Denmark’s ‘ghetto package’ – discrimination enshrined in law

Denmark’s ‘ghetto package’ – discrimination enshrined in law


Written by: John Graversgaard, Liz Fekete

Since IRR News last reported on Denmark’s ‘ghetto package’, presented to parliament in March 2018 to regulate life in the so-called ‘hard ghettos’ of Mjølnerparken in Copenhagen, Gadehavegård in Høje-Taastrup, Vollsmose in Odense and Gellerupparken/Toveshøj in Aarhus, Denmark has had a general election.

The previous centre-right government led by the Venstre party (Liberals) was replaced in June 2019 by a centre-left minority government, led by the Social Democratic Party. But has a new government adopted a different approach to immigration, integration and the ‘ghetto package’? Sadly, the answer is a very definite no. But perhaps this is not surprising given that the Social Democrats, when in opposition, willingly voted for the ‘ghetto package’, an approach that chimed with its own ‘firm approach’ towards immigrants.

The previous government’s ‘ghetto package’ was aimed at getting rid of ‘ghettos’ by 2030. The 22 proposals in the ‘package’, now known as L38, were passed in November 2018, and so far the following laws and policies from the package have been adopted:

* Amendments to the Non-profit Housing Act, Non-profit Housing Rent Act and the Rent Act;

* Powers for the police to define geographical areas as ‘increased punishment zones’ in which punishments for certain crimes (eg, violence, vandalism, burglary, threatening behaviour, arson, drug offences, possession of weapons) can be doubled;

* A mandatory pre-school programme, making 25 hours a week of day care obligatory for children from the age of one who live in ‘vulnerable’ or ‘ghetto’ areas. Municipalities may terminate child benefit if parents refuse to comply;

* A ban on the wearing of full-face veil covering (popularly known as the ‘burqa ban’);

* The April 2017 Punishment of Homeless People law (popularly known as The Roma Law), making it a criminal offence to sleep outdoors in a ‘camp’ that is considered ‘unsettling’ by the neighbourhood.  Statistics show that most of those prosecuted under the law are from Romania, Albania and Bulgaria.

Looking to the Ombudsman and the international community

But Danish NGOs and anti-racist organisations are fighting back. As the laws flout anti-discrimination laws enshrined in international conventions that Denmark is a party to, their first step has been to painstakingly document the discriminatory aspects of the laws, turning also to international bodies for assistance. The Council of the Danish Bar & Law Society and the think-tank Justitia have joined the fray, agreeing that the double punishment laws are discriminatory and also pointing out that the laws, when combined with what is referred to as the ‘paradigm shift in refugee policy’,[1]  will lead to arbitrary deportations of foreign nationals, including those born in Denmark. This is a very real threat, as local municipalities have been sending letters to Danish citizens with dual nationality informing them that if they give up their Danish citizenship and move to another country they will be rewarded. The approach of the local municipality is under scrutiny in Aarhus, where a complaint has been submitted to the Ombudsman alleging discrimination in housing allocation in the not-for-profit sector.

The most significant development to date has come through the work of a number of NGOs, which formed a coalition and jointly authored a shadow report to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) alleging discrimination. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has tacitly acknowledged the validity of the criticisms of the NGOs (SOS Racisme Denmark, the Centre for Danish-Muslim Relations, Women in Dialogue, Refugees Welcome, Almen Modstand [Common Resistance], DEMOS and ENAR Denmark), by making a  number of recommendations challenging the ‘numerous retrogressive’ measures introduced by the Danish government and reminding the Danish state of its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

Patiently documenting discrimination

What the NGOs’ report set out to do was to methodically unpick the discrimination, direct or indirect, in the laws outlined above to demonstrate beyond doubt their discriminatory aspect. From start to finish, the ‘ghetto package’ is an example of direct discrimination, they argue, because its entire edifice rests on the targeting of areas as ‘ghettos’ based on the number of ‘non-western’ people residing there, a conceptual starting point which stigmatises already marginalised, racialised minorities. It also draws on Islamophobia, with the ‘burqa ban’ deemed another example of direct discrimination (on the basis of religion), while the mandatory day care package, in addition to being discriminatory, is an attempt at forced assimilation. Double punishment zones are also clear examples of discrimination, the NGOs say, as all citizens should be equal before the law, no matter where they live.

©Tobias Nilsson-demonstration in Mjølnerparken, categorized as a ‘hard ghetto’ in Copenhagen

And it seems the United Nations has heard them. Though the conclusions to its sixth periodic review, released in October 2019 by the CESCR, are written in the usual cautious language of UN reports, they do urge the government to adopt a rights-based approach in efforts to address residential segregation. They criticise all the laws comprising the ‘ghetto package’, and ask, amongst other things, that the Danish government removes ‘the definitional element of a “ghetto” with reference to residents from “non-Western” countries’ – with that very term described in no uncertain terms as a ‘discriminator on the basis of ethnic origin and nationality’. The ‘coercive and punitive’ aspects of L38 are all recognised, with an appeal to the Danish government to replace sanctions with ‘meaningful consultation with the concerned communities’ and to give communities the support they need to ‘facilitate integration’.

