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Divorced From Reality: The True Impact of Denmark’s 24 Year-Old Rule
Nenad Dragic used ICQ.com to keep up with family and friends. He had met some people on the site before. Then he came across Ivana, a 22 year-old interior designer from Serbia. “She was different,” he says. “She was special.” Nenad, a Danish citizen since the age of 13, was thrilled to meet someone from the land his grandparents had left decades before. After getting to know each other and meeting in person, they decided to get married. Due to the common Serbian heritage that brought them together, though, this fairy tale does not end in Denmark. Rather, an encounter with Denmark’s recently enacted 24 year-old rule for family reunification sent them on a year-long odyssey of paperwork, decision-making, and doubts that eventually led to Malmo, Sweden. “Ivana had some trouble at first,” says Nenad. “She couldn’t understand why Denmark wouldn’t want her.”
The reason Denmark does not want Ivana is the 24 year-old rule, a part of Denmark’s recently revamped rules on family reunification that went into effect July 1, 2002. The rules apply to marriages where one or both parties are non-Danish citizens, and include housing and income conditions, the stipulation that the couple have a greater affiliation to Denmark than to any other country, and, perhaps most controversially, the requirement that both parties be over 24 years of age. These more stringent regulations were ushered in by the current coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Parties after they were voted into power in 2001. According to the government, the rules were implemented for three main reasons: 1) to limit the flow of immigrants to Denmark, 2) to manage better the integration process, and 3) to prevent forced marriages. They have had far-reaching effects, however, and unforeseen consequences have raised stiff opposition from many groups to the changes, particularly among human rights groups and people who have been directly affected by the rules. The situation raises many questions, including who has been affected by it, how they are coping, and what it says about Denmark. Ivana’s sentiments, though, points to the question that underlies each of these uncertainties: whom does Denmark want?
“Something has to be done”
Not only were Nenad’s grandparents wanted, they were needed. In the 1970’s, Denmark had a need for immigrant laborers. Empty buses set out for countries rich with willing workers and returned with Denmark’s new work force. Nenad’s grandfather came on such a bus; Nenad recounts that he “arrived on a Sunday and started work on Monday.” Nenad’s father, just 16 at the time, worked in the fields as a picker. When he grew up he returned to the former Yugoslavia on holiday and met Nenad’s mother. The young couple soon moved to Denmark, where they raised Nenad and his brother Michael. Nenad’s parents belong to the first generation of immigrants in Denmark, a generation that abruptly disturbed the country’s mono-cultural nature. The society was unprepared: integration efforts were minimal, many did not learn the language and few opportunities for advancement were available. After Denmark’s gates were opened, what is characterized as a flood of immigrants came through: Iranians fleeing the Islamic revolution, Pakistanis seeking opportunity, Serbs rejoining their families. In reality, Denmark still had only 8.2% immigrants and descendents of immigrants as of 2004 (out of a population of roughly 5.3 million). It seems unlikely that the sheer number of immigrants is solely responsible for the new restrictive measures.
Yildiz Akdogan, a Kurdish woman of Turkish descent who ran for Parliament as a Social Democrat in the 2005 elections, has strong opinions about why the rules were enacted. “In the last elections,” she says, “it was all ‘the foreigners, the foreigners, the foreigners.’ If someone had a bad day, it was the fault of the foreigners.” She thinks that voters have punished the Social Democrats in recent years because of integration policy, seeing the party as too accommodating of immigrants. The Social Democrats were so stunned by their historic defeat in 2001 after eight consecutive years of power that they adopted the anti-immigrant language of the right, hoping to keep voters from backing the nationalist Danish People’s Party. To explain how public opposition to immigration has grown, Ms. Akdogan also points out the tragic case of a Kurdish girl living in Sweden who was killed by her father for having a Swedish boyfriend. Particularly with respect to the 24 year-old rule, she notes that several women who have been victims of forced marriage have been speaking out against the practice and receiving generous coverage in the press.
According to Abdul Wahid Pedersen, a Dane who has been a Muslim for 23 years and serves as an Imam for a mosque in Copenhagen, the attention is not unwarranted. Since assuming the position of Imam seven years ago, he has spoken out often against the practice of forced marriage. “It’s a problem when a person is forced into anything against his or her will,” he says, and just one case of forced marriage “is enough to say that something has to be done.” Though Mr. Pedersen believes forced marriage is “definitely against Islam,” there are members of his community that both agree with and carry out the practice.
Even if forced marriage is an issue in Denmark, legal and human rights experts are not convinced that the 24 year-old rule is an appropriate (and legal) means of combating it. In 2004 the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) published a report which echoed the European Council’s Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles’ critique of the family reunification laws after his visit in April 2004. The DIHR report found that the administration of the new law violates the right to family life as established by the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as going against precedents set by the European Court of Human Rights. The relevant part of the Convention is Article 8, which states that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” DIHR finds that it is not only immigrants that are being deprived of their human rights, but refugees and ethnic Danes as well. “It is DIHR’s belief that the 24 year-old rule prevents a much larger number of persons from getting permission to reside in Denmark than the groups running the risk of forced marriage. Thus, the rule extends not only to the people being caught in forced or arranged marriages, but also to those who wish to marry of their own free will before they reach 24 years old.”
