Recently, the New York Times published a startling article describing policies put in place by the Danish government for inhabitants of low-income, largely immigrant “ghettoes.” Starting at age one, officially designated “ghetto children,” most of them Muslim, will be placed in government-run daycare for at least 25 hours a week (excluding nap time.) There they will be taught “Danish values,” which, oddly, considering this is a country where the fastest-growing religion is “none,” would include Christmas and Easter traditions. Another measure proposed by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen would double the punishment for some crimes if they are committed within ghetto boundaries. 

Can this be happening in Denmark, a country best known in the U.S. for its generous parental leave, excellent child care, free health care and university tuition, ubiquitous bike lanes, superlative work-life balance, and UN-celebrated sustainable development—the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, held up by Bernie Sanders as the egalitarian, democratic-socialist model that America should aspire to? Can it be that Denmark, the place with the best quality of life and happiest people on earth, is taking immigrant children away from their families for indoctrination?

Before assuming that the Danes are trying to out-Trump Donald Trump, it’s worth considering a few points that were—unsurprisingly—missing from the Times account. The idea of the state forcing parents to put their babies into long hours of government-run daycare for social indoctrination makes me as queasy as any freedom-loving American. Still, while Denmark’s actions are heavy-handed, they are an understandable reaction to the challenges posed by immigration in a wealthy, historically homogeneous, social democracy.

Of course, “ghetto” has connotations horrifying enough to lend some credence to the critics who blasted policies that the Times described as “fascist.” The Danish government, however, uses “ghetto” as a technical term to refer to neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment rates, and poor education outcomes. (Note to Prime Minister Rasmussen: finding a less loaded term should be high on the government to-do list.) Danish ghettoes tend to have lots of public housing, but the areas are generally described as well serviced and maintained, down to the requisite bike lanes; foreign visitors are sometimes surprised when told they are actually in a ghetto. Residents are free to move where they want, although, like everyone else, they can only go where they can afford. Denmark shares with every other developed country a shortage of low-income housing, particularly in urban areas. But Warsaw, 1940, this is not.

Still, you might wonder how the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson and The Little Mermaid, with its fairytale streetscapes and countryside, ended up with ghettoes in the first place. Though Denmark was one of the first countries to sign on to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and though it has been among the most generous donor countries for displaced people, few foreigners actually moved there. A remarkably homogeneous place, Denmark was home to a small number of Nordic and EU immigrants, mostly well-educated people who fit easily into the country’s modern economy and politics. But by the 2000s, global upheavals brought a surge of poor and low-skilled refugees from the Balkans, Iraq, and, more recently, an even larger wave from Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa. In 2014 and 2015, Denmark experienced a threefold increase in asylum applications, straining the country’s resources and adding to the growing enclaves of dispossessed foreigners.

Those enclaves have brought the contented Danes face to face with an unfamiliar reality. Denmark has the lowest poverty rate in the world, but recent immigration threatens that status. Today, 50 percent of Denmark’s poor children are the sons and daughters of immigrants, and those children are at higher risk of chronic, long-term poverty than the kids of native poor. Nonwestern immigrant children are more likely to suffer from diabetes, obesity, and mental problems throughout Scandinavia, despite an excellent health-care system, open to all; Denmark is no exception in this regard. Youth gangs, drugs, religiously motivated and gang-promoted violent attacks, and a troubling number of young Muslim men leaving the country to join jihadi groups abroad have added to public alarm.

If these troubles were the predictable symptoms of temporary adjustment to a foreign culture of displaced people, it might make sense to accuse Danes of a lack of empathy and tolerance. That’s not the case, though. Second-generation immigrants are not moving successfully into the Danish labor market. Immigrant children are considerably more likely to score below the OECD average on PISA tests. Denmark has one of the highest native-migrant gaps in education outcomes of all OECD states. That means that problems persist across generations. As of 2015, according to the OECD, 20 percent of native-born adult children of immigrants were NEET (not in education, employment, or training). Those wannabe jihadis are generally not immigrants; they are the sons of immigrants. It comes as no surprise to hear that a 2017 study from the Ministry of Finance found that immigrants and their descendants represented a large net loss to the country’s coffers.

For the Danish government, and evidently much of the public, there is one answer to these problems: making Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, and Somalis more like Danes. That means policies that could help integrate foreigners more thoroughly into Danish life. The government has been scattering refugees across the country. Far from walling immigrants into apartheid ghettoes, they are limiting how much public housing can be built in poorer areas while expanding construction in more affluent districts.

Which brings us back to that mandatory daycare. Whether the policy makes you queasy or not, it doesn’t amount to treating Muslims as second-class citizens. You might say it’s the opposite, in fact. More than 90 percent of Danish one-year-olds are in daycare, and more than 80 percent of mothers are in the workforce; that’s the highest of any developed country in the world. Muslim families, coming from a more kinship-based culture, look very different. Three or more children are common, as are stay-at-home mothers. Many families send their children back to their native countries for a year or more, another point of concern for Danish authorities. The Danes assume, reasonably enough, that having immigrant children playing and learning alongside Danish kids, and discouraging year-long absences from school, will boost the chances of turning newcomers into successful Danish citizens.

Enamored of the communitarian ethos and beneficent paternalism of Denmark, Western admirers have watched the country’s tightening immigration policies with dismay. The recent rise of the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party and the increasingly populist tone of the center-left Social Democrats have added to their cognitive dissonance. The refugee crisis has exposed just how much the Danish ethos relies on conformity and homogeneity. Diversity-admiring liberals should take note.

Photo: Ane Cecilie Blichfeldt Norden


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