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Pushing the Limits of Acculturation: An Examination of the Danish Policy on Integration


“There is no danger that Denmark will develop into a multicultural society. Because that is not what we want it to do.” – Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (quoted in Jyllands-Posten, 1 January 2000, our translation)

“Mutual understanding and respect of differences constitute an important part of the values on which Danish society is based. We need dialogue and openness between human beings with different backgrounds in order to strengthen social integration and to further develop the community.” – Danish Government (Bedre integration – en samlet handlingsplan, pg. 61, our translation). 

“Experience shows that efficient integration forms the best basis for the return of aliens to their countries of origin. In the opinion of the Government, successful integration is thus a decisive prerequisite for aliens obtaining the reserves and resources necessary for a return. Efficient integration therefore renders it more probable that aliens will return to their countries of origin later on.” – Office of the Minister of the Interior (memorandum from Bill on Integration of Aliens in Denmark, pg. 18) 

What is the Actual Policy of Denmark? 

What is Expected of Foreign-born Persons Staying in Denmark? 

The Danish government has been inconsistent with its stance on its policy on the integration of persons entering the state of Denmark as refugees and immigrants. This has given rise to serious concern from the immigrant/refugee community as well as members of the bureaucracy charged with the responsibility of carrying out the laws of the government. Does Denmark want to be a monocultural society? Is its program on integration designed to carry out that intention? 

In this paper we seek to examine the Danish Integration Program. We hope to determine the intentions of the government as well as the expectations of Danish society. Additionally, we hope to identify inconsistencies among key players, including members of the bureaucracy, members of government and representatives from the foreign-born population. To that end, we will present the Integration Act, focusing on its outline for the Integration Program and penalties for non-participation; the application and implementation of the Program at the municipal level, including the individualization of the requirements and the ambiguities concerning penalties for non-participation; a debate on the expectations from Danish society and government, including commentary from the bureaucracy and advocates of foreign-born persons; and suggestions to modify the current law and implementation of the Integration Program. 

The Integration Act

“The Act on Integration of Aliens in Denmark” (the Integration Act) was passed by the Danish parliament in 1998 and went into effect on 1 January 1999. With the exception of the extreme Right, all political parties consented on the necessity of having legislation on integration. However, the Act was passed with a very small majority of the votes. 

The Act included two very controversial initiatives: firstly, restrictions were made so that refugees could not freely choose where to live in Denmark; and secondly, unemployed refugees and immigrants would receive a lower social benefit relative to unemployed Danes. Several NGOs and leftwing parties expressed their concern. Critical remarks from the UNHCR made the government change the law equalizing the foreigners’ so-called “introduction allowance” with the cash benefit received by Danes. Notwithstanding the critique, the local authorities continue to regulate the housing of refugees. However, in this paper we will not go into the details of that particular issue. 

The Introduction Program

According to Section 1 of the Integration Act, the objectives of the Act are to: “(i) assist in ensuring that newly arrived aliens can participate in the life of society in terms of politics, economy, employment, social activities, religion and culture on an equal footing with other citizens; (ii) assist in making newly arrived aliens self-supporting quickly; and (iii) impart to the individual alien an understanding of the fundamental values and norms of the Danish society.” These three points (equal participation, becoming self-supporting, understanding of Danish values and norm) thus constitute the legal definition of successful integration.

This is to be attained through the two above-mentioned initiatives and a three-year Introduction Program offered to all foreigners. (In this paper we use the term foreigners referring to people, refugees as well as immigrants, to whom the Integration Act applies.) In the following, we will concentrate on the three-year Introduction Program. The Act leaves the overall responsibility for the Integration Program with the municipalities, but it provides a number of guidelines to which the local authorities must adhere. 

Within a month after a foreigner’s arrival in a municipality, the authorities must prepare an individual “action plan” for the Introduction Program. This is a plan of numerous activities that the foreigner must go through during his or her first three years in Denmark. According to the Act’s section 19(2) this “must be prepared on the basis of an assessment of the particular skills and qualifications of the individual alien and must be a targeted effort to introduce the individual alien to the labour market or to an education.”

The Introduction Program includes:

A Danish language course. The purpose of this course is to make the foreigner able to “conduct a normal conversation in Danish and to read and write texts at the level at which the Introduction Programme of the individual aims” (the Integration Act, section 21(1)).

A course in understanding of Danish society. This course must be of at least 20 hours, and according to the detailed rules it must give general information about matters that are substantial when it comes to gaining an understanding of Danish society, including Danish culture. These “substantial matters” are defined neither in the Act nor in the detailed rules. The course must take into consideration the participant’s specific qualifications and background and must be conducted in her or his native language.