According to DIHR, lawmakers need to make the rules more specific and indicate cases in which the rules are not applicable. The immigration services should also make a yearly report on the cases they handle to serve as a guide for future years. This is intended to make the administration of the rules comply with the principle of the European Court on Human Rights that “the similar should get a similar treatment.” This means that persons in similar situations should be treated in a similar way. The DIHR believes that the Danish 24 year-old rule and the attachment requirement provoke unequal treatment because they are targeted at foreigners residing in Denmark and Danish citizens with other ethnic backgrounds. Thus, they constitute discrimination.
As far as the law itself is concerned, however, the DIHR takes into account the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has clearly stated that a married couple is not free to choose in which country they wish to reside. According to the Court, “The duty imposed by Article 8 cannot be considered as extending to a general obligation ... to respect the choice by married couples of the country of their matrimonial residence and to accept the non-national spouses for settlement in that country.” On this basis, the DIHR admits that the family reunification law as it is written technically complies with human rights doctrines.
Return to Sender
The greatest uproar over the 24 year-old rule has not been over its legality, but rather its effects on people who feel inappropriately targeted. According to Erik Lemcke, a spokesperson for Couples Without Borders (Ægteskab Uden Grænser), 2808 out of 5838 applicants were refused residence permits in family reunification cases in Denmark last year alone. Couples Without Borders is an organization that helps the 60-70 couples per month that decide to take the step of moving to Sweden in order to be able to live together. Since 1997 their website has gotten 22,000 registered members. There are some rare exceptions to the law, but the vast majority of couples with at least one foreign partner and at least one partner under the age of 24 end up being treated like packages without enough postage; all that is missing is the stamp saying “Return to Sender.”
It is quite obvious that all 2808 people denied residence permits were not potential victims of forced marriage. In fact, for the year 2004 there were only seven couples whose marriages were not recognized based on suspicion of coercion or marriages of convenience, constituting much less than 1% of all cases. Farshad Kholghi, a Danish actor and comedian of Iranian descent, supports the rule nonetheless. He argues that it is false to think that “in order to save the world we need to invite everyone into Europe.” His main concern is the growing Muslim population of Denmark which he sees as a threat to the balance of society. “Islam these days is very fundamentalist and very dangerous,” he says. About the unintended consequences of the rule, Mr. Kholghi argues that “nothing is perfect, especially in a democratic society; we make up these rules, and no one has a magic ball to look into.”
Many people think that, on the contrary, no magic ball was necessary to foresee the consequences of the 24 year-old rule. Mr. Pedersen, for example, finds that it is “not a proactive way but a reactive way of looking at the problem.” He finds that the rule is so broad that it does little to prevent forced marriage while having a widespread effect on people who should not be targeted. He gives the example of his 20 year-old son, who is also Muslim, and is currently working in Jordan. “If he should fall in love with someone from Jordan, or from China for that matter,” says Mr. Pedersen, “why should he, as a Danish citizen, have to ask the government for permission to marry?” Looking beyond his own family, Mr. Pedersen clearly sees the widespread effect of the rule: “it (the 24 year-old rule) was aimed at Muslims, but there has been a lot of collateral damage.”
The damage is not only caused by the 24 year-old rule. One person caught in the crosshairs is Bolette Kornum, who also works with Couples Without Borders. Bolette, 32, has been living in Sweden for more than two years with her Egyptian husband Osama Doss, 31. They met in Egypt while she was studying there and were married in 2000. When the couple decided to move to Denmark in 2003, Bolette did not anticipate troubles with returning to her home country with her new husband. Though she was not subject to the 24 year-old rule, she and her husband failed to meet the attachment requirement which is another family reunification stipulation. The 28 year-old rule, one of the few exceptions to the family reunification laws that says that a person with Danish citizenship for over 28 years is not subject to the attachment requirement, had not yet come into effect. Bolette, along with other ethnic Danes, second-generation immigrants, refugees, and others, thus found herself out in the cold, but she found greener pastures in Sweden. It is not easy leaving behind her homeland, but she appreciates many things about her new home, such as not having a ‘big brother’ overlooking her every move, the lack of unreasonable requirements for staying in Sweden, and the cheaper cost of living. Still, some bitterness remains: “Does it really justify,” she asks, “that so many people become victims just to prevent a few marriages a year?”
