Growing Up ‘Non-Western’ in Denmark’s Nanny State

A government policy to break up majority-nonwhite neighborhoods is tearing apart the social fabric of tight-knit communities

Growing Up ‘Non-Western’ in Denmark’s Nanny State
Kindergarten children sit in bicycle carts in Roskilde, Denmark. (Ole Jensen/Getty Images)

Fatema Abdol-Hamid’s son was 11 months old when the municipality informed her that he must be in day care by his first birthday. Because he was born premature and was still small for his age, Abdol-Hamid wanted to keep her son home until he started walking. She pictured him at the day care, unable to reach a toy or get around without help, and didn’t like the image. With her husband running a Syrian restaurant and Abdol-Hamid studying for a bachelor’s degree, she felt there was no rush to send him off.

The Danish state, however, disagreed. Abdol-Hamid, a Danish-born citizen whose Palestinian parents immigrated here before she was born, lives with her family in Vollsmose, which is Denmark’s largest “ghetto,” an official label for low-income minority neighborhoods. As a resident of Vollsmose, the government deemed that her son was at risk of speaking inadequate Danish and doing poorly in school. Since 2019, all families in the so-called ghettos have been required to send their kids to day care when they turn 1 or risk losing public benefits, in a bid to teach them the “traditions, norms and values that we emphasize in this country.”

The Danish government also argues that children from these areas who skip day care are more likely to start school behind on language skills, putting them at risk of poorer educational and labor outcomes. Before the law took effect, 69% of 1-to-2-year-olds with parents who immigrated from non-Western countries were in day care, compared with 93% among children with Danish ancestry. In “vulnerable” neighborhoods, where a mix of white Danes, immigrants and their descendants live, 75% of 1-year-olds were enrolled in day care.

Back in Vollsmose — which is in Odense, Denmark’s third-largest city — Abdol-Hamid discovered the “traditions, norms and values” her son needed to learn when she applied for an exemption to the day care rule and a municipal social worker came to inspect the family home. Seeming sympathetic, the visitor ticked through a list of required questions, including how Abdol-Hamid would ensure gender equity among her kids (she only had one at the time), how she would teach him about democracy and how she would introduce him to Christmas — a question Abdol-Hamid, who is Muslim, did not quite know how to answer.

“It was very — not scary, but like, ‘Who do you think you are, coming to my house and teaching me how to be with my child, only because I live in Vollsmose?’” says Abdol-Hamid, now 26 and a mother of two. “I think it was very absurd. But I was like, I just have to finish this conversation, I have to just reach my goal” — all she wanted was for her son to avoid going to day care, and for the government not to remove her cash benefits.

The social worker expressed some concerns about her husband’s Danish language skills — he arrived as a political refugee from Syria about eight years ago, and while Abdol-Hamid says his Danish is excellent, he hasn’t yet taken a required language exam — but they got the exemption, though they couldn’t apply for extra money to watch their child at home, as families living outside ghetto areas can. Abdol-Hamid’s son started day care six months later, once he started walking; today, he’s almost 5 years old and his Danish is better than his Arabic.

The day care policy is one of Denmark’s controversial ghetto laws, which passed in 2018 with broad support from the mainstream political parties. Every year, the government takes stock of neighborhoods with at least 1,000 residents; to qualify as a “vulnerable residential area,” an area must meet two of four criteria covering the levels of residents’ education, unemployment, income and criminal convictions. But if an area meets the criteria and more than half of residents are of non-Western descent, it will be deemed a ghetto, or, since the center-left government rebranded the law in 2021, a “parallel society.”

The ghetto label can be a stamp of death for a neighborhood. Ghettos are subject to a host of targeted policies to break up ethnic enclaves through housing demolitions and redevelopment, forced evictions and higher penalties for crimes committed in the area. Parents must also, as Abdol-Hamid discovered, send their children to day care. However, annual enrollment at day cares in ghettos is capped at 30% for children from the neighborhood. This means that if 30% of the children at the day care closest to home are from a ghetto, the parents must send their children to a facility that has a smaller percentage of children from their neighborhood. The state has allocated $1.45 billion through 2026 to implement the law, with the goal of changing the ethnic and economic composition of ghetto neighborhoods by 2030.

