Neglected and invisible – Life as a Greenlander in Denmark

With high rates of unemployment, homelessness and substance abuse, many Greenlanders experience social marginalisation after they arrive in Denmark. But because they are regarded as ordinary Danes in the eyes of the state, they miss out on much of the help that other immigrants are offered

With his black hair, brown eyes and dark complexion, 40-year-old Niels Kristian Møller doesn’t look like a typical Dane. In fact, despite his name and Danish passport, he isn’t really a Dane at all. He comes from Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, more than 3,300 kilometres from the Danish mainland.

His family is drawn from the island’s indigenous Inuit culture, with their own language and traditions. It shares little in common with modern Danish society, but in the eyes of the Danish authorities, he’s a Dane. While other immigrants are met with language tuition, training and integration programmes, Møller was left to fend for himself when he arrived in Denmark.

Despite coming from a culture that spent centuries adapting to life in one of the most remote, isolated and challenging locations in this world, Møller has found integrating into modern Danish society to not be so easy. And he’s far from the only Greenlander to struggle.

Huge contrasts
For the past 18 months his bed has been a sofa in a friend’s small apartment in Ryparken, on the outskirts of Copenhagen’s Østerbro district. It was his only option to avoid living in the streets. Unemployed and living on social welfare, he only has a vague idea of how to find work or a flat of his own.

“I’m not an alcoholic and I come from Nuuk, where more than 20% of the population is Danish, so I speak Danish almost fluently. I thought I understood the Danish way of life. But even though I have a proper education, years of work experience as a shop assistant and references from Greenland, nobody wants to hire me in Denmark. I don’t really get any help to find work or help to find out how everything works here in Denmark,” he says.

After years of searching for a job in Denmark and a couple of moves back and forth between Greenland and Denmark, he has more or less given up on the job hunt. He feels abandoned. The job centre has written him off as being unfit to work due to depression and has told him to see a doctor. But Møller has not been able to keep a doctor’s appointment and his inability to find work only makes him feel more apathetic.

It’s a different story in Greenland. Work is easy to find by word of mouth or just showing up at the doorstep of prospective employers. But in Denmark he is a stranger, with no connections and little understanding of how to navigate the labyrinthine labour market.

And while other immigrants are met with integration programmes and offers of tuition in Danish language, Møller is considered just as Danish as if he had been born here. Danish is his second language, however, and the indigenous culture, traditions and mentality of his native Greenland are miles away from modern-day Denmark.

Fleeing boredom
Møller arrived in Denmark with all of his belongings squeezed into a single small trolley bag. He wanted to escape the small isolated town of Nuuk where everyone knows everyone else. He felt like he was going mad and lonely from isolation, and trapped between his parents as they went through a divorce. Denmark was an easy escape.

Every year, a number of Greenlanders do what Møller did and spontaneously jump on a plane to start a new life in Denmark. And, like Møller, some of them are not as successful as they had hoped to be when they first set out to the land of their dreams.

The troubles they face are outlined in a 2013 report from the Danish Council for Socially Marginalised Groups, the government’s independent committee that represents the interests of socially marginalised groups:

“When the decision to move to Denmark hasn’t been planned or prepared, the prospects of having a good start are diminished. Several Greenlanders move to Denmark without bringing any substantial amount of money with them and without bringing means of finding a place to live. They typically start off living with family or friends and don’t manage to get a place of their own or to find a job. And many of them don’t get in touch with the authorities or seek help until after having been in Denmark for a long while.”

Shocking statistics
A new study from SFI, the Danish National Centre for Social Research – which The Murmur was given access to before its publication – reveals some disquieting trends. Greenlanders in Denmark are 47 times more likely to end up homeless compared to native Danes and 12 times more likely to be in treatment for alcohol abuse.

Only 31% of Greenlanders in Denmark have a job compared to 58% of Danes and their income is generally significantly lower than the average for ethnic Danes. A staggering 44% of Greenlanders receive social welfare, unemployment insurance or are on early retirement whereas only 11% of Danes are in the same situation.

