OPINION: Why do only 'Danes' live in Denmark?

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
OPINION: Why do only 'Danes' live in Denmark?
File photo: Erik Refner/Ritzau Scanpix

Danish officials and citizens of all political stripes generally claim they want foreigners to fit right in, ‘integrating’ into Danish society – once the right caveats are met, naturally.


Immigration and migration of various forms – be it of refugees, foreign professionals or others – has been a big deal in Denmark for years now. Decades, probably. It certainly feels like it.

Yet for newcomers to Danish society, whatever their reasons for coming here, the discussion and demands of integration still often feel like a one-way street. We must do this, that and the other, then we’ll be welcome. Subscribe to Danish values and you'll get on fine, you’ll feel like a Dane.

Except you won’t.

Years of study of the effects of migration on self identity have shown that people who move between two countries, or are the children of immigrants, find themselves to varying extents in a ‘transnational space’ – a state of feeling an attachment to two or more countries that is by its nature a different sense of identity to that felt by people who know only a single nationality.

But there are ways to increase the sense of belonging or attachment felt towards a new country, which has a knock-on effect on the ability of individuals to function within that society.

This applies alike to people who are displaced from their original homeland because of conflict, those who move for their careers, those in international marriages, and any other of the myriad reasons for relocating.

One key aspect is language and the way minority ethnic and international communities are identified in the national discourse.

Let’s take a look at some Danish news stories in a range of media from the last week or so, translated as directly as possible from Danish into English.

“Sexually transmitted diseases are affecting more and more Danes”: Berlingske 
“Danes are cutting off their cable TV like never before”: Politiken
“The bank card is still Danes’ preferred payment form”: Jyllands-Posten
“[AirBnB] agreement is good news for Danish families”: DR
“Just under 50,000 Danes in Denmark are treated for cataracts annually”: TV2

Do the growing number of cases of STDs in Denmark only affect people with Danish passports? Do foreigners tend to pay with cash? Is there not a single international among the 50,000 people who have cataracts removed yearly?

It would clearly be more correct to write “people living in Denmark”, rather than “Dane”, for each one of these examples.

This description of every single person living in Denmark as a “Dane” is likely done out of habit and might even seem inclusive on first glance. But it is nevertheless ignorant of the fact that you don't have to be a Dane to be in Denmark.

Meanwhile, people with non-Danish ethnic and national backgrounds are quite clearly marked out as being anything other than “Danes”.

“The Social Liberal party wants to ‘roll out the red carpet’ for foreigners born and raised in Denmark who stay away from crime,” Jyllands-Posten wrote last week.

Foreigners born and raised in Denmark? The article is referring to people who have lived their whole lives in Denmark, but do not hold Danish citizenship, since their parents are not from Denmark, as “foreigners”. That's getting into a real grey area.

READ ALSO: Here's where Denmark's foreign residents live and where they come from

This is not -- at least, not primarily -- the fault of the Danish media. It’s a linguistic norm. There is no better embodiment of this than the words used in politics for anything related to immigration law.

Denmark’s state migration service is called Udlændingestyrelsen – literally “The Foreigner Authority”. The equivalent authority in Sweden is called Migrationsverket -- "The Migration Agency", again literally translated.

The Danish ministry for immigration’s official name is Udlændinge- og Integrationsministeriet. That translates literally to “The Foreigner and Integration Ministry,” although the ministry has no English version of its website to check whether that translation is actually used.

Several political parties, including some left-wing ones, call their spokespeople on immigration issues “foreigner spokesperson” (udlændingeordfører).

A term often used to described a party's views on immigration is its udlændingepolitik (policies on foreigners). Alternatively, you might hear about its position on udlændingeområdet (the subject of foreigners).

These words carry divisive subtexts. 'What is your policy on the subject of foreigners?' is a question made on the base assumption that foreigners are a problem.

One could argue that words like these cannot be compared with their direct English equivalents. Meanings of words are different in their own specific linguistic and cultural contexts. This itself has been discussed before in Denmark: see the debate over some right-wing politicians’ insistence on using the word ‘neger’ (literally ‘negro’ but not with the same connotations, its exponents would argue).

But for me, that doesn’t reflect the reality of the way people from other countries, who live and work in Denmark, are commonly viewed in this type of Danish discourse.

“We want to make it clear that that there is something quite special about becoming a Danish citizen,” immigration minister Inger Støjberg said today as the government launched its plan for the latest round of curbs on citizenship.

She’s absolutely right.

Internationals in Denmark, expected to live up to ever-stricter requirements if they are to be considered worthy of the holy grail of Danish citizenship, must accept the fact that they are not ‘Danes’, nor are they even ‘people living in Denmark’. They are foreigners, and therefore not worthy of a mention in any context other than trying to keep them out.

READ ALSO: The end of free language classes will push foreign professionals out of Denmark: DI



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