The Danish government says these measures are needed to address “deep-rooted social and integrational challenges,” that is, a concern that non-Westerners don’t embrace Danish culture or speak the language well enough, despite benefiting from the country’s generous social welfare systems. Opponents of the laws say they undermine the social fabric of immigrant and second-generation neighborhoods, representing, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in 2018, “coercive assimilation.”

“Although there are trends like this across Europe, it seems to us to be one of the most, if not the most, explicit, egregious examples of racial discrimination,” says Susheela Math, a senior managing litigation officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative. She is supporting a legal challenge to the package that is now before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The latest iteration of the ghetto list, published in December 2023, names 12 neighborhoods as parallel societies, down from 29 in 2018 as the socioeconomic data changed, people moved out or the share of non-Westerners dropped below 50%. Today they are home to about 28,600 people, with the share of non-Western residents ranging from 53.1% to 77.4%, compared with 10.1% across Denmark. Most residents are from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan or Iran and, since 2022, Ukraine, though Ukrainians are exempt from the ghetto policies. The non-Western label includes everyone from recently arrived immigrants to passport-holding Danes with at least one parent from the designated countries.

“We come from so many cultural backgrounds, our common language is Danish,” says Majken Felle, a teacher who lives in the Copenhagen ghetto of Mjolneparken and is of Danish ancestry. “If you listen when the children play among each other, they always speak Danish.”

The ghetto laws’ housing policies are subject to regular protests — including a petition signed by 52,000 people — and ongoing lawsuits, but the day care rules have flown under the radar by comparison. Since 2019, at least 241 children have been enrolled in the compulsory program, which is free, and the families of at least 53 toddlers have been cut off from public benefits for defying the rules, according to municipal data collected by New Lines. These figures don’t include families who signed up for day care on their own initiative due to the looming threat of legal coercion.

Amani Hassani, a postdoctoral researcher at Brunel University London who studies the impact of the ghetto laws, sees the policy as a form of “displacement pressure,” meaning better-resourced families can move out to evade the rules while vulnerable residents are left behind, lacking the community support of their former neighbors.

Conservative lawmakers introduced the day care proposal in 2018, armed with a preliminary study showing that bilingual children with a non-Western background scored poorly in language tests at age 3. While these kids tended to improve by their 6th birthdays, they generally did worse than monolingual families. The study included a few hundred children — those with parents from Denmark, Western and non-Western countries alike — and was based on standardized language assessments that the researchers acknowledged could be flawed because they don’t take into account how bilingual or socially disadvantaged children learn languages. For the study, educational staff measured kids’ pronunciation and asked them to name objects and colors based on pictures, among other tests, and parents filled out reports on their children’s vocabulary; researchers then assigned them an overall language score.

Other researchers said that policymakers shouldn’t use these types of language tests to justify mandatory day care because they don’t capture the various ways kids communicate with each other, and argued that young children don’t need to progress in Danish at the exact same pace in order to master the language. Political opposition to the plan also came from professional groups like the early childhood educators’ union and left-wing parties who wanted to encourage day care uptake in other ways, for example by having municipal health workers discuss day care when they meet with new parents. But the legislation ultimately passed the Danish parliament with 78% support.

“I’m not too worried about the mandatory element,” Ane Halsboe-Jorgensen, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, who have expanded the ghetto legislation since taking control of the government in 2019, said during a debate of the bill in 2018. “I will always choose the best interests of the child if that is what is at stake.”

Indeed, high-quality early childhood programs can positively impact kids’ cognitive, social and behavioral development, particularly for low-income and bilingual children. Long term, they are associated with higher educational levels and mothers’ participation in the workforce. Danes see day care as a tool to level the playing field during a critical period for child development, and the state has guaranteed universal childcare since 2004 — a social investment that is credited with promoting equality in the Scandinavian country of nearly 6 million people.

“From the invention of day care in Denmark, it has been a political, and especially a professional, tool for crafting a welfare state,” says Christian Sandbjerg Hansen, an associate professor of educational sociology at Aarhus University who opposes the ghetto laws. “It’s become the rule of thumb that 1-year-olds attend day care in some sort of way.”

