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Is There Something Rotten in the State of Denmark?

Over the course of the past decade, the majority of the important players on the Danish political scene have moved towards a rather conservative approach to immigration. As a result, the current laws and procedures regarding Danish citizenship have made it increasingly difficult for individuals with immigrant backgrounds to become Danish citizens, thereby alienating large portions of Denmark's minority population. The current immigration policy should not only be regarded as resulting from the influence of the nationalistic Danish People's Party. It is also rooted in the common perception that Danes have of the welfare state: a homogeneous society grounded on non-negotiable Western values. However, the question now arises: do the people of Denmark want to live in a diverse society?

The Danish economy is one of the most competitive economies in the world. Its political system is perceived to be free of corruption. It boasts a press that is more free than almost any other and a recent University of Leicester study has named Denmark the happiest country in the world. Add to this a strong democratic tradition, a functioning welfare state, and a celebrated emphasis on equality, and you will understand why one would like to be part of Danish society. Where, then, does diversity enter into the picture? In 2007, 8.8% of the population of Denmark had an immigrant background, while in Copenhagen (in 2008), the corresponding figure was 21.8%. . Like it or not, parts of Denmark – particularly the country's capital – are increasingly losing their homogeneous makeup due to the continuous influx of non-Danes from a variety of cultural backgrounds. In a conversation with Eva Ersbøll, senior research fellow at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and a prime expert in legal issues of citizenship and nationality, she claims, "Denmark has not perceived itself as a multicultural society, in comparison to many other European countries.” This mismatch between the internal self-perception of Danish society and its progressively more heterogeneous character raises the question: is such a level of diversity compatible with the Danish welfare state?

The set of criteria for acquiring Danish citizenship has moved towards an active involvement in Danish society, as witnessed by the set of conditions prescribed by the Ministry of Integration. As Ersbøll points out, the current policy on permanent residence does not generally grant exemptions to Danish-born children of immigrant parents. Like those not born in Denmark, between the age of 18 and 19 they must remain active after graduating from high school: either through employment, enrollment in an educational program, or a combination of temporary work and enrollment. If they do not meet these requirements, the Danish-born youngsters, who had previously been able to apply for Danish citizenship at the age of eighteen, must wait until they fulfill all requirements for permanent residence, including the 2.5 employment requirement and supplementary integration-related activities. Moreover, applicants must show proof that they have been self-supporting for at least four and a half out of the past five years. This requirement is potentially detrimental to applicants with immigrant backgrounds, since they are more likely to have required additional social services or benefits due to their disadvantaged position in Danish society. Furthermore, the citizenship test, which is the final prerequisite for completing the naturalization process, has become more demanding over the past few years. Media surveys show that even people born and educated in Denmark find it difficult to pass this test, since the very phrasing of the questions leaves ample space for misinterpretation and/or failure. Another major obstacle to passing the test, according to Hanne Kofoed, citizenship test instructor at an adult learning center in Frederiksberg, is the applicants' knowledge of the Danish language. In 2008, Denmark tightened the language requirements for gaining citizenship, making them the strictest in Europe. In essence, this change means that for one to be able to pass the test one must have advanced speaking, reading, and writing skills. For many immigrants, it is extremely difficult to attain this level of proficiency due to a lack of interaction and dire economic conditions which prevent them from being able to learn the language in a formalized manner. The harsh citizenship policy is also reflected in the country's stand on dual citizenship. In Ersbøll's view, even in comparison with other EU countries that disallow dual citizenship, Denmark is less inclined to grant it.

One sound justification for the Danish government's approach to citizenship can be found in the character of the welfare state. The current citizenship law rewards young, highly educated individuals who are able to support themselves and likely to adapt to the Danish way of life. This policy has the effect of filtering out individuals, often including Danish-born children of immigrants, who would constitute a burden to the welfare state without contributing to its maintenance. Such contributions will become particularly significant in the coming years, as the postwar generation reaches retirement and increasingly begins to rely on the functioning welfare state. By this economic rationale, the aim of the Danish citizenship law appears to be the preservation of the healthy state of contemporary Danish society. Although it might be economically desirable for Denmark to pursue a policy that selects only the brightest of immigrants, this approach raises ideological questions that need to be addressed. Not only does it make it more difficult to become a Danish citizen, but it sends a signal to the people who have decided to make Denmark their home, yet now feel excluded from Danish society. Even individuals who have been born in Denmark or lived there for most of their lives find the citizenship procedure, in which they are now asked to prove that they are Danish, to be humiliating. Many refugees and second-generation immigrants find themselves in an unenviable position: although they feel themselves to be part of Danish society, they are being pushed aside with the argument that they have to “earn” that status. Speaking with university students Selma Jusufbegović (27) and Ali Sufi (28), the detrimental effect of such a citizenship policy becomes clearer. They both came to Denmark as refugees – from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran, respectively – and have already become Danish citizens. Although they both agree that Denmark has one of the best functioning state systems, providing people with a variety of choices and opportunities, Selma points out, "no matter how much effort you put into meeting all the necessary requirements, having the best grades, being the smartest or the funniest, as an immigrant you are never good enough.“

In any case, the current citizenship law and procedure have had the effect of alienating the immigrant population of Denmark. Many Danish-born people of immigrant background and non-ethnic Danes, who have lived in Denmark for most of their lives, are now suddenly challenged to fulfill numerous citizenship requirements simply in order to be granted access to the society that they already consider their own. Moreover, this restrictive policy is counterproductive; it has not succeeded in bringing the smartest foreigners to Denmark since many of them are unwilling to adapt to the Danish way of life, in which process they would have to renounce their values and identity in exchange for the opportunity to be part of the Danish welfare state. The government might have felt that this change was necessary in order to please the electoral body. But is this what the Danish public truly wants? Namely, do the Danes wish to go back in time by making segregation the immediate result of their immigration policy? Should the price of being a Dane be to renounce every bit of one’s cultural identity, knowing that diversity can be deemed perfectly compatible with equality, democracy, and the welfare state? It appears that Danish society is betraying the values that it claims to staunchly safeguard when, under pretense of interation, it applies a double standard to some of its less fortunate inhabitants.







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