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Facing Eviction, Residents Of Denmark's 'Ghettos' Are Suing The Government

After it became clear that his neighborhood would be targeted as part of a sweeping plan to rid the country of immigrant-heavy areas officially designated as "ghettos," Asif Mehmood and 11 of his neighbors filed a lawsuit against the Danish government.
Sidsel Overgaard/NPR
After it became clear that his neighborhood would be targeted as part of a sweeping plan to rid the country of immigrant-heavy areas officially designated as "ghettos," Asif Mehmood and 11 of his neighbors filed a lawsuit against the Danish government.

Asif Mehmood moved to his neighborhood in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen back in 1994, shortly after immigrating to Denmark from Pakistan. At the time, few ethnic Danes wanted to live there.

"A lot of bad things were happening," he says. Nørrebro has a long history of riots, and the year before had marked one of the most violent, with a clash between left-wing activists and police after Denmark voted to join the European Union.

Still, Mehmood and his wife moved in and raised three daughters, surrounded by people from dozens of countries, with Danish as their common language. "Maybe not so good Danish," he admits. "But they understand me, and I can understand them."

Earlier this summer, after it became clear that his housing project, called Mjølnerparken, would be targeted as part of a sweeping plan to rid the country of immigrant-heavy areas by 2030, Mehmood and 11 of his neighbors filed a lawsuit against the Danish government, with support from the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Despite a history of unrest and some continued problems with gang violence, Copenhagen's Nørrebro district is now considered a trendy place to live.
Stefano Guidi / Getty Images
Getty Images
Despite a history of unrest and some continued problems with gang violence, Copenhagen's Nørrebro district is now considered a trendy place to live.

The lawsuit, which alleges discrimination and seeks to invalidate a section of the government's so-called "ghetto package," comes as the country begins to grapple with broader questions about racism in light of global focus on the issue.

Mjølnerparken, which includes more than 500 apartments spread among four building blocks, has been declared a "hard ghetto" by the government. Under the law, which aims to desegregate such areas, public housing stock must be reduced to 40%. Mjølnerparken's nonprofit management company has decided to meet that requirement by selling two blocks to private investors.

Residents have been told they will be offered equivalent — as yet unspecified — housing units nearby. But Mehmood and some political opposition parties don't see how that's possible, given the relatively low cost of their rent-controlled housing compared with market prices in the surrounding area.

Targeting "vulnerable" areas

Nørrebro today is a diverse and trendy district in an expensive city. From his sunny balcony, Mehmood can look out over a tidy soccer pitch with a park nearby. He points to a high-rise that has just sprouted up near the neighborhood's new Metro station. Central Copenhagen is a 15-minute train ride away.

But Mjølnerparken is among some 40 areas the government considers "vulnerable" — places where residents' income and education levels are low, unemployment is high, and the number of people with criminal records is above the national average.

Vulnerable areas where "the number of immigrants and descendants from non-Western countries is over 50%" are officially defined as ghettos. The "hard ghettos" — targeted by the law for forced redevelopment and relocation — have met the government's ghetto criteria for four or more years. There are currently 15 "hard ghettos" in Denmark.

The stated aim of the ghetto package is to better integrate Denmark, where the number of non-Western immigrants and descendants from countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has grown from about 1% of the population in 1980 to almost 9% today.

The package of laws was passed at the end of 2018 by Denmark's previous center-right government, but the Social Democrats currently in power strongly defend it. In November, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called it "one of the best agreements made in Parliament."

"I want, in Denmark, a housing policy where every one of us sitting in this parliamentary room ... would want to live in any neighborhood of Denmark. And, honestly, I don't think that's true today," she told the parliament.

"I think it's good that we have finally gotten this on the table," she said, "that the social challenges in housing aren't just about unemployment, lack of education, Danish ability ... but also about ethnicity."

Protecting "Danishness"

In the eyes of Mehmood and the other plaintiffs, this statement and the law it's defending amount to blatant discrimination. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, while appreciating the law's intent to "enhance social cohesion," agrees, as does Amani Hassani, a Danish urban ethnographer based in London.

"We're not looking at public housing in ... mainly white, working-class communities," she says.

"We're looking at Mjølnerparken, that's a bike ride away from central Copenhagen. Why," she asks sardonically, "are these immigrants and refugees allowed to hold such valuable real estate?"

Hassani says that in Denmark, discussions about immigration and integration are deeply entangled with nationalism and the idea of protecting "Danishness."