Concepts and frameworks

Throughout the NGOs’ submission, they had argued that it was not just the discriminatory outcomes that should be under the spotlight, but the ‘us’ (westerners) and ‘them’ (non-westerners) framework which makes use of concepts that, even if not overtly racist, institutionalise discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and nationality into the very structures of the state.

Non-westerners counted

A central concept of the ‘ghetto package’ is the labelling of areas as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘ghettos’ on the basis of the number of ‘non-western’ people there. This stigmatisation started in 2002 when Statistics Denmark (DST) introduced the term. Since then, all immigration statistics produced by DST utilise this term. But what does it mean?  For DST, ‘western’ includes not just the 28 members of the EU countries and associated countries (the EEA), but also four Anglo-Saxon countries – the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – which, in geographical terms, are not located in the west, as the term would suggest, but merely share the characteristic of having majority white populations. Thus ‘non-western countries’, it would seem, amount to the rest of the world – so a total of 156 countries with very different characteristics are lumped into one overarching category, whose only common characteristic seems to be that the majority of the population in these countries are not white!

 ‘Parallel society’ and ‘ghetto’ as stigmatising notions

Building on Statistics Denmark’s discriminatory categorisation, the government went on to introduce the concept of the ‘parallel society’. First used in the 2018 government report Parallelsamfund Danmark (Parallel Societies in Denmark), it described the growth of dangerous parallel societies where citizens practise a culture with different – and threatening – religious and other values from those of the majority. Today, this negative concept of the ‘parallel society’ has come to stigmatise those who live in the so-called ‘ghettos’  as  living within  ‘ethnic cultural or cultural-religious’ homogeneous segregated  enclaves where there is  almost complete everyday civil, societal and economic segregation.  It is a picture not recognised by those who live there!

Ending up with ‘social cleansing’

Denmark has a big not-for-profit housing sector run by housing associations, which has been a thorn in the side of neoliberals who believe the ‘market’ should take over this sector. Shamefully, the Social Democrats have gone along with the attack on the not-for-profit housing sector. Racism is being used to promote market interests. For the attempt to drastically reduce the number of housing associations could not have happened without mobilising fears about their ‘non-western’ residents. This is seen starkly in the debate preceding the introduction of the law, when the government stated that  ‘residents in the non-profit housing sector differ significantly from residents in the general housing market by … having more than 20 percent residents of ”non-western” backgrounds … It is necessary to change the resident composition of the housing estates … It is here in particular that many residents – often immigrants from “non-Western” countries and descendants of immigrants – live in isolated enclaves and do not adapt to Danish norms and values to a sufficient extent.’

Discrimination or state racism?

The work of NGOs to expose and counter discrimination in Denmark is welcome. But does the description of the ‘ghetto package’ as discriminatory go far enough?  When a state introduces discriminatory principles into law, wouldn’t this be more accurately described as ‘state racism’? Marie Northroup of Common Resistance thinks so. She told IRR News that ‘the reason we have now chosen to use the term “state racism” is that this form of racism is not just structural, embedded in underlying societal structures, or institutional, as in racial profiling in policing, but it has become part of the law. When the police are practicing racial profiling it may well be a systematic and integrated part of the institution, but it is still not formalised – ie, the police do not openly admit that their policies are based on race discrimination. If statistics on “non-western immigrants and their descendants” are an essential part of categorising an area as a “ghetto”, then we can see how state laws are shaped from the start by racialisation – a process that is then legitimised and normalised within the ‘ghetto policy’. And that is why, as far as we concerned, it is more accurate to describe what is happening in Denmark today as state racism.’

[1] In February 2019, the government introduced into law a ‘paradigm shift’ in refugee policy, ‘rooting out integration from the Law of Integration and shifting the focus to the return or repatriation of people of “non-Western background, whether foreign nationals or Danish citizens, with even UN settlement refugees afforded “temporary status” from now on’. More information in the Coalition Shadow Report.


Definition of ‘ghettos’ taken from Coalition Shadow Report: Danish state policy is now such that special measures can be implemented in ‘vulnerable areas’ or ‘ghettos’ of over 1,000 residents where the share of immigrants and descendants from ‘non-Western’ countries, whether Danish citizens or not’, exceeds 50 percent. In addition, at least two of the following four criteria have to be met:

  1. The share of residents aged between 18 and 64 years with no connection to the job market or the educational system exceeds 40 percent, averaged over the last two years;
  2. The share of residents convicted of violations of the Criminal Code, the Weapons Act, or the Controlled Substances Act exceeds three times the national norm, averaged over the last two years;
  3. The share of residents aged between 30 and 59 years with only lower secondary education exceeds 60 percent;
  4. The average gross income for taxpayers aged between 15 and 64 years in the area, excluding students, is less than 55 percent of the average gross income for the same group in the region.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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