“Activation”. This must be planned in accordance with the individual action plan and can include activities such as education and/or vocational training. It applies only to foreigners who receive the introduction allowance. During the “Activation” the foreigner should at any stage be ready to enter the labor market should the opportunity occur of a “stable and unsubsidised work” (the Integration Act, section 23(5).

Penalties for non-Participation

The Act gives two main possibilities of punishing people who do not participate in the program according to their individual action plan. The first possibility only applies to those who receive the introduction allowance, since it gives the municipality the option to reduce the allowance “if the alien or his or her spouse refuses to participate in the introduction programme without reasonable cause.” The second possibility is to be found in the detailed rules on the granting of permanent resident status (Bekendtgørelse om meddelelse af tidsubegrænset opholdstilladelse). Here it is stated that this status can only be obtained if the foreigner goes through the offered introduction program. Again, the enforcement of this will depend on an evaluation of the foreigner’s reasons for not going through the program.

Application and Implementation at Municipal Level

Individualizing the Requirements

According to integration consultant Filip Lam, the Municipality of Copenhagen puts considerable effort into making individual action plans for foreigners coming to the city. Upon the arrival of a foreigner a two-hour interview is conducted. During this process it is decided which courses the foreigner must attend and how the activation will take place. Every three months an integration worker follows-up on each case making sure that classes are attended and all other concerns are addressed. The municipality tries to adapt the schedule of courses and activation to the specific needs of the foreigner. 

Not all municipalities, however, individualize the Introduction Program to the same extent. Copenhagen has the advantage of being a large municipality, whereas areas that receive fewer foreigners cannot offer as wide a scope of possibilities. Lam says that many social workers have a very limited knowledge of the specific situation of refugees. In many cases this leads to insufficient counseling. Therefore further training of the persons working with integration is necessary, says Lam. Omar Dhahir, Associate Professor of Syddansk Universitetscenter, works additionally as an interpreter at the Municipality of Odense. He agrees with Lam that social workers know too little of the foreigners’ cultures. Furthermore, he states that social workers have to do much administrative work, leaving only a short time for the actual counseling of foreigners. This is a problem especially when people have special needs that do not fit into the Introduction Program. For example, due to lack of previous education some foreigners are simply not capable of going through the school-like language training, says Dhahir.

Tina Sass, from the Municipality of Copenhagen, is responsible for the classes in the understanding of Danish culture and society taught in the Copenhagen area. (These courses shall be referred to as “culture classes” for use in this paper.) The design of her courses has been used as a national model for implementation in all municipalities throughout Denmark. She maintains that the courses are a good service to newly arriving refugees, providing information that can assist in the mobilization of newly arriving refugees in the Danish labor force. She says that culture courses are tailor made to suit the needs of different groups of people. In a preliminary meeting, needs of the group are assessed and staff members seek the appropriate individuals to assist in presentations. A recent group of Chinese refugees, for example, sought information on understanding labor rights, the resources of labor unions, and methods to start a business. In this instance, individuals were invited into the class to provide the refugees with the desired information. She emphasizes that the culture classes do not have a specific prescription, but instead have a rough outline from which teachers can create a course made for different groups of refugees. Educational level, occupational level and national origin are all taken into consideration when creating a specific outline in one of the required culture courses. Tina Sass points to one major problem in relation to the culture classes: almost half of the foreigners do not attend the course, and only very few report their reasons for not doing so. Most simply never show up. However, Filip Lam’s experience is that almost all foreigners are very motivated and always have good reasons if they choose not to take part in certain parts of the program.

Ambiguity of Penalty for Non-Participation

A chief concern in the implementation of the Integration Policy is the ambiguity of the penalty that those who elect to not participate in the Integration Program will face. As the initial three-year program began just one year ago, no one has experienced the full ramifications of some of the potential penalties. In the current practice of prescribing course work and identifying penalties, there is a high level of confusion among relevant players. According to Filip Lam, there are simply no clear rules on punishment. Lam recognizes that the law provides for specific punishments with regard to non-participation in the Activation Program and in course work as prescribed by social workers, but the enforcement of these punishments has varied among municipalities. 

According to a recent news broadcast on Danmarks Radio, the government asserted its concern that municipalities are not enforcing the language courses as much as they would like. The municipalities’ ability to limit the introduction allowance should, the government says, be utilized to increase the participation and render the government initiatives more effective.  As it stands, most municipalities do not utilize this legal capacity, and refugees are therefore not always required to participate in the government language programs. The law, however, does state, as mentioned earlier, that those who do not participate will not receive permanent resident status at the end of the first three years. