After fleeing Iran decades ago, Nasrin Bahrampur and her husband settled in a bright public housing apartment overlooking the Danish university city of Aarhus. They filled it with potted plants, family photos and Persian rugs, and raised their two children there.
Now, they are forced to leave their homelands under government programs that effectively mandate integration into certain low-income areas where many “non-Western” immigrants live.
In practice, this meant that thousands of apartments were demolished and sold to private investors or turned into new housing for wealthier (and often non-immigrant) residents, in order to increase social mixing. It means being rebuilt.
Danish news media called the program “the greatest social experiment of the century.” Critics say this is “bulldozing social policy.”
The government says the plan aims to dismantle the “parallel society”. Officials describe it as an isolated enclave where migrants do not participate in wider society or learn Danish, although they benefit from the country’s generous welfare system.
Opponents argue that this is blatant ethnic discrimination and unwarranted in a country where income inequality is low and deprivation in poor regions is less pronounced than in many countries.
And while many other governments have experimented with solutions to combat urban poverty and racism, mandating cuts to public housing based primarily on residents’ ethnic backgrounds is unusual, coercive and counterproductive. Experts say this is a viable solution.
In areas like Vorsmose, on the outskirts of Odense, where more than two-thirds of the population is from non-Western (mainly Muslim) countries, widespread demolition has been carried out by government order.
“By excluding us, I feel they want to hide us because we are foreigners,” said Mr. Bahrampur, 73.
After searching the city for several months, she and her husband found a small apartment in another public housing building nearby. Still, Bahrampur said being forced to leave her home was painful, she said.
“I always feel like I’m a refugee,” she said.
The housing plan was announced by the Conservative government in 2018, but has only recently begun to take shape. It was part of a broader package signed into law, with supporters pledging to dismantle the “parallel society” by 2030. Among those mandates is a requirement that young children in certain areas spend at least 25 hours a week in kindergarten, where they will receive an education. Danish language and “Danish values”.
In a country whose world-renowned welfare system was originally built to serve a small, homogeneous population, home renovation projects have gained broad support across political lines. These include the liberal Social Democrats in charge, which changed the terminology used to describe affected communities, replacing the much-criticized term “ghetto” with “parallel society.”
“Welfare societies are fundamentally communal, based on mutual trust in which we all contribute,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at the National Government Summit in March. “All of this is seriously challenged by parallel societies.”
The law applies to regions where at least half of the population is of non-Western origin or ancestry and where at least two of the following characteristics exist: low income, low education, high unemployment, or a high proportion of residents who have died. We require the following: Conviction — Social housing share must be reduced to below 40% by 2030.
This means more than 4,000 public housing units will need to be emptied or demolished. At least 430 buildings have already been demolished.
Local authorities and housing associations will decide which homes remain publicly owned. Associations working in Volsmose said their criteria for making decisions is not whether a building is dilapidated, but rather its location and whether it will do well on the public market. Evacuated residents will be offered alternative public housing options in other buildings or nearby.
From its inception, the program has drawn widespread criticism for targeting communities primarily based on the presence of non-Western immigrants or their descendants.
Several cases have been brought before the Court of Justice of the European Union based on accusations that the law constitutes ethnic discrimination. The United Nations has expressed a similar opinion, with a group of U.N. human rights experts saying Denmark should suspend property sales to private investors pending a ruling on the legality of the program.
Critics in Denmark and elsewhere argue that if the goal is to integrate more people into Danish society, the country would be better off focusing on combating discrimination against minority communities, primarily Muslims. They argue that the law that created the housing program actually exacerbates discrimination by positioning people with immigrant backgrounds as a social problem to be solved.
They also argue that ethnic enclaves have historically served in many countries as landing points for new immigrants, places where subsequent generations can establish a foothold before assimilating.
Lawrence Katz, a professor at Harvard University who studies the effects of families moving from high-poverty areas to low-poverty areas, found that in a study of an experimental program in the United States, families leaving poor areas to move to more affluent areas It said that it has been shown that outcomes for young children are significantly improved. thing.
One major difference between the two programs is that the American program, Moving to Opportunity, was voluntary.
“I am very concerned about forced relocation policies,” he said, adding that when governments relocate people, it is important that improvements from one area to another are significant. . Otherwise, he said, “you’re creating trauma without creating opportunity.””
It will be difficult to assess whether the lives of those displaced have improved because Danish authorities are not tracking them. But what is clear is that moving is traumatic for some people.
On a recent day, Marc Bercot Fuhr and his elderly mother, who immigrated from East Germany, sat among unpacked boxes in their suburban apartment, where they had been forced to move after the building was slated for demolition. Before he left, he played a video of an interview his mother gave to a newspaper.
Surrounded by Chinese vases, extravagant curtains and gold frescoes on the walls, his 82-year-old mother protested being forced to leave for the first time in nearly 40 years, saying she could no longer survive with the move. He said it might be possible. “This is my home,” she said.
She later died, and her son kept her watch, vase, and mother-of-pearl chessboard, which had been destroyed by movers.
“We were very happy in the apartment,” he said. “I really don’t feel at home here.”
The redevelopment plan is in its early stages, but the government says it is bearing fruit based on the standards it has set.
People leaving affected areas are on average less educated, less likely to be fully employed and have lower incomes than those moving in, according to a government report. He also pointed out that there are fewer non-Western immigrants than immigrants.
“There is a growing integration of people from different strata of society,” Thomas Monberg, a member of parliament and the Social Democratic Party’s housing spokesperson, said in an emailed response to questions. He said the government took action because it could not afford to “wait until people kill each other in gang wars.”
When I visited several neighborhoods that were being redeveloped, I found that both people who had moved in and moved out were satisfied with the changes.
“I think it’s working,” said Henriette Andersen, 34, a graphic designer who moved to Aarhus’ Gellerp district more than two years ago. As she pushed her stroller into her newly built two-story rowhouse, she said she could see how the project would cause problems for people forced to leave the neighborhood. “But you have to do that if you want to make a difference,” she said.
At Volsmose, Faila Wenge said she was happy to retire. As she carried blankets and sheets back and forth between her home and the laundromat, she said some of the community members were smoking marijuana and there was too much noise in the neighborhood.
Still, some experts and residents said the life-changing experiment was carried out with too little evidence that it worked.
Gunvar Christensen, who until recently was chief research analyst at Denmark’s National Social Science Research Center, said there is no scientific evidence that neighborhoods have a negative impact on opportunities for residents in Denmark.
“If you made the program voluntary, most people would want to stay,” said Christensen, who now works for a public housing organization. “The experiment would have failed.”
On a recent day, Shirin Hadi Anad stood in a furniture-strewn courtyard near her soon-to-be-demolished tenement house in Wollsmoos, watching her children play with the friends they grew up with. Unlike her neighbor Wenge, Hadi Anad likes living there, she said.
“If there were shootings, fights, stabbings and police sirens 24/7, we would have wanted to leave this area,” she said. “But we live in Wollsmoos, not Chicago.”
Jasmina Nielsen, aaron boxerman and Rayleigh Nikonazar Contributed to the report.