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“Democratic Kindergarten”: The Copenhagen Integration Council and Ethnic Minority Representation in the Danish Democracy

“Democracy means freedom to have and to voice opinions and stances. It means equality and unity, the fundamentals of the political system in Denmark. It is non-discriminatory and non-exclusive, and it assures an opportunity to participate for all people, regardless of their political affiliations, gender, race, and religion...”

–“Integrationsrådet i København – By for alle” (“The Integration Council in Copenhagen – A City For All,” an informational pamphlet published by the Municipality of Copenhagen, 2003.)

“The Integration Council is important, but it doesn’t help anything.” The words are spoken in capable, but imperfect Danish by Hadi Bakhtiere as he sits at a table in his café, Fars Køkken, on the Blågårdsgade, a small road in the Nørrebro section of Copenhagen. Around him, the tables are unkempt, with empty wine glasses and cigarette butts wallowing in ashtrays: it seems he has just returned from his lunch break.

Bakhtiere, an Iranian immigrant who has been living in Denmark for 20 years, says that he always votes in elections—municipal elections, federal elections, any elections He learned to think of democracy as a privilege ever since he was a political activist in Iran. When in March of this year, the Municipality of Copenhagen (København Kommune) declared that they would hold open, direct elections for the Municipal Integration Council, Bakhtiere voted again, casting his ballot for one of his friends who sought a seat on the informal, voluntary advisory board that is the only legitimate political body that seeks to speak for the entire Copenhagen “ethnic minority” community. “I don’t think the Integration Council can do anything for me, because I can take care of myself,” he says, “but there are a lot of issues confronting immigrants, and the Integration Council can address these issues.”

For people like Hadi Bakhtiere, who are considered by the Danish government to be “of ethnic background other than Danish” the whole notion of “integration” is somewhat problematic. How long does a foreigner have to live in Denmark until he or she is considered a Dane? What does it mean, exactly, to be “integrated”? Does it mean having a job? Speaking Danish? Going to the polls? Giving up a cultural identity that does not correspond with the Western dress and Lutheran values of most “ethnic Danes”? 

In 1998, the Federal Government of Denmark passed a new Integration Law meant to address these sorts of issues. An important, ground-breaking part of the legislation was a provision that assured that if 50 people of age 18 or over in a given municipality submit a written request for the establishment of an Integration Council then such a Council must be formed. In 2004, the government changed the Integration Law, making it voluntary for the municipalities to establish Integration Councils, and by 2005 73 out of the 270 Danish municipalities had established them, with the objective of providing advice through hearings on ethnic minority and integration issues to the local political decision-makers. Chapter 8 of the Law on Integration of Foreigners in Denmark (LIFD) from 2005 states that, 

“The Integration Council can give counseling statements about the existing integration effort in the municipality and about the introductory programs [for migrants] that are offered by the City Council. The statements will be published”.  

Since the Copenhagen City Council appointed the first ever Integration Council (I.C.) in 1999, the I.C. has met once a month to discuss initiatives and plans proposed by the City Council and to lend the voice of Copenhagen’s ethnic minorities to the discourse. But after eight years of its existence, it’s still not entirely clear what the I.C.’s goals and concerns are, and how they plan to go about dealing with them. Many people, from local politicians down to ethnic minority residents, feel that the Council has been ineffective. As one City Council member put it, “The time of seeing results has yet to come.”

What follows is a survey of various opinions on the Integration Council and its efficacy. Voters, Council members, and politicians discuss whether or not the I.C. actually has a mandate, actually makes a difference, or actually helps with integration. We will examine these questions closely, get to the core of the discussion, and reconcile the divide in the debate with the aim of making a recommendation for the future of the Integration Council.

In response to a report on Municipal Integration Councils by the Federal Council for Ethnic Minorities published in 2004, the Danish Integration Minister Bertel Haarder stated that “A well functioning Integration Council often makes the difference between success and failure for the local integration initiatives.” The minister further stated that although voluntary by law, he strongly recommended that the local City Councils establish Integration Councils. The establishment of I.C.’s as promoted in the Integration Law of 1998 reflects a general attitude that integration is an issue that needs to be dealt with. But when the City Council decided that in March 2006, 15 new Integration Council members (terms last four years) would be selected for the first time in open, public elections,  only 13.7 % of the eligible voters cast ballots.  This made it questionable whether the Council actually speaks on behalf of the ethnic minorities of the municipality. Another issue was whether an Integration Council without any actual political power, one that acts only as a special advisory unit to the City Council, actually ensures that minorities are included in the democratic political process. 

