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Ethnic Engineering: Denmark’s Ghetto Policy

The very word is chilling, but has become normalised
political currency in Denmark. Since 2010, the Danish
government has resorted to generating
“ghetto lists”
marking out areas as socially
problematic for the state. In 2018, the country’s
parliament passed “ghetto” laws to further regulate the
lives of individuals inhabiting various city areas focusing
on their racial and ethnic origins. The legislation
constitutes the spear tip of the “One Denmark without
Parallel Societies – No Ghettos in 2030” initiative; its
target: “non-Western” residents who overbalance the
social ledger by concentrating in various city

The “ghetto package”, comprising
over 20 different statutes
, grants the government power
to designate various neighbourhoods as “ghettos” or
“tough ghettos”. That nasty formulation is intended to
have consequences for urban planning, taking into account
the percentage of immigrants and descendants present in that
area of “non-Western background”. One Danish media
outlet, assiduously avoiding the creepier elements of the
policy, saw it as the
“greatest social experiment of the

Bureaucrats consider the following: the
number of residents (greater than 1,000); a cap of 50% of
“non-Westerners”; and whether the neighbourhood meets
any two of four criteria, namely employment, education,
income and criminality. Doing so enables the authorities to
evict residents, demolish buildings and alter the character
of the neighbourhood, a form of cleansing that has
shuddering historical resonances. Central to this is
an effort
to reduce the stock of “common family
housing” – 40% in tough ghettos by 2030 – supposedly
available to all based on principles of affordability,
democracy and egalitarianism.

The problematic
designation of people of “non-Western background” is
also a bit of brutal public policy. It is a discriminatory
measure that has concerned the UN Committee on Social,
Economic and Cultural Rights (CESCR) and the Council of
Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention
for the Protection of National Minorities (ACFC). In its concluding
on the sixth periodic report of Denmark
from 2019, the CESCR urged the country’s adoption of “a
rights-based approach to its efforts to address residential
segregation and enhance social cohesion.” This would
involve the scrapping of such terms as “ghetto” and
“non-Western” and the repeal of provisions with direct
or indirect discriminatory effects “on refugees, migrants
and residents of the ‘ghettos’.”

The use of
“descendants” also suggests the importance of bloodline
that would have seemed entirely logical to the Nazi drafters
of the Nuremberg
. The German laws, announced in 1935, made no
reference to the criteria of religion in defining a
“Jew”, merely the importance of having three or four
Jewish grandparents. Doing so roped those whose grandparents
had converted to Christianity and the secular. First came
the sentiments; then came the laws.

This irredeemable
state of affairs has solid, disturbing implications, though
both the CESCR and ACFC tend to be almost mild mannered in
pointing it out: You did not belong and you cannot belong.
It is less an integrating measure than an excluding one.
Denmark’s “Ghetto Package”, as the ACFC puts
, “sends a message that may have a counter-effect on
their feeling of belonging and forming an integral part of
Danish society.” It also urged that Denmark “reconsider
the concepts of ‘immigrants and descendants of immigrants
of Western origin’ and ‘immigrants and descendants of
immigrants of non-Western origin’.”

For its part,
the Ministry of Interior and Housing finds the package all
above board, a mere matter of statistical bookkeeping. Using
“non-Western” as a marker adopted to distinguish the EU
states, the UK, Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco,
Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, the Vatican State, Canada,
United States, Australia and New Zealand. “All other
countries,” the Ministry curtly observed in
a statement
, “are non-Western countries.”

year, Mjølnerparken, a housing project in Copenhagen’s
Nørrebro area, became the subject of intense interest in
the application of the Ghetto laws. With 98 percent of the
2,500 residents being immigrants or the children of
immigrants, a good number hailing from the Middle East and
Africa, the “tough ghetto” designation was a formality.
Apartment sales were promised, effectively threatening the
eviction of the tenants.

These actions were proposed
despite ongoing legal proceedings against the Ministry of
Interior and Housing by affected residents. Declaratory
relief is being sought, with the applicants
that the measures breach the rights to equality,
respect for home, property and the freedom to choose their
own residence.

Three rapporteurs from the United
Nations also warned
that the sale should not go ahead as litigation was taking
place. “It does not matter whether they own or rent all
residents should have a degree of security of tenure, which
guarantees legal protection against forced eviction,
harassment and other threats.”

Such policies tend to
consume the reason for their implementation. Disadvantage
and stigmatisation are enforced, not lessened. Former
lawmaker Özlem Cekic suggests
as much. “It is not only created to hit the Muslim groups
and immigrant groups but the working class as well. A lot of
people in the ‘ghettoes’, they don’t have economic

The Ministry has
to the protests with proposals that ostensibly
reform the legal package. The word “ghetto”, for
instance, will be removed and the share of people of
non-Western background in social housing will be reduced to
30% within 10 years. Those moved out of the areas will be
relocated to other parts of the country. According to Nanna
Margrethe Kusaa of the Danish Institute for Human Rights,
“the ethnicity criteria has a more sharpened focus on it
than before.” Officials have merely refined the prejudice
in one of Europe’s most troubling instances of ethnic
engineering. To this, Cekic has an ominous
: “How can you expect [immigrants] to be loyal
to a country that doesn’t accept them as they

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email:

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