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Euroviews. Justice must prevail against Denmark’s ‘ghetto laws’

Mjølnerparken, a street and area in Nørrebro in Copenhagen, March 2014
Mjølnerparken, a street and area in Nørrebro in Copenhagen, March 2014 Copyright Leif Jørgensen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Copyright Leif Jørgensen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
By Majken Felle, schoolteacher
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

A ruling in our favour would also have wider resonance for similar neighbourhoods across Denmark whose cases are currently on hold awaiting this decision, Majken Felle writes.

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Before I first visited Copenhagen’s Mjølnerparken neighbourhood a decade ago, I had heard all the rumours: dangerous and overcrowded with unemployed foreigners refusing to integrate.

Instead, I found tree-lined courtyards and children laughing in playgrounds while people from all walks of life from across the world shared coffee and conversations and looked out for each other.

Soon after, I found a home there. Then, the government labelled our home a ghetto, prompting years of anguish.

Next week, we hope that the EU’s top court can help end this discriminatory policy forever.

This is why we decided to defend our neighbourhood

In 2010, the Danish government began compiling lists of low-income, largely minority neighbourhoods like Mjølnerparken that they deemed were failing to meet certain metrics of crime, unemployment, education, and/or percentage of “non-Western" background (under 50%). Those neighbourhoods were classified as "ghettos".

In 2018, new laws were passed making the “non-Western” background criterion the decisive factor in the designation of “ghettos” and forcing a reduction in the number of non-profit family housing units in "tough ghetto" areas to a maximum of 40% by 2030.

This could be done by the sale, redevelopment or demolition of people’s homes.

Tellingly, the government’s definition of "non-Western" does not include people from Australia or New Zealand, which suggests their criteria are not grounded in geographical concerns.

The announcement spread shock and fear around the community. And then the resistance began.
Department store windows display the Danish flag and the Danish crown in Copenhagen, 13 January 2024
Department store windows display the Danish flag and the Danish crown in Copenhagen, 13 January 2024AP Photo/Martin Meissner

The announcement spread shock and fear around the community. And then the resistance began.

We convened weekly coffee evenings to answer residents’ questions, exchange ideas, and arrange the paperwork for those interested in challenging the government. It soon became an informal solidarity group where we could discuss our hopes and fears.

Navigating the Danish legal system has not been easy, and many residents have left from the pressure and uncertainty.

But next Monday, the EU’s Court of Justice (CJEU) will hear our case that the government’s "Ghetto Package" is unlawful under EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights.

We're a Danish success story, not a 'no-go zone'

The government and media depict Mjølnerparken as a threat to Danish traditions and society. That is surprising to my elderly ethnic-Danish neighbours who moved here in the eighties.

We live among a galaxy of ages, cultures and backgrounds, but our common language is Danish.

I’m a schoolteacher, and I regularly help the children in the neighbourhood with their homework, and they rush to assist when they see me carrying heavy shopping.

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One of my neighbours accompanied me to buy my first car, and when it broke down, there were other neighbours to help repair it. Our community is welcoming, diverse and hardworking — a Danish success story.

This is quite the opposite of an isolated "no-go area" adrift from Danish life. We have butchers, dental assistants, taxi drivers, cleaners, secretaries, and many others who work in nursing homes caring for Denmark’s elderly.
Nørrebro in Copenhagen, October 2021
Nørrebro in Copenhagen, October 2021 Giuseppe Liverino, Copenhagen Media Center via AP

In 2022, Nørrebro, the area in which Mjølnerparken sits, was voted “world’s coolest neighbourhood” by Timeout.

Mjølnerparken and other similar communities around the country have been subjected to a government-sponsored smear campaign.

This is quite the opposite of an isolated "no-go area" adrift from Danish life. We have butchers, dental assistants, taxi drivers, cleaners, secretaries, and many others who work in nursing homes caring for Denmark’s elderly.

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The younger generations are more likely to be training for white-collar jobs like lawyers or doctors. Like many urban environments, it has its share of challenges, but socioeconomic issues cannot be solved by eradicating neighbourhoods.

No choice but to speak out

For some, it is already too late, and they have left or lost their homes. More victims of discriminatory law and creeping gentrification.

But it would mean everything for the EU’s highest court to recognize our unjust treatment. If the law is subsequently abolished, then future communities could be saved.

Some people are surprised to hear that this kind of practice can happen in Denmark, but it has been our reality for years.

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Even if we don’t win, I feel that I have no choice but to speak out. I love my neighbourhood so much, and I couldn’t back down without the world knowing that we fought for it.

Justice restored would renew our faith and trust in society. A ruling in our favour would also have wider resonance for similar neighbourhoods across Denmark whose cases are currently on hold awaiting this decision.

Several UN human rights experts have already observed that the legislation particularly impacts Muslims and non-white populations.

The Danish government has since substituted the word "ghettos" for "parallel societies". But our community knows that it is the government which is living in a parallel universe, and it is their discriminatory behaviour that is ripping apart Denmark’s social fabric.

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With the beginning of this crucial hearing at the CJEU, hopefully soon more of the world will know too, and this dangerous policy can be repealed in Denmark and prevented from spreading across Europe.

Majken Felle is a Danish schoolteacher and a plaintiff in the case.

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