Sara Hadra, a 22-year-old student training to be a dental hygienist and who started her first term as an I.C. member in April, thinks it does. Born in Tangier but raised both in Denmark and Morocco, she says that she ran for the Integration Council because she didn’t want to remain a passive bystander. She was tired of not being heard and felt a strong need to take part in a political debate on integration that she thinks has taken a wrong turn. “My mother raised me to vote,” she insisted over tea near her workplace in Østerbro, “but even she refused to vote in the last elections because she said, ‘Nothing is going to happen anyway. It will have no effect.’ People don’t want to vote because they have given up, they’ve become hopeless.”

The most important thing, according to Hadra, is the nature of the discussion on integration. Only when the media stops focusing on the failures and setbacks in integration policy can real progress be made. “We need to maintain a proper tone in the political debate. Politicians can criticize, but they shouldn’t be mud-slinging. People shouldn’t make gross generalizations; they should see the nuances. A lot of minorities feel”, she adds, “that there needs to be more positive media support for integration.” 

Hadi Bakhtiere, back at his café, expressed the same sentiments. “The media has been portraying immigrants in a bad light,” he said. “It makes them feel like foreigners, like they aren’t Danes. Somebody needs to put pressure on the government to make sure some changes are made.” That somebody, presumably, is the Integration Council. 

Deep inside Copenhagen City Hall, a stately building of austere, classical proportions which give its name to the adjacent Rådhuspladsen, Jakob Hougaard reviews the statements published by the Integration Council in response to the City Council’s proposals and initiatives. As one of the city’s six deputy “Mayors” and as chairman of the Committee on Employment and Integration, Hougaard is arguably the most important politician working on the City’s integration policy. 

Currently, the Committee on Employment and Integration is working on initiatives such as the “Job Patrol”, a group of city workers who go around knocking on doors, offering jobs to minority residents. Other projects include a work-while-you-study program and a mentoring initiative offered by the city’s big employers to their minority employees. But as far as the Integration Council is concerned, most of Hougaard’s interactions with its members don’t happen within the walls of City Hall. Hougaard, like the rest of his committee, reads policy recommendations delivered by the I.C. and bears their advice back to the City Council chambers. 

According to Hougaard, the Integration Council has potential to do good things for the integration process, but it is plagued by several problems, first and foremost of which is that it does not represent all or even a majority of the ethnic minority electorate. “The Integration Council is a group that I’m willing to cooperate with, but I’m fully aware that they don’t represent all ethnic minorities, only a small part of them,” he says. Hougaard says that the March elections “were not a success” because of the low turnout. Now, more than ever, he says, “they have to work to make themselves necessary in the debate.”

Another problem, in his opinion, is the issue of empowerment. Because the Integration Council is just an advisory board and not a political entity, they have no bargaining power when it comes to the issues that are important to Copenhagen’s minorities. “There’s a difference,” he says, “between having a negotiation and having a dialogue. I see the Integration Council as a dialogue partner, not as a negotiation partner.”

In conversation, Hougaard also frequently uses the word “visibility.” He says that the I.C. needs to be recognized for the work that it does, and that public visibility is necessary for the Council to successfully fulfil its mandate. “I would like them to be more visible,” he says. “It should not just be a council inside the City Hall that no one hears about for four years.”

Peter Schlüter, a Conservative Party City Council representative and also a member of the Hougaard’s Committee on Employment and Integration, seems to be one of the many politicians and voters who feel that the Integration Council is “invisible.” In an interview, he could not recall a single instance of policymaking that was influenced by the Integration Council. The only strong impressions he had were that some of the Integration Council’s recommendations were “hard to implement,” and that the members of the Council quarrelled a lot. 