The problem with the day care policy, according to childcare workers, parents and researchers, is the compulsory element. If the government really wants to boost day care enrollment, they say, it should focus on outreach and incentives for specific families who are struggling, not threaten financial penalties across mostly low-income, minority neighborhoods.

“The first three years of your life [are] super important,” says Lisa Bruun, a childcare worker in a ghetto in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city. To help skeptical parents become more comfortable sending their kids to day care, she makes home visits before they’re enrolled and invites them to stick around the center as long as they want.

The rule that no more than 30% of new day care enrollees can come from vulnerable residential areas, regardless of the center’s capacity or whether a family already has a child enrolled there, can have seemingly counterproductive effects. In a ghetto neighborhood in the port city of Esbjerg, the day care Bydelens Bornehus is sitting half empty despite having a long waitlist of neighborhood kids, according to manager Michael Frederiksen.

Because parents have to send their 1-year-olds to day care, those on the waitlist trek across town to deposit their kids at other centers — typically 1 to 3 miles away, Frederiksen says, but in one case over 8 miles — while they wait for a spot to open up at Bydelens Bornehus. However, families from nonghetto areas don’t face the same redistribution rules, and because they usually send their kids to day care in their own neighborhoods, overall enrollment stays low at Bydelens Bornehus. That means openings for neighborhood children are few and far between, Frederiksen says.

“We are all instructed and trained to meet children at their core level and really build them up from where children need to be built up,” Frederiksen says, standing in a quiet play area in Bydelens Bornehus. “So much money has been spent on additional training, but the swings stand empty because we can only operate at half capacity.”

After Marua gave birth last year, getting her daughter on the waitlist for Bydelens Bornehus was one of the first things she did. Her sister’s kids go there, and Marua, who has Turkish and Palestinian ancestry, liked the multicultural, inclusive atmosphere. But when it came time to sign up, the 30% quota meant she had to enroll elsewhere until a place opened at Bydelens Bornehus several months later, which she felt was unfair.

“I want to teach my daughter that everyone is good enough, and to grow up not worrying about skin color,” says Marua, a 22-year-old education student who asked that only her first name be used. “It’s hard teaching her a set of values, and then these values are not seen across society.”

The ghetto rules reflect a longer-term strategy to use state-mandated day care for Danish cultural assimilation. Since 2011, bilingual toddlers aged 3 and over have been required to attend day care if their Danish is deemed insufficient, a rule that was expanded to 2-year-olds in 2016. But English- and German-speaking kids are exempt from the rule, which is why Hansen describes the phrase “bilingual families” as a “euphemism for Muslim immigrants.”

In other words, the day care rules serve as the first reminder for nonwhite parents, particularly Muslims, of the social othering that their children may face as they grow up in Denmark. The laws are “hinting at the fact that the community that’s being built here, within this housing area, is not good enough,” Hassani says. “That’s where the parallel society idea comes from.”

The ghetto laws have also rolled out in tandem with Denmark’s rightward swing on immigration, which has escalated in recent years. In 2016 Parliament passed a law requiring asylum seekers to hand over jewelry and other valuables to help fund their stays in Denmark; in 2018, it passed a burqa ban; in 2019, the government deemed parts of Syria safe to return to and began revoking the residence permits of refugees; in 2022, it announced plans to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda; and in 2023, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, a Social Democrat, said she wanted to pull public benefits from non-Western women who don’t work full-time.

In 2020, Mattias Tesfaye, a Social Democrat who previously served as minister of immigration and integration and is now minister of children and education, told a Copenhagen newspaper that people from some countries “integrate into Danish society without any problems, while others lag behind for several generations. Therefore, the most important thing we can do is to keep the influx down from the countries where the integration problems are greatest.”

Through a spokesperson, Tesfaye declined an interview request. The Social Democrats, the Red-Green Alliance — a left-wing party that opposed the ghetto laws — and several local politicians either declined or did not respond to requests.

