s a nightmare. Everyone’s so confused about it. It makes me feel unsafe. People are talking about it all the time, even when you go to take the trash out.

“This place is going to be refurbished and they’ll sell it for three times the price to rich people. 

“I don’t know what a ‘parallel society’ is. I mean, maybe there are different realities. Maybe it’s the rich towns versus here, for example, because they live a completely different reality than we do. I don’t think there’s any parallel society here.”

Asif Mehmood, 52, taxi driver: ‘Here, you never sleep hungry, you’re never alone’

Asif Mehmood
‘They’re making us move here and here and there. I feel like they’re kicking us out of Denmark,’ Asif Mehmood says [Jamila Versi/Al Jazeera]

Asif came to Denmark from Pakistan at the age of 20 and moved to Mjolnerparken with his wife and daughter in 1994. They raised their three daughters there. They have been told they have to leave and have received an offer of new housing.

“I really like Mjolnerparken. Here, you never sleep hungry, you’re never alone. If you forget your wallet when you go to the store, someone will let you take the food home, because we know each other here. You can never do that in the city centre. We live in the best place you can be – there’s a train station, bus stations. My wife is ill. We live next to three different hospitals, all five minutes away. That makes it very easy.  

“I’m very dependent on people here. If I’m at work and my wife or daughters have a small problem, I can call one of my friends to come help out. It’s a huge support network.

“People can call it what they want, but it’s not a ‘ghetto’. They’re [the government] the ones who built this place and now they’re starting to call it a ‘ghetto’. That’s not fair. Now that it’s become this hip place, they want people to move out and they use criminality as an excuse.

Then they'll move us out from Copenhagen to the countryside and, eventually, they'll just kick us out of the country.

by Asif Mehmood, taxi driver

“If there’s crime, let’s fix it. But with this plan, they want to tear down the buildings.

“Just because we all have a different skin colour and wear different clothes doesn’t mean we’re criminals.

“There are places like Allerod, with much more crime than here, but they don’t call it a “ghetto” because they’re white. It doesn’t make sense.

“Now they want us all to move to Wilders Plads [in Copenhagen] and pay double the rent there. So won’t Wilders Plads become a ‘ghetto’ if all the same people move there? And what about those of us who can’t afford double the rent?

“Then they’ll move us out from Copenhagen to the countryside and, eventually, they’ll just kick us out of the country, like Inger Stojberg [far-right politician and ex-immigration minister] wants. But excuse me, we’re 99 percent Danish citizens living here. Even if they don’t think we look Danish.

“Now Bo-Vita [the housing association] has been sending us these brochures saying, ‘M is so happy, because now that he’s moved, he finally has a sofa.’ What the hell? You’ve seen that I have not one but two sofas. They need to find me a place that I can afford and that has an elevator for my wife.

“I’m lucky. I make an OK amount. We’ve gotten a new housing offer but it’s on the other end of town and far from the hospitals. And what about everyone else? They aren’t telling us anything. Everyone is very uncertain.”

Anonymous, 45: ‘We’re going to fight to stay’

One 45-year-old woman was interviewed anonymously. She arrived in Denmark as a Palestinian refugee when she was a teenager.  

“I was born in Lebanon in 1974. In 1988 we moved to Denmark. First, we were in the asylum centre, and then we moved to Humlebaek [a coastal town] and lived in our own family home.

“But we didn’t like it. My parents were lonely. So we applied to come to Mjolnerparken. First my husband, my new-born and I moved in, then my parents moved in next to us.

“We moved here to be in a social place. We really like being here. My five children grew up here with the other second-generation kids. My oldest child is 25 and the youngest seven. The oldest two have their own business and my daughters are studying public administration. 

“I work in a canteen, but I’ve applied for an internship in an office instead. I don’t really like working in the kitchen. And I’m a carer for my mum. 

“Children can’t find work if they live in Mjolnerparken. Lots of kids from outside the area – faces we don’t know – come and make problems. Everything is stacked against the boys from around here. They don’t feel Danish enough, they’re spoken down to, they don’t get jobs, so then they have to do something else. 