Danish Lutheran Protestant Muslims
The objective of better managing the integration process has received the least attention in the public debate, but Mr. Kholghi finds it to be of utmost importance. He is an advocate for a mono-cultural Denmark: “I don’t want Chinatown and the Bronx, just one society.” From his perspective, Denmark’s immigration dilemma stems from the fact that it attracts the wrong kind of immigrants. “I don’t have anything against well-educated people… the problem is, those people don’t come here, be it because of the weather, because of the taxes… people like to get rich!” Mr. Kholghi finds that Denmark should do more to attract well-educated immigrants, and would prefer that Denmark spend the money it has available for integration on the immigrants that are already here, rather than admitting more.
Tim Jensen, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Southern Denmark, finds that the integration argument is simply an excuse for “dissolving Islam from within.” “It is very clear,” he says, “that the 24 year-old rule was meant to prevent arranged marriages between Muslims residing in Denmark and other Muslims.” It is a way of encouraging intermarrying with ethnic Danes, with the ultimate goal of promoting a Danish Lutheran Protestant way of being Muslim. Whereas Mr. Kholghi yearns for a uniform Danish society of the future, Professor Jensen speaks of Denmark’s past as being mono-cultural and mono-religious. For this very reason, he argues, Denmark is a particularly xenophobic country, to the point where it is “almost tribal.” Professor Jensen has been married to a woman from Sweden for many years who still speaks with a slight accent. Even though she is a person with an education and a high social status, she remains the object of Danish xenophobia on occasion. Professor Jensen puts forth this example to show that no matter how hard one might try to integrate, it is impossible to fully do so in a society that doesn’t want you.
There is no doubt that one objective of the rule has been highly successful: limiting immigration. The number of applicants for family reunification was cut in half between 2002 and 2004, from 11,250 to 5,838. Decreasing immigration will only exacerbate the trend showing that Denmark’s population will decline well into the next decades. The number of working-age Danes is expected to drop by 17,5% by 2050, while the number of foreigners of working-age will increase by 27,2% from Western countries and by 107,7% from non-Western countries. Cutting off this influx of labor could potentially have dire consequences for the labor market in Denmark, because its economy clearly will not function based on well-educated immigrants alone. Ms. Akdogan expressed her frustration concerning the lack of public debate about this issue, saying “it’s just not ‘in’ to talk about things like that.” If this trend holds true, Denmark could find it convenient to be more open to the young people who have been refused residency due to the family reunification rules. Whether they will come back is another matter.
Sweden is Better
For his part, Nenad does not intend to return to Denmark. Since moving to Sweden in February, he has found a country that is willing to help him where Denmark failed him. Ivana was able to get her residency papers within three days and found an apartment much more easily than is possible in Copenhagen. Ivana is soon to start Swedish classes, and when she has become proficient in the language she thinks she will be able to pursue her interest in interior design. “Everything is cheaper here,” Nenad says, “and the people are nicer. They aren’t afraid to talk to you even if your skin is a little bit darker. In Sweden a man in a government office is a man and not ‘Serbian, Dansih, Italian, German,’ he is a person.” Simply put, “Sweden is better than Denmark.”
Nenad does see some disadvantages to leaving his home country. He now has a longer commute to his job in information technology with BRFKredit in Lyngby. If he and Ivana want to have children, it will be more difficult with no family around to help. That may change soon, though: Nenad’s parents are considering moving to Sweden as well. When asked where he feels at home, Nenad says “I don’t feel attached anywhere right now. I just want to be in a place where I feel at home and where I know the rules.” For now, he’s not looking back: “The only thing I regret is that I didn’t move earlier.”
The Danish government is steadfast in claiming that the family reunification laws are not meant to be discriminatory. As Mr. Kholghi insists, “this is not about racism.” Rather, for supporters of provisions like the 24 year-old rule, it is about protecting young women, improving integration, and preserving Danish society. This is a position that cannot be characterized as extreme in Denmark’s current political climate. After all, as Professor Jensen says, “who won the elections four years ago and again this past year?” Still, this view is in many ways divorced from reality. The results of the family reunification law have been both discriminatory and disproportionately harsh towards citizens who were not meant to be targeted. They go in the opposite direction of clear labor trends and reduce the likelihood of achieving racial and religious harmony in Denmark. The rules unambiguously state that immigrants are not welcome and imply that Muslims are not either. In defining who is not welcome, however, the rules fail to demonstrate who is welcome. Since the rules apply to all Danish citizens, so long as any Dane can fall in love with a foreigner, young people in Denmark cannot be sure of their place in their own society. Those who choose to move away are left, as Nenad, searching for a place to call home.
1. “Yearbook on Foreigners in Denmark,” Ministry of Integration (2004)
2. Danish Institute for Human Rights Report on Family Reunification (2004)
3. European Convention on Human Rights
4. www.udlst.dk, Statistical Report for 2004
7. Erik Lemcke (06-25-2005)
8. Abdul Wahid Pedersen (06-28-2005)
9. Yildiz Akdogan (06-28-2005
10. Farshad Kholghi (06-29-2005
11. Tim Jensen (06-29-2005)
12. Bolette Kornum (06-29-2005)
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