The statistics are based on 3,700 Greenlanders who moved to Denmark between 1999 and 2011 and a control group of 200,000 Danes. The conclusion is clear: a large minority of Greenlanders in Denmark are unemployed, homeless, live in poverty, on social welfare, in bad health or are addicted to alcohol.

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Hidden ethnicity
Most Greenlanders in Denmark live in one of the five largest cities. In Aalborg there are so many Greenlanders on social welfare that in 2008 the city council set up a special branch of its welfare office just to help them.

“Greenlanders are not offered to take part of the integration programmes like other immigrants, though they could definitely benefit from it,” explains Jeppe Sørensen, leader of the special branch in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth largest city and home to an estimated 1,300 Greenlanders.

Finding the Greenlanders who would benefit from the programme isn’t easy, however, as they are registered as Danes in the national identity database.

“If Greenlanders were to be registered as being Greenlanders in the national identification registry then at least we could try to reach out to them once they move here, just as we do with newly arrived foreigners, and try to help them before they actually get into any trouble. If we got hold of them earlier, then we could connect them to some positive networks before they get bogged down. But it’s a tricky balance to keep because the majority of Greenlanders manage their lives just fine, so it could be perceived as being a discriminatory measure to contact them in the first place, simply because they move here.”

Noting ethnicity in the CPR registry is exactly what the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination suggests that Denmark should do. In a report released in May, the UN body strongly criticised Denmark for inaction on protecting the rights of ethnic minorities. But while they argue that noting ethnicity in the CPR registry would help ethnic minorities get the help and the rights they are entitled to, Danish law currently prohibits the authorities from registering racial or ethnic backgrounds, along with political, religious or philosophical persuasions.

As a result, nobody really knows exactly how many Greenlanders actually live here. SFI estimates that, based on place of birth, between 16,000 and 18,000 Greenlanders live in Denmark.

Being neither nor
Back in 2003, the Ministry of Social Affairs released a white paper on socially-marginalised Greenlanders in Denmark. The paper noted that, “as Danish citizens, they are not provided with the same help to integrate as refugees and immigrants. In that sense the Danish citizenship becomes something of a hindrance rather than a help to integrate in the Danish society and therefore to make an actual influence on the terms of their own everyday lives.”

Mille Schiermacher is a member of the Council on the Socially Exposed and an anthropologist at the Greenlandic House in Copenhagen, one of four independent private institutions across the country that aims to help Greenlanders in Denmark. She explains:

“The authorities’ lacking efforts in integrating Greenlanders is a sort of mistaken equality – treating Greenlanders as if they were Danes. But the culture in Greenland differs significantly from that of Denmark and many Greenlanders end up in trouble once they move here and need help to navigate through the Danish way of life.”

The Greenlandic House in Copenhagen runs a small mentorship project and advertises the project in Greenland so people know where to go for help even before they arrive in Denmark. Currently, only 13 Greenlanders participate in the programme.

Shunning other Inuits
Møller remembers seeing the advertisements back in Greenland but in Denmark he shuns other Inuits and tries to avoid meeting them – Greenlanders and their way of thinking is exactly why he wanted to get away. He has no interest in meeting up with other Greenlanders here, even if he feels lonely at times.

Meeting Møller again a couple of months after our first interview, he appears more optimistic and says with a big smile:

“Sometimes in my sleep I dream of Greenland and think I’m back there but luckily, when I wake up, I’m still here in Denmark. And the other day I finally got a mentor from the job centre to help me. It’s going to be all right now.”

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The social workers I spoke to all agreed that the number of Greenlanders who move to Denmark without a home or a job is on the rise. They will continue to face social marginalisation unless changes are made, such as adopting the UN’s recommendations.

But Jørn Holbech, director of the Greenlandic House in Aarhus, also argues that Greenlanders who successfully find work and a home in Denmark – which are the majority – should speak up and do more for their fellow countrymen.

“Otherwise, the negative stereotypes are only exaggerated. The general public only notices those who have nowhere to live except for the streets. We need to change those stereotypes in order for the general public to get a more positive view on Greenlanders and to help them integrate and find jobs.” B


By Lars-Terje Lysemose

Danish freelance journalist, editor and educator, Lars-Terje has taught at Greenland's School of Journalism and travelled extensively as a foreign reporter on four continents.

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