I felt Danish until recently. Now I feel I'm not a part of this society.

by Anonymous

“When we moved here it was peaceful. Then the ethnic Danes moved out and suddenly it [got] a much worse reputation than it is.

“I’ve lived here 25 years. I think I’d be depressed if I moved from here, because I have so many good memories – bad memories too, of course. It’s not good for children to move. Especially if you’re forced to do it. 

“I felt Danish until recently. Now I feel I’m not a part of this society. The politicians created their ‘parallel society’, with the bad reputation they’ve given Mjolnerparken so that ethnic Danes don’t want to live here. It’s the fault of the housing association that they moved in so many immigrant families and now they’re saying it’s a problem.

“But it doesn’t make sense. Blocks 1 and 4 aren’t being sold, so they will still be a ‘ghetto’. But they will be renovated, so some families will probably not come back, because the rent will be more expensive.

You get three new housing offers and if you don’t say yes, you don’t get any help. But we’re not going to apply for offers. We are going to sue either the Copenhagen municipality or the state which is administrating the plan. The lawyers [who are helping us] are figuring that out. We are more than 50 citizens who don’t want to move and who will sue. If we fail, I’ll know we’ve tried.”

Samiah Qasim, 27, social worker: ‘They don’t see me as Danish any more’

Samiah Qasim
‘Lately I don’t feel so safe any more,’ Samiah Qasim says [Jamila Versi/Al Jazeera]

Samiah’s parents are originally from Palestine. Her immediate family is not having to leave their home, but her parents-in-law are. When her daughter is one, she will have to begin compulsory lessons in “Danish values”. Samiah recently organised a “lets ghettogether” party to invite people to come and see Mjolnerparken. 

“I was born and bred in Blagardsgade [also in Norrebro], which is a former ‘ghetto’. I’ve lived in Mjolnerparken for six years with my husband and my two children. His parents live here too. My husband has a master’s from Copenhagen Business School.

“I really liked growing up in Blagardsgade. I felt really safe. I was very sceptical about moving to Mjolnerparken because of negative things I had heard from the media, but we needed a place to stay so we took it, and actually, I have become very happy about it.

“There’s a good community. You have all the shops and transport you need and there are cheap apartments. The only problem is the gangs. 

“We used to have a gang problem in Blagardsgade, but then came more shops and cafes. It became really cosy and green. Suddenly there was a lot of activity for the boys – clubs and internships and job offers, so they didn’t have time to step into the gang area. That made a huge difference. 

“I don’t think they can be more wrong about the ‘ghetto’ laws. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with the buildings which they’re selling or tearing down. It’s the people that live in those buildings who are struggling. And that’s where you need to use the resources to provide support like they did in Blagardsgade and do preventative work.

My daughter is six months old and I just got a letter saying that since I'm from a 'ghetto' area, I have to sign up to send my child to this institution for 25 hours a week to learn 'Danish values'.

by Samiah Qasim

I feel I have to fight. How can we change this law or even get it removed?

Lately, sometimes, I fear that a crazy person will push me on to the train tracks just because I’ve got a headscarf, and suddenly they don’t see me as Danish any more. It wasn’t like that eight years ago. The politicians have just created hate, fear and division, and that’s very frightening to witness. 

My daughter is six months old and I just got a letter saying that since I’m from a ‘ghetto’ area, I have to sign up to send my child to this institution for 25 hours a week to learn ‘Danish values’.

If we refuse, we don’t get any benefits or child support. The only exception is if the municipality steps in. So if I say my child is not ready at the age of one but will be ready at one year and three months, it becomes society’s decision.

This has nothing to do with me as a mother. It is based simply on my address. If I moved over to the other side of the road, I would not be having any of these problems.

I don’t feel this law makes us feel included – it’s the opposite. You’re saying to kids from a young age that they are not good enough, that they have to do extra to be accepted by society.

Source: Al Jazeera