The Danish government is introducing a new set of laws that would regulate all aspects of life in 25 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves known as “ghettos”–a controversial move that aims to promote assimilation into Danish society and singles out families with young children.
According to Quartz’s Aamna Mohdin, “there were about 50,000 people with non-Western backgrounds living in Denmark in 1980”; “today, that figure is nearly half a million.” The proposal put forward by the government of Liberal prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen includes 22 measures that Danish policymakers say are aimed at integrating immigrant communities and breaking up the so-called ghettos by 2030. Many of the measures have already been approved by a parliamentary majority, with the rest slated for a vote this fall.
Critics claim the measures essentially represents a parallel system of laws that overwhelmingly target poor, Muslim migrants—an interesting choice of language, given the government’s policy of calling the ghettos “parallel societies.” Sociologist Amro Ali, writing in Time Magazine, claims that “the legislation reads like a 19th century missionary enterprise, a colonial experiment to civilize the brown folks.” One thing is clear: Denmark’s new laws are part of a broader European trend of attempts to use the law to make assimilation mandatory.
Why immigrant policies target kids
Key to Denmark’s plan are early childhood development measures that attempt to assimilate the children of immigrants into Danish culture and public life. Proposals include mandatory day care for a minimum of 30 hours a week for children up to six years old living in one of the 25 residential areas, which includes courses in Danish values “such as gender equality, community, participation and co-responsibility.”That’s a different rule than the one governing Danish parents who are legal citizens, who are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six. Another rule would instate targeted language tests in the first year of primary school in schools where more than 30% of students come from one of the 25 “ghettos,” in order to ascertain that children are reaching Danish language benchmarks.
Some measures appear explicitly punitive. One targets primary schools with a large proportion of “ghetto children” who miss certain achievement criteria for more than 3 years in a row. Those schools will now incur sanctions, including a possible shutdown or government takeover. Another proposal involves withdrawing social benefits from parents whose children miss more than 15% of the school quarter. Perhaps the most striking is the last measure, which involves a possible four-year prison sentence for immigrant parents who take their children on “extended visits” to their country of origin in a way that the Danish government determines compromises the children’s “schooling, language and well-being.” The measure does not quantify what makes for an extended visit.
Children are a focal point of immigration policies worldwide because, especially in the early years, they assimilate more readily into their new societies. They learn new languages faster, make friends more easily, and more readily adopt their new culture and customs than those who emigrate as adults.
How do other European countries assimilate migrant children?
Denmark is far from the only country that has adopted a policy of mandatory assimilation in recent years.
In Germany, language tests are carried out on migrant children in all federal länder as early as kindergarten, or even before kids enroll in schools. German asylum applicants, including children, go through integration courses to learn information about Germany and German values. According to the Graduate Institute of Geneva, “some foreigners need to be taught that … on Sundays … children’s noise should be kept to the minimum.”
But most European countries’ immigration policies are less explicit about targeting children for assimilation than Denmark’s. That is part of what makes the Danish government’s new proposal so distinctive.
Obligatory civic integration courses and tests for newcomers are a hallmark of immigration policies in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Many of these courses were voluntary in the 1990s; in most European countries today, they are compulsory.
Meanwhile, in France, where low-income Muslim migrants and refugees are ghettoized into working-class suburbs called banlieues, the government of Emmanuel Macron is proposing creating independent legal authorities to oversee public policies for the banlieues. If the Danish example is anything to go by, parallel legal systems are a slippery slope.
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.