Posted on October 28, 2023

Denmark Aims a Wrecking Ball at ‘Non-Western’ Neighborhoods

Emma Bubola, New York Times, October 26, 2023

After they fled Iran decades ago, Nasrin Bahrampour and her husband settled in a bright public housing apartment overlooking the university city of Aarhus, Denmark. They filled it with potted plants, family photographs and Persian carpets, and raised two children there.

Now they are being forced to leave their home under a government program that effectively mandates integration in certain low-income neighborhoods where many “non-Western” immigrants live.

In practice, that means thousands of apartments will be demolished, sold to private investors or replaced with new housing catering to wealthier (and often nonimmigrant) residents, to increase the social mix.

The Danish news media has called the program “the biggest social experiment of this century.” Critics say it is “social policy with a bulldozer.”

The government says the plan is meant to dismantle “parallel societies” — which officials describe as segregated enclaves where immigrants do not participate in the wider society or learn Danish, even as they benefit from the country’s generous welfare system.

Opponents say it is a blunt form of ethnic discrimination, and gratuitous in a country with low income inequality and where the level of deprivation in poor areas is much less pronounced than in many countries.

And while many other governments have experimented with solutions to fight urban deprivation and segregation, experts say that mandating a reduction in public housing largely based on the residents’ ethnic background is an unusual, heavy-handed and counterproductive solution.

In areas like Vollsmose, a suburb of Odense where more than two-thirds of residents are from non-Western — mainly Muslim — countries, the government mandate is translating into wide-ranging demolitions.


The housing plan was announced in 2018 by a conservative government, but it only started to take a tangible form more recently. It was part of a broader package signed into law that its supporters vowed would dismantle “parallel societies” by 2030. Among its mandates is a requirement that young children in certain areas spend at least 25 hours a week in preschools where they would be taught the Danish language and “Danish values.”

In a country where the world-famous welfare system was originally built to serve a tiny, homogeneous population, the housing overhaul project has had broad support across the political spectrum. That includes the governing liberal Social Democrats, who changed the term used for the affected communities — substituting “parallel societies” for the much-criticized word “ghettos.”

“The welfare society is fundamentally a community, which is based on a mutual trust that we all contribute,” Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said in March at a summit of the country’s municipalities. “All that is being seriously challenged by parallel societies.”

The law mandates that in neighborhoods where at least half of the population is of non-Western origin or descent, and where at least two of the following characteristics exist — low income, low education, high unemployment or a high percentage of residents who have had criminal convictions — the share of social housing needs to be reduced to no more than 40 percent by 2030.


From the beginning, the program’s targeting of communities largely based on the presence of non-Western immigrants or their descendants has attracted widespread criticism.

Several court cases based on the accusation that the law amounts to ethnic discrimination have reached the Court of Justice of the European Union. Even the United Nations has weighed in, with a group of its human rights experts saying Denmark should halt the sale of properties to private investors until a ruling is made on the program’s legality.

Critics in Denmark and elsewhere have said the country would be better off focusing on countering discrimination against minority communities — chiefly its Muslim population — if the goal is to get more people integrated into Danish society. {snip}


Those leaving affected neighborhoods are, on average, less educated, less likely to be fully employed and earn less than those moving in, according to a government report. It also noted that fewer non-Westerners are moving in than moving out.

“The blend of people from different layers of society is getting higher,” Thomas Monberg, a member of Parliament and the Social Democrats’ spokesman for housing, said in an email response to questions. He said the government acted because it could not afford to “wait until people are killing each other in gang wars.”