Evicted in Denmark for living in a “non-Western” neighborhood | International
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Majken Felle is not willing to leave her home. Like many of her neighbors in the Mjolnerparken neighborhood in Copenhagen, this 48-year-old teacher has received dozens of letters in which she is warned that she will have to move soon; the apartment block in which she resides has been selected for sale to a private investor. The eviction orders are part of a controversial legislation that requires reducing the proportion of the “non-Western” population in certain areas of the country to less than 30%. “Clearly I’m collateral damage,” says Felle. “Its goal is not to expel an ethnically Danish citizen like me, but even such a highly racist law has its limits,” she says.
In 2018, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government passed a law to end “parallel societies in Denmark”. Every December, the Ministry of the Interior and Housing publishes a list of the so-called “transformation zones” -until last year, “hard ghettos”. Mjolnerparken is one of them. For a neighborhood to be classified as such, it must exceed 1,000 inhabitants and a host of conditions related to socioeconomic, educational or crime indicators must be met, but there is a differential criterion: more than half of the residents must be “non- Westerners’, even if they were born in Denmark. “Non-Western functions as a euphemism for Muslim,” says Lamies Nassri, director of the Danish Center for Muslim Rights, at her Copenhagen office. Around 6% of the 5.8 million inhabitants of Denmark profess Islam.
Since Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen came to power in 2019, anti-immigration measures have been further tightened. “In recent years things have only gotten worse,” summarizes Felle. Despite having received innumerable criticisms from international organizations such as the United Nations or the Council of Europe, Denmark does not intend to back down. None of the main political parties in the Scandinavian country is defending the elimination of what is known as the old ghetto law during the electoral campaign for the parliamentarians next Tuesday, and during the more than three years of the Social Democratic government, tremendously demanding requirements have been approved to request asylum. , a residence permit or Danish nationality.
In Mjolnerparken, where more than 80% of the 1,700 inhabitants are considered “non-Western,” Felle stops to chat for a while with just about every person she crosses. Almost everyone has something new to tell him about his particular situation. The early childhood education teacher has become a reference for those who live in the neighborhood; her incessant fight to prevent anyone from being expelled from her home has earned her the admiration of her neighbors. The teacher is one of the residents of Mjolnerparken who has launched a legal battle against the Ministry of the Interior and Housing, which will have to be resolved by one of the two highest courts in Denmark.
Sitting on one of the few benches in Mjolnerparken, a Balkan refugee, who prefers to remain anonymous, describes that when she arrived in the 1990s she felt that “Denmark was the ideal place to live. Tolerant, respectful and with opportunities to prosper”. The citizen, for whom Felle translates from Danish to English, believes that now racism and Islamophobia “have become very widespread, even among people who would never consider themselves racist.” She adamantly refuses to have to leave her home. “That’s where my husband spent his last days before he died prematurely. That house has enormous sentimental value,” she recounts. The woman recalls that she a few years ago, in a job interview, when commenting that she had two children, they replied: “With that surname I imagined that you would have at least a dozen.”
“I don’t feel discriminated against,” says Aya Chabbary, a teenager of Moroccan origin who joined the conversation after approaching Felle to say hello. “Maybe it’s because I’m still so young,” she adds. However, a few months ago, Chabbary participated in a demonstration after the Committee for the Struggle of Forgotten Women—created recently by the Social Democratic government—recommended a ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in schools.
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The legislation regulates that in the “transformation zones” – a dozen, according to the latest list – 40% of public housing must be eliminated, a very common form of property in the Scandinavian country and that until now had guaranteed accessibility to rental flats. The non-profit organizations that manage the flats in these neighborhoods must draw up their plan to meet the requirements established before 2030. In Mjolnerparken they have decided that two of the main housing blocks will be sold to a private investor. In total, the residents of 260 apartments have received notices that they must leave their homes and will be relocated to social housing in another neighborhood of the Danish capital. The open court case allows the residents, at least for now, to fail to comply with the eviction orders. In the Vollsmose neighborhood in the city of Odense, hundreds of houses have already been demolished.
