Immigration & Denmark
Lending an international voice to local affairs
Not only will non-Danes be voting on Tuesday, some of them will be running for office as well
Followers of the national immigration debate could be forgiven for thinking that foreigners are still struggling to gain acceptance. From Dansk Folkeparti’s (DF) Pia Kjærsgaard suggesting recently that foreigners ought to only speak Danish in public, to the far-right Danskernes Parti calling for the deportation of Danes with non-Western backgrounds, some Danes make no effort to hide their disdain of the foreigners living within their borders.
The negative rhetoric doesn’t seem to have had an impact on immigration, however. Over the past ten years, the number of foreigners living in Denmark has risen a massive 41 percent to an estimated 375,000 – seven percent of Denmark’s population.
Despite not holding Danish passports, this small group is not entirely disenfranchised. Foreigners are allowed to run and vote in local elections, though non-EU citizens have to wait three years before being allowed to participate. In Copenhagen alone, there are an estimated 30,000 eligible foreign voters.
The Copenhagen Post has tracked down a number of foreigners who have made their mark on the political system, if only on a local level. Two are candidates, one is a campaign manager, and the fourth helped secure voting rights for a group who were illegally denied it. Common amongst them is the belief that political involvement and integration go hand in hand.
Where is the love?
US citizen Scott Hill is a scientist with a background in alternative healthcare and energy and is a Love Party (Kærlighedspartiet) candidate in Copenhagen. Hill arrived in Denmark in 1973 at the age of 24 and quickly got involved in anti-nuclear energy and pro-cannabis campaigns.
He joined Kærlighedspartiet ahead of the 2001 local government elections and now campaigns to bring more love to Denmark.
“Basically, we all live on the same planet and therefore have a collective responsibility to keep ourselves and future generations healthy, happy and productive, and to make the planet a better place,” Hill said.
Arriving in the midst of the Vietnam War, Hill said he experienced some animosity from Danes for being an American, but that they soon realised he wasn’t responsible for the military-industrial complex.
“I have a lot of Danish friends and didn’t make the mistake of many expats who hang around in English-speaking pubs and only speak English with other foreigners,” Hill said, adding that he has been teaching and writing in Danish since the 1970s. “Most of my Danish friends say: ‘You are almost Danish!’ which I take as a compliment.”
Trouble breaking in
Not everyone has had as much success at being treated as an equal. Chinese-born George Wen Ge is the founder of the Danish Green Party and is running for both a regional and local council seat at the November 19 election. His party focuses on environmental conservation, sustainability and social justice, but he has had trouble spreading his message.
“I have experienced some very negative reactions from Danes about me running in the local election,” said Ge, who moved to Denmark from Australia in 1998 and now lives in Islands Brygge with his Danish wife.
“I had a hard time collecting enough signatures from Danes to become a candidate, and my local newspaper has been reluctant to interview me even though it has a special English page,” he said. “This is not good for a true democratic participation and representation.”
Ge is highly critical of immigration legislation that he says is not stable, reliable or fair and is concerned by DF’s proposal to limit participation in local government elections to Danes – a policy that would reduce the democratic participation of foreigners who need more support, not less.
“There needs to be better job-seeking and business-creation services for foreigners,” Ge said. “We are as well qualified as Danes, but we will do better if we are more confident about the Danish system and are given more equal access to different levels of society.”
Difference is a strength
While Ge feels that there are barriers to breaking into Danish society and being treated as an equal, Tim Haigh, a Brit who is the head of group at the European Environment Agency, sees his differences from Danes as strengths.
“For me it’s quite simple. I will never be Danish, will often hold different perspectives and values from Danes and may one day live somewhere else, but this does not mean I cannot be passionate, contribute, participate or add value to social discourse while I am here,” Haigh said.
A range of factors – including a growing respect for Danish values and positive experiences of volunteering in his community – have resulted in him staying in Denmark far longer than he initially intended.
“Some of my greatest cultural experiences of being in Denmark have been through participation in clubs and associations,” Haigh said. “You can have some really good laughs, particularly the misunderstandings, because as a foreigner you don’t have all the in-built expectations that Danes have about what ‘normal’ is.”
Danger of democratic deficits
Haigh is a staunch believer in the value of democratic participation as one of the cornerstones of breaking barriers and is concerned that many EU residents can easily become disenfranchised. After arriving in Denmark, he discovered that he and many of his colleagues were unable to vote in local elections as they are not on the Folkeregister – the national population register – as is the case for many staff members of international organisations operating in Denmark.
Haigh complained that these EU residents were being unlawfully denied their right to vote as guaranteed by EU law, and eventually a change was made to allow EU citizens who reside in Denmark, but are not on the Folkeregister, to vote in local and European elections.
But it’s not just administrative glitches that need to be overcome in order to improve inclusion, Haigh argues. Negative and generalised judgements about foreigners can be alienating and leave long-lasting impacts.
“It needs to become part of our social norm to not pass judgement simply because people have different cultural backgrounds or nationalities, and it also needs to become part of the social norm to reject this kind of behaviour,” Haigh said.
Ida Hjeltnes Svensen, the campaign manager for Socialdemokraterne candidate Lise Thorsen, agrees that foreigners add value. Originally from Norway, Svensen moved to Copenhagen to study at the University of Copenhagen and stayed on to take her master’s across the bridge in Lund University.
She has been politically active since her youth and now wants to encourage as many eligible foreign nationals to participate in the election as possible in the hope that it will encourage them to stick around.
“Foreigners enrich Copenhagen with knowledge, cultural understanding and prosperity,” Svensen said.
Local authorities hold considerable power over a range of areas including education, welfare and traffic. Their decisions have a direct impact on the city and its residents which, according to Svensen, means those who can vote should.
“We are all Copenhageners and all have a common responsibility to our city, so its vital that foreigners also take a stand and have their voices heard by voting,” she said.