Denmark's glass ceilings: Refugees face daily battle against discrimination Maria Karnaukhova
Bazar Vest: Denmark's unique Middle Eastern shopping centre

“I’ve been living in Denmark for 24 years and, until now, I haven’t been able to get a citizenship. I still have my refugee passport. It’s racist! My mother is 75 and they want her to go to school to get citizenship. I have relatives in Germany, France, Sweden and UK where they became citizens automatically after four to five years of residency automatically.” - says Majeed Essam.

He and his family fled from the war in Kuwait to Denmark in 1991. He owns a Turkish sweet shop in Bazar Vest, enjoys peace and being independent. But, like 43 percent of the country’s ethnic minority population (a figure reported by Denmark’s National Integration Barometer), he feels that he is the victim of discrimination because of his ethnic background.  

According to the Chairman of the European Network Against Racism’s advisory council, Bashy Quraishy, it is institutional and structural discrimination that creates the most problems for ethnic minorities. These problems are often encountered in their treatment by police, in the property and labor markets, and in obtaining citizenship.

Denmark is peaceful because people are rich and are not threatened by anybody. On the street, you don’t see violence. You can walk at night and nobody will bother you. When it comes to getting an apartment or a job, then you experience very strong racism. Here the minority is dependent on the majority’s goodwill” - he says.

The UN’s Committee for Racial Discrimination report also expresses concerns regarding the institutional discrimination encountered by Denmark’s ethnic minorities.

Flaws in the integration system

Special Advisor for Equal Treatment in The Danish Institute for Human Rights, Nanna Margrethe Krusaa, confirms the institutional discrimination takes place when a person of non-Danish ethnicity tries to enter the labor market.

“There may be a tendency for employers to hire people who they think looks like themselves,” - she says, and continues:

“It’s hard to make employers change their position on this point. We have, of course, a discrimination law that says that one must rule out candidates because of their ethnic background, but we have not yet reached the point where all employers comply with the law.”


Mohammad Aoud, a Palestinian Lebanese who has lived in Denmark for 13 years, recognizes the difficulties in getting a job as an immigrant in Denmark.

“It’s difficult to get work. Danish people know that there are refugees who were born here and who are Danish people. They accept them more than me” - he says.

Mohammed Aoud is now working as a butcher in Bazar Vest.  He recalls his difficulty in entering the labour market: “Denmark is a small country.  There are not many jobs here. For employers, it’s first Danes, then us”.

According to Nanna Margrethe Krusaa, this shows the shortcomings of the Danish integration system.

“They say all the time that you have to enter the labor market, because it’s there that integration happens. When you can see there are many who suffer discrimination in the labour market, one might say that there is a disparity” - she says.

What’s in a name?

According to a recent report from The Danish Institute for Human Rights, a person with a Middle Eastern name must send 27 percent more applications for accommodation than a person with a Danish name.  

Morten Dalsgaard, a student queuing to buy some Turkish sweet in Majeed's shop, recalls: “My Turkish friend, Seckin Taser, wanted to find an apartment in Aarhus. It was very hard for him to do it since the owners of apartments look at the person’s name and tend not to contact them if it is foreign.” He adds that his search for an apartment was much easier than his friend’s. 

This is not the only discrimination people with Middle Eastern names face in Denmark. 

Matthias Hejlskov was born in Sweden but worked in Denmark until recently as an IT-supporter. At his work, he had Middle Eastern colleagues who had to change their names because customers would react differently to non-Danish names.   

“I had a colleague who was Arab and spoke perfect Danish. At the end of a call, the customer wanted to give him a positive recommendation. She asked for his name, and when he said “Mohammed”, she did not believe him. She said: “Come on, you speak perfect Danish, your name can’t be Mohammed.” He was really angry about that afterwards”.


Legal restrictions

Niels Erik Hansen, the leader of the Danish Documentation and Advisory Centre on Racial Discrimination, sees another trend.

“The amount of cases has been massive in the last eight to 10 years, and it’s the state of Denmark which is the biggest discriminator. It’s mostly cases with citizenship and family reunification” - he says

He explains that they have recently won a case at the UN Human Rights Committee in which the Danish state was convicted of discrimination. “It was about a man who was denied Danish citizenship even though he suffered from post-traumatic stress, and did not stand a chance of meeting the language demands in the citizenship test” - he says.

He believes that Denmark’s recent tightening of laws affecting immigrants has exacerbated this trend.

Nanna Margrethe Krusaa agrees with Hansen’s explanation.

“The laws affecting foreigners have become tighter and tighter.  When you live in a society that constantly makes it harder to get, for example citizenship, then there are more cases that are being appealed […] because people want them  tried throughout the system” - she says.

According to the Danish newspaper BT, on her meeting with the Ministry of Finance on the 7th of December Inger Støjberg, Immigration and Integration minister, admitted: “We have the strictest rules towards neighbour nations”. She acknowledged that that public discourses had hardened, but that this was a risk that she was willing to accept.

Johanne Schmidt Nielsen, spokesperson for integration in the Danish left-wing party Enhedslisten, worries: “The current government does not seem to give the fight against this discrimination any attention or priority at all. Denmark used to be a Nordic state with a splendid human rights record. All these measures contribute to an unfortunate us-versus-them discourse.”

The need for mutual integration

“You can’t get engaged in Danish culture, even if you try hard”, - tells Rima Zam, who works at a charity organisation in Bazar Vest. She came from Lebanon 30 years ago.

“You are always a Muslim, no matter how long you’ve been here. When you work with Danish people they often want you to talk about what it is like to be an Arab woman. When they hear I’m married, they often think that I was forced to it. Preconceptions. Always”

One source of this problem is, according to Bashy Quraishy, a Danish integration system that does not live up to its goals and responsibilities.

“I think that Danish politicians should understand their responsibility. They should make progressive laws, not restrictive ones, so that minorities feel they’re part of the society. If they experience this [feeling of belonging], they will make an extra effort to become a part of it” - he says and continues:

“Danes don’t seem to understand the concept of integration. The word comes from Latin and means when small parts become the part of a big entity without losing their identity. It`s not a one-way street: you learn the language, act, and live like Danes. Integration happens when there are equal rights, equal responsibilities, and equal opportunities in the society.”

Peter Hervik, Professor of migration at Aalborg University, agrees:

“There are some differences from one country to another, although two European countries do stand out: The Netherlands and Denmark. Discrimination seems stronger here at the political, media, and popular level” - he says.

He adds that the discussion of the integration system is closely connected with Danish nationalism.

“In Sweden the approach to integration is that integration is a two-way process, and both Swedes and foreigners need to integrate into the society. In Denmark we can't look at integration without looking at nationalism. Here the approach is that it is solely the foreigners’ responsibility to become part of society” - he says.

Majeed's brother, Faris, like Rima, does not feel integrated into Danish society. He points at Majeed, who is offering some sweets to customers, and complains: “They accept us but not entirely. We feel rejected, distanced from others. If you don`t accept us, why then let us in, let us work and live here? Denmark is a good, beautiful country but this system is crazy.”


Fact box: New rules for citizenship applications

Language requirements: The language test is compulsory and has three levels. Danish 1 is composed for people with little or no education or health problems. Danish 2 is for those with an ordinary background, and Danish 3 is for highly educated people who speak other foreign languages. As of the 15th of October, applicants must pass an oral and written exam in Danish 3 which means that people with health problems, or with little education, will never become Danish citizens.

Financial independence: Applicants must prove that they have supported themselves for four and a half out of the last five years instead of the current two and a half years.

Citizenship test: The current test requires applicants to answer at least 22 out of 30 questions correctly. The government wants to change the required score to 32 out of 40 questions.

Criminal record: Under current rules, a criminal record results in a three to 20 year quarantine from obtaining citizenship depending on the nature of the crime. The government wants to increase this period by 50 percent.

Read more about the new citizenship rules here .

Statistics: The tip of the iceberg

According to the Shadow Reports by the NGO European Network Against Racism, the collection of official data on the experience of migrants and minorities in Europe is scarce: “The lack of consistent data on the ground of ethnic origin is rooted in Europe’s history of human rights violations against minorities” – says the report.

This means that the processing of personal data revealing ethnic origin is prohibited, but there are some exceptions. However, 21 of 28 Member States (not including Denmark) have adopted a strict interpretation of the EU legislation which has resulted in a significant data gap and this has impeded the efficient combating of racism.

Silent Victims

Katya Andrusz, the deputy spokesperson from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, sees another reason for data gap: “The majority of victims don’t come forward to report their experiences. This means that the majority of racist crimes remain invisible, and the numbers we do have are only the tip of the iceberg.”

People don't report racist crime to the authorities for a number of reasons.  Among these, is the fear of deportation, says Katya: "If you're an irregular migrant and you're attacked on the street, you may think twice before you go to the police because you're afraid the consequences might be worse than the assault itself."

Legislative controversy

The data gap can also be caused by the violation of EU law.

The Framework Decision on combating certain expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law was adopted on the 28th of November 2008 by the EU Council. EU countries were obliged to transpose the Framework Decision into their national laws by the 28th of November 2010. But, according to the first implementation report made by the EU Commission in January 2014, a number of Member States have not fully adopted all of Framework Decision’s rulings. This has resulted in different interpretations of racism, inconsistent case decisions, misunderstandings, and, finally, a lack of data.

Researchers’ mistakes

Mehmet Ümit Necef, Associate Professor in Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, advocates a critical approach to the current data. He states that it can be misleading because of mistakes in surveys and research.

He and his colleague looked at Danish research projects between 1990 and 2010 which claim that Danes are racist. “People are worried about the level of immigration, the way immigrants understand gender relations, women's and youth rights: the researchers call these worries racism. They conflate people`s worries with the concept of racism” – he says.

Another frequent mistake is the interpretation of interview statements: “We criticized a researcher who interviewed two Danes. They said, in different ways, that they would be worried if their daughters married a Muslim. The researcher claimed that this was racism. But maybe these two men were worried about such things as gender relations or women’s rights.”

By Maria Karnaukhova and Jeppe Trans