“There has been a bit of disappointment in getting the counseling expected of the Integration Council,” he says. “I don’t see much interest coming from the City Council towards the I.C.… But we have to regard this as a ‘burning test’, a test period for the I.C.” However, the Council, as we have noted, has existed for almost eight years, and seems to be past its “burning test,” so either Schlüter hasn’t been paying attention, or he is absolutely right and the Council is still taking ineffective baby steps. 

Hikmet Hussein, founding member and former chair of the I.C., thinks that baby steps aren’t such a bad thing — that in fact they are an inherent part of the Council. Hussein views the role of the I.C. as not simply one of giving hearings on policy drafts, but also as a kind of “democratic kindergarten” where immigrants from non-democratic countries are learning to practice the principles of political participation. Hussein thinks he achieved a lot during his time on the I.C. Inside his apartment in Amager, sitting on his couch underneath several photos of his large family back in Basra, Iraq, he describes the progress made in both the internal and external workings of the Council. He is very positive towards the recent development of direct elections because, as he says, “Also those who are not used to actively taking part in political processes should be encouraged to participate in the democracy… I think that democracy is a human right”. 

Despite his emphasis on democratic principles, Hussein thinks it is important that the Integration Council is an advisory board organized along ethnic lines, rather than a political body with members representing political parties. The IC consists of people that are experts on integration in the specific capacity of being ethnic minorities, not politicians. “The politicians have their political attitude, and the City Council members have their own attitude,” he says, “but in the Integration Council, people give their opinions without all the politics.” He insists that the disagreements between Council members that Peter Schlüter found so divisive are a fantasy. “There a lot of internal differences, but because we are all in the same boat, all ethnic minorities, there are also a lot of common interests such as school, housing, and culture. We almost always agree.”

Current I.C. co-chair Ayfer Baykal, disagrees, however, with the idea that ethnicity should be a qualification in itself for membership. “You don’t have a specific knowledge based on your ethnicity,” she says. “You can’t represent all Turks, just because you are Turkish.” Baykal’s comments raise some of the most important problems with the very philosophy behind the Integration Council. If equal participation is the goal, then a “separate but equal” approach, where ethnic minorities are in the dialogue only alongside the City Council, engaging in a sort of political “parallel play,” is not an effective tool for encouraging integration. Including ethnic minorities in the dialogue may be a nice gesture, may make for slick-looking, glossy government brochures on multiculturalism, full of many-colored hand-prints and flowery language about the racial, religious, and gender ubiquity of democracy, but without empowering ethnic minorities politically, and relying only on ethnicity as a qualification for the job, it remains a mere gesture. “I’m not always sure if we’re just the icing on top of the cake, to make everything look nice,” admits Baykal, “or if we are actually being heard.”

Ghassan Althahir, a 27-year old student born in Yemen to Iraqi parents, usually votes in local elections, but he refused to vote at the Integration Council elections in March. “I didn’t vote because I don’t think the people sitting on the Council will make a difference,” he says, relaxing at a Nørrebro café, just having finished his final exam of the year. “I’d be voting for someone who is giving advice to politicians, and I don’t think that advice will be taken seriously. It’s just so the politicians can say, ‘Oh yes, we are integrated in Denmark!’” Althahir also thinks that it doesn’t make sense that only immigrants can vote for and run for the Council. “If we want to get anything done, we have to have both ethnic minorities and Danes. Then it will be taken more seriously.”

Althahir’s objection is a more sophisticated one in the spectrum of opinions among people on the ground. Many ethnic minorities, like Arafat Daghan, a 26-year-old Palestinian immigrant, or Samuel Asante-Jakobsen, a Ghanaian who owns a shop that sells African goods in Vesterbro, have never even heard of the Integration Council. Others, like the men at the Vesterbro Turkish Association, had heard of the Council, but simply did not care. A 52-year-old Egyptian man who had been living in Denmark for 18 years and would give his name only as Mario, said he cared more about getting his government pension than about integration. “I didn’t vote for that,” he explains. “I got the information in the mail, but I didn’t read it. Nobody cares about that stuff.”