Mjolnerparken is a kind of housing estate in which red brick tower blocks are strung through courtyards and, until recently, gardens and parks. Since summer, some fences prevent access to a large part of the common areas, in which deep holes have been dug. Supposedly, the public housing company that manages the neighborhood has started some remodeling works. “They work at a very slow pace. It is clear that they intend to make our lives as complicated as possible, ”says Felle. Signs hanging from some windows read “Equal before the law” or “No to ethnic cleansing”.
Susheela Math, the lawyer who defends the residents of Mjolnerparken in front of the Ministry of the Interior and Housing, explains by telephone from London that the Danish political class maintains that these measures are not discriminatory, but that “the objective is an improvement in the standard of living in those areas.” The lawyer considers that “it is evident that these people are being treated as second-class citizens and that this legislation only stigmatizes and marginalizes them.” Math, an employee of the Open Society foundation, assures that her intention is that the case reaches the Court of Justice of the EU and that the magistrates based in Luxembourg determine that the Danish law does not comply with the European directive on racial equality. “This ruling would be very important for Europe as a whole, since we are seeing that very similar measures are being considered in other countries such as Sweden,” argues Math. Two UN rapporteurs, Racial Discrimination and Adequate Housing, intervene in the process in favor of the residents of Mjolnerparken.
The arrival in Denmark this year of tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war – considered “non-Western” – led the Social Democratic Executive to undertake express reforms so that they could stay anywhere in the country, including areas such as Mjolnerparken. “If hundreds of Ukrainians settled in one neighborhood, it could suddenly be blacklisted,” explains Math. In addition to “transformation zones”, there are other previous categories such as “prevention areas” or “parallel communities”, which include almost a hundred neighborhoods in the country.
The Frederiksen government has not only turned a deaf ear to the international organizations that urge to remove all references to “non-Western citizens” in Danish legislation, but has also given the concept a new twist. The Ministry of Integration has created a new category, which is included in official statistics, in which citizens originating from the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Pakistan are grouped. Applications for Danish nationality from citizens who fall into this classification – which excludes Israel, Ethiopia and Eritrea, countries in which the Muslim population is a minority – will have to be scrutinized more carefully than the rest.
The Social Democratic Executive has also reached an agreement with Kosovo to send foreign prisoners sentenced in Denmark there to serve their sentences, and another with Rwanda to transfer asylum seekers to the African country while they wait for their case to be resolved, although these plans still have not started running. And Denmark has been the first EU country to start revoking residence permits for Syrian citizens on the grounds that Damascus and neighboring provinces are already safe areas. In addition, some of the most controversial laws approved by the previous government remain in force, such as the one that punishes begging with prison sentences, the one that allows the confiscation of jewelry and valuables from refugees to cover the cost of their reception, or the one that vetoes wearing the burqa and niqab on public roads.
In recent years, anti-immigration policies have been assumed by almost all political parties in the Scandinavian country. They are not even a priority issue in the campaign for Tuesday’s elections. With one of the most restrictive laws in all of Europe, the far-right parties propose measures such as the elderly being able to reject social caregivers who wear a veil. “Politicians in Denmark are well aware that they can get political mileage out of Islamophobic speech,” says Nassri of the Danish Center for Muslim Rights.
The inhabitants of Mjolnerparken rely on justice to be able to continue deciding where to live; they no longer expect anything from politicians. “Most of those who describe these neighborhoods as parallel societies have never set foot in them,” says Felle. “In the eight years I’ve been here, I’ve never felt unsafe, not even coming home at dawn,” she adds. The teacher is clear that she intends to remain dedicated body and soul to the defense of Mjolnerparken. “It consumes all my free time, but reason is on my side and that allows me to find the strength to continue.”
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