Elusive Danish multiculturalism


A YouTube video of an Egyptian talk show blares on the computer by the till. Above the monitor, a gilt frame hangs; the gold Arabic lettering it surrounds honours Allah. Ahmed is handy with a razor, skilfully chiselling a sharp haircut from my head of hair.

At first glance, I could be in a barbershop in Beirut, Agadir or Cairo, but Ahmed speaks fluent Danish, and I pay in kroner, not diram or lira. I am in the northern Copenhagen neighbourhood of Nørrebro, where cosmopolitan Denmark has emerged over the past twenty years.

A proud history
Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States, France or Australia, Denmark is not considered a multicultural society. Although Eastern European Jews migrated to Copenhagen early in the 20th century, Denmark remained relatively homogenous until the 1970s, when Turkish guest workers settled in the country.

Danish national identity is a strong cultural force, forged through centuries of fighting the Swedes, long-established democracy, and a strong Lutheran tradition. Denmark dabbled in colonialism (with footholds in the Caribbean, West Africa and India) but never built empires like the British, French or the Portuguese.

Denmark has a proud history of refugee protection, and contributed to the establishment of the international refugee regime. Dane Knud Larsen was chair of the Geneva conference that drafted the 1951 Refugee Convention, which remains the most authoritative expression of international refugee law. Denmark was the first country to ratify the Convention, on December 4, 1952.

Since then, Denmark’s generous refugee settlement program has seen Palestinians, Lebanese, Serbs, Ethiopians and Somalis become permanent residents, though in modest numbers. Today, Denmark is increasingly multicultural.

In 1993, refugee policy brought down the government. Following an ombudsman’s explosive investigation, then-Prime Minister Poul Schlüter was forced to resign when it was revealed that his government had been dragging its feet on processing Tamil family reunification applications.

Refugee protection in Denmark is not without its problems, however. While Denmark’s contribution to the UNHCR’s resettlement program is meritorious, its annual intake of 500 refugees per year is diminutive compared to Australia, Canada and Sweden.

Denmark stands alongside other European countries facing significant asylum challenges, with migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa attempting to reach Europe by sea. Southern European countries like Greece and Italy form a buffer between northern and western European states and the 78,300 people who had arrived in the EU by the end of July this year.

In particular, Sweden’s exemplary refugee policy poses challenges for Denmark. Stockholm recently announced that the country would provide permanent protection to all Syrian refugees in Sweden. This is expected to amount to around 100,000 people in 2014 alone. It would be in the best tradition of Danish refugee policy to provide protection alongside their Nordic neighbour – but will it be forthcoming?

Multicultural integration?
On the settlement side, Denmark maintains a policy of integration – language that sounds clunky and anachronistic to my Australian ears. Even more jarring, immigration is managed under the so-called Aliens Act. These titles could perhaps be dismissed as mere semantics, and yet language is important to defining national policy and culture.

A policy of integration presumes that migrants and refugees – labelled ‘new Danes’ – should fit into the existing dominant culture, a process that may well entail loss of traditions culture and identity. On the other hand, it is argued, high taxes and a strong welfare state require a certain level of cohesion, perhaps best achieved through integration.

This is not a zero-sum game, however, as multicultural policy combined with robust state support can produce successful citizens committed to contributing to Danish society, bringing their own skills and knowledge to bear in a new context.

Multiculturalism, long established in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, for example, provides for the co-existence of cultures side-by-side. Multiculturalism does not hold a particular culture to be superior to others, but rather emphasises equality and non-discrimination between cultures.

While conservatives often argue that multiculturalism leads to radicalism or extremism, the policy does not allow for unlawful activity. Multiculturalism holds that all cultures co-exist under the law, and no culture – dominant or otherwise – is outside it.

This is not to say that multiculturalism is without its problems. But there are thriving cosmopolitan societies in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, where diversity is a strong source of national pride.

In Australia in particular, acceptance of and engagement with migrant cultures have enriched national identity to a point where diversity itself has become a key characteristic of what  “Australian” means.

Back in Nørrebro, I am feeling more and more at home. A migrant myself, I test out my fledgling Danish alongside Middle Eastern and African recent arrivals. M


By Nik Tan

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