"But what is this Danishness?" she says. "It's very vague, and no one can really define it. But we definitely know what it's not. And that's non-Western immigrants and their descendants."

Hassani falls into this category herself, with family roots in Denmark that go back almost 50 years. She believes that "non-Western immigrant" (an official term of Statistics Denmark) offers a tidy, geography-based euphemism for Black, brown and Muslim people in a country that prefers to see itself as colorblind.

"The ideal here is still that ... Denmark is a post-racial country. We're progressive! We're liberal! We don't see race, we don't see your color!" she says.

A recent survey found that 51% of Danes do not believe racism to be a widespread problem in their country, despite significant evidence to the contrary. A new Facebook page, "Speak out," run by a small team of artists and entrepreneurs, features dozens of Danes describing their personal experiences with racism. And a growing number of studies show that it is more difficult for minorities in Denmark to get jobs, housing and equal treatment at school.

Racism and free speech

Copenhagen-based teacher and anti-racism campaigner Mette Toft Nielsen thinks the apparent mismatch between perceptions and reality may be because of Danes' understanding of what counts as racism. As a consultant for public school teachers, she works to educate them about concepts like structural racism and microaggression as counterpoints to what she sees as the widespread Danish belief that racism is the purview of a few "bad" individuals.

"I think it could be interesting to ask white people [in Denmark] if they believe the ghetto package is racist," she says. "Because honestly? I don't think a lot of them would."

She says the same might be true for a child who dresses up in blackface for a Carnival party (a practice that is becoming rarer, but still not uncommon)or uses the N-word. "Would that be [considered] racist?" she says. "In a Danish context, not necessarily."

There is even a uniquely Danish expression for a certain kind of sugarcoated, casual perpetuation of derogatory language and stereotypes that is widely perceived as harmless: "hygge" racism.

Media studies scholar Morten Stinus Kristensen says there's a reason for all this.

"If you criticize racism, especially in language," he says "then you're attacking free speech." And freedom of speech is something many Danes would likely name as a core element of "Danishness." So, he says, "it's become this conversation stopper."

Kristensen says that has been especially true in the 15 years since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, setting off protests among Muslims around the world.

"The way that debate ended [in Denmark] was that Jyllands-Posten was [seen as] completely correct in publishing those and it was nothing more than testing free speech," he says.

Danes, he adds, are "not very good at considering that you can have free speech and also critique structural racism, and [the way] it manifests in language and discourse."

"The next generation has it worse"

Asif Mehmood says he never forgets that he has a home in Denmark because of "the nice Danish people." But he, too, has experienced racism — from the politicians who refuse to speak with him when visiting his neighborhood to more subtle interactions in which people "turn their face to the right or the left and say something. But you can catch it. You feel it."

Still, when he sees his daughters with their ethnically Danish friends, he feels hopeful.

"Last month," he says, "28 children [from Mjølnerparken] finished their education. When they are going in the system, they are going to meet a lot of Danish people and the situation must be changed. It takes time."

Amani Hassani isn't so sure. While she is happy to see that Danish minorities are finding new ways to express their individual experiences, she is more concerned about Denmark's hardening political rhetoric and policies like the ghetto package.

"I want to have that optimistic hope," she says. "But I can already tell — I had it pretty good growing up, but the next generation has it worse. In the last 20 years, the policy changes have become much more direct in targeting non-Western immigrants and descendants, and they're pushing the boundaries of what's constitutionally acceptable."

She and Mehmood agree, though, that Danish values — those they see as defining "Danishness" — are worth fighting for.

A desire to help people, says Mehmood.

"The fact that we take care of the weak ones of society," says Hassani.

Then she adds: "But I'm afraid that this is what is at stake right now."

In trying to protect "Danishness" through measures like the ghetto package, she explains, Denmark may be jeopardizing one of its own core values.

"Because the weak of today's societies are the refugees," she says. "And Denmark, as a society, is letting them down."

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After taking a semester off from college to intern with Vermont Public Radio in 1999, Sidsel was hooked. She went on to work as a reporter and producer at WNYC in New York and WAMU in Washington, DC before moving to New Mexico in 2007. As KUNM’s Conservation Beat reporter, Sidsel covered news from around the state having to do with protection of our earth, air and water. She also kept up a blog, earth air waves, filled with all the bits that can’t be crammed into the local broadcast of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. When not interviewing inspiring people (or sheep), Sidsel could be found doing underdogs with her daughters at the park.
Sidsel Overgaard