Project Assimilation

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
By Sille Larsen Nielsen

The topic of integration, immigration and preservation of national culture once again sparked new debate in the Danish media earlier last week. Following a Cabinet reshuffle, current Minister of Development, the right-wing Soeren Pind, also became Minister of Integration. 

On his first day in office, pundits reminded the public of statements he made on his personal blog back in February 2008. “I do not want to hear any more talk on integration. Sick and tired of it – the right word has to be assimilation”, Pind wrote. “There are plenty of cultures elsewhere for people to practice, if that is what they want”.

Despite the sad irony of having a Minister of Integration who dislikes the concept, it draws our attention to perhaps a broader and more complex discussion on immigration that is happening not only in Denmark but also across much of Europe. This new policy agenda is in fact a reflection of broader trends on how Westerners view, treat and interact with immigrants. Should we be worried that this is a potentially dangerous political path?

Taking current events in the Middle East and North Africa into consideration, the number of refugees and other migrants seeking entrance into Europe is expected to rise. The Italian government is predicting that 300,000 asylum-seekers may soon travel from Libya into Italy. In February alone over 5,000 Tunisians began their emigration, travelling by sea to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has repeatedly issued appeals for Italy to refrain from intercepting and summarily returning migrants arriving on boats from Libya. This practice, known as “pushbacks”, is the government’s attempt to prevent an influx of people flowing through its domestic borders.

These two events – one in Denmark and one in Tunisia – seem far apart from each other, both in geographical distance and in political terms. But they are deeply relevant to one another.

According to the Danish Ministry of Refugees, Immigrants and Integration, there are currently around 540,000 foreigners residing in Denmark, with an additional 3,000 seeking asylum each year. Even though Pind has offered qualification to his unfortunate choice of words in 2008, he has not since revoked them.

On the day of his appointment he further argued that foreigners in Denmark should be willing to adopt Danish values, norms and traditions, stating, “I do not see any significant value in a multicultural society”.

Yet, Danish values and norms are not homogenous and static, and it is a serious miscalculation on Pind’s part to state that they are. And if migrants are met with this general trend in Europe, there could be unforeseen consequences. For immigrants, it could result in conflicting identity issues. It could also compromise successful reintegration when, for example, refugees are repatriated. For a host country like Denmark, it might harm future relations with immigrants’ home countries, increase recruitment to extremist groups, and threaten to detract from the benefits of globalisation, economically and culturally.

It is therefore no surprise that Pind’s direction for Danish integration has received mixed reviews. One particularly annoyed group of Danish citizens used Facebook to voice their frustration with his policies. During the recent campaign 22,000 people all changed their profile pictures to the same photo of Pind, which was intended to demonstrate how uninteresting it would be if we all looked and acted in the same way, in an effort to assimilate.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen agrees with Pind’s ideas, but makes a point of clarifying that this is not about eating roasted pork and dancing around the Christmas tree, two hallmarks of Danish culture and tradition. For Rasmussen, it is about protecting normative values such as freedom of expression and the right to equal opportunities between men and women.

Peter Skaarup, MP for The Danish People’s Party (far right-wing), welcomes the initiative, saying, “It is important that we have a debate concerning immigrants unable to integrate in Denmark. We should be telling them that they have to follow the customs or leave”.

This is a remarkably limited choice for all immigrants, and in particular refugees: flee the destruction in their home countries in order to preserve the lives of their families or flee the conservative governments in recipient countries in order to preserve their own culture and traditions. 

The opposition parties do not share this sentiment. “There are enough problems that Pind needs to deal with”, says MP Astrid Krag from The Socialist’s People’s Party (far left-wing). More pressing matters on the Danish domestic agenda right now include the lack of education among young legal immigrants, problems related to residential segregation in urban areas, and the challenge on how to assist a growing migrant working class that is unable to find work. 

But the subject of migration flows from Africa and the Middle East may become an even tenser political issue in the near future for most European nations. Many of them are not yet fully recovered, or are only just recovering, from the economic downturn and a large influx of immigrants may complicate their progress. But it is relevant, when engaging in this immigration debate, to think about how these are received.

Immigrants are more than temporary asylum seekers, they are also human beings trying to create a new life in a new country. Each comes from a different nation and has a unique background, departing their previous situation for very particular reasons. So there should be a real effort to avoid portraying immigrants as a homogenous group whose only reason for entering a country like Denmark, is to become 100 per cent Danish with whatever values the government decided that includes.

So in truth, this debate – whether considering refugees fleeing Libya or how a small nation of only 5,5 million people like Denmark accommodates such foreigners – touches upon some of the same problems. It should result in a public and academic critique of Fortress Europe, a popular nickname for European immigration policies. It should also include perhaps a more fundamental and provocative debate on national values.

Integration is not a one-way street, as Pind would like to believe. Integration goes both ways and requires tolerance on all parts. In democratic societies like Denmark it remains to be seen whether voters will recognise the importance of a multicultural society in which immigrants find support and strength in their family roots, traditions, norms and values, or whether a fear of the “other” will contribute to a tidal wave of new conservative policies restricting and clamping down on immigration and refugees, the latter being some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. It would be sad if restrictive policies ended up quashing the Arab Awakening by hindering its international support from Diaspora members. But one thing is certain: we need to pay substantial and continuous attention to how we address immigration in Europe and take great care about the context in which we choose to use the word “integration”. 


Sille Larsen Nielsen is a Danish national and holds a MA in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is currently pursuing expertise in Global Political Studies at Malmo University in Sweden. Her research interests include refugee and migration issues.


26 March 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis