Denmark's 'ghetto plan' unlikely to solve problems faced by underprivileged areas: residents

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Farah Bahgat - [email protected]
Denmark's 'ghetto plan' unlikely to solve problems faced by underprivileged areas: residents
Photo: Farah Bahgat

Denmark's so-called ghetto plan, which has received broad coverage in domestic and international media, is unlikely to to have any real effect on social challenges in underprivileged areas, residents, representatives and experts told The Local.


The plan, which was passed in part by parliament last month with further consultations due in the autumn, comprises 22 initiatives to ‘integrate’ the ‘ghettos’. These include including demolition of housing units, double punishment for certain crimes in certain areas, stricter rules regarding social welfare benefits, mandatory day-care for children to learn Danish, easier access for municipalities to residents’ data and financial incentive for municipalities to achieve high levels of integration. 

READ ALSO: Here's what we know about Denmark's 'ghetto plan'

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and seven ministers presented the ‘ghetto plan’ in Mjølnerparken, one of the so-called ghettos in Copenhagen, in March this year.

It has since received considerable attention at home and abroad, including in international media such as the New York Times and the Guardian.

The manager of the residents' association in Mjølnerparken said how he did not understand why his four-block neighbourhood was classified as a ghetto.

“People from Mjølnerparken and other people agree that it is not a ghetto,” Muhammed Aslam told The Local.

The Danish Ministry of Transport and Housing classifies 27 underprivileged areas around Denmark as ‘ghettos’, based on criteria including residents’ heritage, levels of education, employment rate and crime rate.

READ ALSO: The criteria Denmark uses to classify neighbourhoods as 'ghettos'

Nathalia Patrick, a Ukrainian immigrant who spoke to The Local's reporter while she was walking with her child in the park in Mjølnerparken, said conditions in the area compared favourably to those in underprivileged neighbourhoods in France and Ukraine, where she has also lived.

“I don’t think it [Mjølnerparken] is ghetto,” she said. “I come here sometimes to play with my child because I think it is a peaceful area.”

The government proposal, meanwhile, states its aim to solve problems in specific areas.

“We need a more precise effort, whereby we do not inconvenience Danes all over Denmark. Action must be taken where the problems are greatest, and there only,” as Rasmussen said in his New Year's speech.

READ ALSO: Rasmussen's call for 'end of ghettos' is not the first by a Danish PM

While the government dismisses criticisms that the ghetto plan is specifically targeting people with certain ethnicities or religions, residents of the areas in question have disputed this, primarily because of the criterion that labels an area as a ghetto if more than 50 percent of its residents have non-Western origins.

Aslam recalled the day when the plan was presented in Mjølnerparken, with the high-profile political announcement met by demonstrations calling for “equality of the law”, to which the minister of integration Inger Støjberg, writing on her Facebook page, rhetorically asked “which law”, in reference to Islamic Sharia law.

“[The government] doesn’t say it directly, but indirectly they just want to split Muslims from living together. And now they blame all problems on Muslims,” Aslam told The Local.

A 19-year-old resident of Mjølnerparken, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that she felt the law was tailored against a certain group of people.

“It is very discriminating and makes us feel like outsiders, and promotes a bad image of us in society, it is very stigmatising” she said.

Aslam said his four children, who were born in Mjølnerparken are enrolled in higher education, are still considered to be ‘ghetto’ because they live in a certain neighbourhood.

“What they [the government] are saying is that if you come from Africa or Asia or the Middle East then you cannot be Danish,” Aslam said on what the ghetto plan meant to him, adding “integration comes from both sides, not just one side.” 

Photo: Farah Bahgat

In Aarhus, residents of Gellerupparken, another of the areas designated as 'ghettos', also feel discriminated against because of the plan, according to Maher Taha, a Palestinian who lived for 16 years in Gellerupparken and offers legal consultations to residents.

Taha admitted that Gellerupparken has a lot of crime-related problems, but disagreed on the government’s approach to solving them.

The situation in Mjølnerparken is arguably different to that in Gellerupparken. Of the two neighbourhoods, the latter has higher proportional figures for unemployment (52.9 percent vs. 43.5 percent in Mjølnerparken), as well as for criminal convictions (3.43 vs 2.52 percent respectively), according to official figures. For Mjølnerparken, those crime figures actually fall outside the 'ghetto' threshold, but the area qualifies on other categories. 

READ ALSO: Crime rates falling in Denmark’s underprivileged areas

“Of course, people in a way feel discriminated against, because where is democracy? They decided without asking the residents. So we think democracy in this case was limited, just as it is in the countries we came from,” Taha said.

Aslam shared the same concern as Taha.

“(The government) hasn’t discussed anything with us, they did not ask what we needed, they are just sitting in the parliament, discussing with people who have the same ideas like them,” he said.

But what do the people need? They gave us different answers.

Aslam said he wanted the government to remove his neighbourhood off the ghetto list.

“The young generation of Mjølnerparken are doing well in their education.

“If the government wants to make a positive [impact] they should move us out of the ‘ghetto list’ and use more positive terms,” he said.  

The 19-year-old resident said that she wanted the government to focus more on youths education and employment.

Taha, said the biggest concern residents of Gelleruparken had was their relocation and demolition of their buildings.

READ ALSO: 'Ghettos must go': Government presents plan in Copenhagen underprivileged area

The government’s proposal of the ghetto plan states that 12 billion Danish kroner (about 1.6 billion Euros) will be dedicated for the demolition and conversion of some buildings in the ‘ghettos’. According to the government’s website, ‘converting’ the ‘ghetto’ will be done by selling units on the general housing market.

“This allows private investors and homeowners with new housing types to help change the housing composition in the area. This must be done either by private investors buying a part of the current general housing or by building new private housing in the ghetto areas,” the government’s website states.

John Andersen, a professor at Roskilde University's Department of People and Technology, said that this part of the ghetto plan would have an impact on the Danish social housing system.

“There are some interesting contradictions. The government says they want to make sure that we have mixed neighbourhoods, but they want to reduce social housing, which will lead to more segregation,” he said.

“The ghetto plan reinforced anti-immigrant and anti-inclusive rhetoric and it is an attempt against the unique social housing model in Denmark that is part of the welfare system and this is not that first time, right wing parties attacked the social housing system in the 80s as well,” Andersen added.

According to Carsten Jensen, a professor at Aarhus University's Department of Political Science, politicians do not see the existence of the ghetto plan within a welfare system as a dilemma because “it [the welfare system] only achieves equality for the ‘native group’, so they don’t see a problem with the ghetto plan.”

“The goal of the welfare state is not to legally achieve equality, so there is no conceptual reason why the ghetto plan shouldn’t exist within the welfare state and they are also two very different political domains,” Jensen said.

“The goal of the ghetto plan is to ensure equality and integration, but so far it seems like the extreme way to do it,” he added.

The ghetto plan is a result of a political discourse which has existed for the past decade, according to Andersen.

“We have had populist pressure that to some extended affected other political parties,” he said, “the growth of the Danish People Party promoted anti-immigration stances to other parties.”

“In the ghetto problem, the word ghetto is a problem,” Andersen said, citing that it reinforced discrimination.

“The plan could have been good and does have valid points, while other points are discriminatory, such as the double punishment, which results in lack of social justice,” he said.

READ ALSO: Danish government wants double punishments for crimes in underprivileged areas

But Andersen said he doubts that the plan will actually have as strong an impact as intended. 

“Municipalities have (such) a great power in Denmark, that they could counteract national policies. What I hope is that there will be a gap between the national level and the local level in implementation,” he said.



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