Others felt that the I.C. simply did not address them, because they do not consider themselves ethnic minorities. Michael Ulfstjerne, whose mother is Mexican, but who has lived in Denmark his whole life, said that he thought it was a mistake when he received a ballot for the Integration Council election in the mail. “I was of the opinion that I was integrated,” he said. “I’m as Danish as it gets.” This type of response was not uncommon after the March elections, according to Jakob Hougaard. “They drew a lot of response from people who felt offended that they were being chosen to vote,” he said, “that they were being labelled somehow as foreign.” 

Back in his office at City Hall, Jakob Hougaard makes a dooming admission: “I’m not sure we’ll have an Integration Council in the future.” There is a solution, he feels, to the various problems that underpin the mission and nature of the I.C., and it is to encourage civic engagement among ethnic minorities. People are represented better, he feels, by political parties, rather than by people of the same ethnic background as them. “The best thing for integration would be for ethnic minorities to become involved in political parties,” says the deputee Mayor. “And the best way to encourage this is to get more ethnic minorities on the ballots… There are many experts on integration, and some of them are already in positions of power in the City Council. With the current media coverage, for example, of [the recent sentencing of several Pakistani men who committed an] honor killing, an expert voice has come from  [ethnic Indian City Councilman] Manu Sareen.”

Currently nine out of 55 City Council members are of ethnic minority background, which is an important first step towards enfranchising Copenhagen’s minorities. The next step, it seems, is getting more minorities to vote for the City Council, so as to assure that politicians actually address important minority issues, because democracy is as much about participation as it is about representation. 

Taking into account the various concerns about the Integration Council held by stakeholders at various levels, it seems that the Integration Council itself is not integrated into the political system. Politicians don’t seem to have a very high regard for its opinions, and at the ground level, its members only represent 13.7% of the ethnic minority population. Many of the people who did not vote chose not to do so with good reason. In reality, the Integration Council as it currently functions, does not address the problems of integration or the people experiencing these problems at all. 

Acknowledging the ethnic divide as a problem in Danish society as a whole, we must realize that it cannot be overcome by using ethnicity as a basis for political action. Listening to the opinions of the various parties, it is hard to argue with Jakob Hougaard’s assertion that people are represented better by their political ideas and the parties that stand for them, than by an institution that keeps the voice of ethnic minorities on the sideline because it is based on the very same ethnic affiliation that it seeks to overcome. And in a way, the Integration Council is actually counterproductive for integration because it gives an excuse to the politicians who are not interested in the integration debate; it allows them to write off integration as a problem already solved, a closed discussion, because as long as the City Council is patient enough to listen to the I.C., regardless of whether or not any changes come of that listening, they have done their duty to integration. 

“In a political system, you must have a place where the decisions are made, where responsibility is taken,” says Hougaard. If integration is to be achieved, the Integration Council can no longer afford to remain powerless and without a mandate in the face of its responsibility.



All interviews conducted in June, 2006.

Thomas Hugger, secretary of the Integration Council, Københavns Kommune

Ayfal Baykal, elected member of the Integration Council since March 2006.

Sara Hadra, elected member of the Integration Council and member of the federal Commission on Integration since March 2006.

Hikmet Hussein, former appointed member and chair of the Integration Council from 1998-2006.

Peter Schlüter, representative of the Konservative Folkeparti in BorgerRepæsentationen, (Copenhagen City Council) and active in the Committee on emplyment and integration.

Jacob Hougaard, representative of Social Demokratiet in BorgerRepræsentationen, (Copenhagen City Council) and serving mayor on employment and integration.

Ghassan Althahir, student of Iraqi descent.

Hadi Bakhtiere, café-owner of Iranian descent.

Samuel Asante Jakobsen, shop-owner of Ghanese descent. 

Michael Ulfstjerne, student of half Mexican descent.

Arafat Daghan, student of Lebanese descent.

Mario, pensioner of Egyptian descent.

“Undersøgelse af integrationsrådenes høringsret og økonomiske midler”, a reprt published by Rådet for Etniske Minoriteter, Marts 2004.

“Integrationsrådet i København – By for alle” an informational pamphlet published by the Municipality of Copenhagen, 2003.

Law on Integration of Foreigners in Demark, Ministry of Integration 2004.


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