While Danes tend to have positive views of immigration, the hardline political rhetoric has trickled down to the public. Families with Danish ancestry are more likely to opt out of their local public school if the share of non-Western students exceeds 35%, according to a 2010 study in Copenhagen. More recently, the Danish Institute for Human Rights found that white and well-off families are more likely to opt out of local public schools if their district has a ghetto neighborhood.

When Danish newspapers cover these areas, they focus on violence, drugs, gang activity and police action, and refer to kids there as “ghetto children.” Along with the ghetto policy itself, the media coverage perpetuates the idea that all of the country’s social problems are concentrated in these neighborhoods, Hansen says.

Residents have a different view of their communities. Ibrahim El-Khatib, 57, raised his three daughters in a ghetto in Hoje-Taastrup, after moving to Denmark from Lebanon in 1990. The IT project manager says the image of his neighborhood as a closed-off parallel society doesn’t resonate, but last year he was forced to leave the area because his block was set to be demolished as part of the housing development plan.

“It was very safe for my kids and other kids — they were there playing [and] nothing was dangerous,” El-Khatib says. “I call it the most nice ghetto in Denmark. … It was very hard for me and my family to move from there.”

Over time, children internalize the stigmatizing messages they hear growing up. According to a 2015 OECD report, 63% of Danish kids with parents from Iraq or Somalia felt a sense of belonging at school, roughly 20 percentage points lower than in Denmark’s fellow Nordic nation Finland.

“It’s often among the children, once they get old enough to understand how they are not just seen without question as Danish, for instance, that they begin to feel hurt and frustrated,” says Kristina Bakkaer Simonsen, a political scientist at Aarhus University.

Farida, who was born in Syria and is raising her three children in the same Copenhagen ghetto where she grew up, is already preparing for those conversations. When her 9-year-old daughter wanted to try wearing a headscarf for a few days, Farida tried to discourage her, worried she would be confronted about it once they left their neighborhood, where about three-quarters of people are considered non-Western.

“I don’t want my kids growing up having that experience at such a young age,” says Farida, a 37-year-old midwife who asked that only her first name be used. When it’s time to discuss the neighborhood’s stigma, “I would let them come to the conclusion of whether it’s based on racism or whatever, but I think kids are smart. They will figure things out.”

Several ghetto residents — white and non-Western alike — have filed lawsuits challenging the laws. In the most high-profile case, the EU’s Court of Justice will decide whether the non-Western label singles people out by their ethnicity. If so, Denmark’s development plans for “ghetto” areas could constitute racial discrimination under EU law. The Danish government argues that “non-Western” is a marker for nationality or country of origin, not race or ethnicity.

The EU court will hear the case in July, and a decision could come as early as next year, says Math from the Open Society Justice Initiative. A legal victory for the residents would send a signal to other EU countries that the bloc’s antidiscrimination laws will be upheld, “and that you can’t evade [them] by using proxy wording for racial or ethnic origin, or by treating racialized groups as second-class citizens in the name of something like integration,” Math says.

Mjolnerparken resident Felle, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, says many families have accepted permanent rehousing elsewhere, weary of the uncertainty wrought by various lawsuits and housing displacement. When the latest iteration of the ghetto list came out in December 2023, Mjolnerparken was not on it for the first time. Its education, income, employment and criminal statistics had hardly budged, but it was no longer eligible to be counted. The population had fallen to 966; enough people had left.

“Many people have lived in Mjolnerparken for like 30 years, 20 years, and grown close with their neighbors, because they have become their family in a country away from their families,” Felle says. “So really this very strong network of support has been uprooted for many people.”

There’s been little reprieve while the lawsuits play out. Today, housing demolitions and evictions continue, families with the means to do so move away from “ghettos,” parents must ask the state for permission to keep their kids at home and Danish toddlers are sent to day care to learn how to be Danish. For Danish parents with non-Western backgrounds, the politics of the ghetto package reflect Denmark’s reluctance to accept a multicultural society. Now, this conflict is being passed to their own children.

“I can’t just choose between the two,” Abdol-Hamid says. “I dream in Danish, I think in Danish, I talk Danish. But at the same time, it’s a part of my identity being Palestinian.”

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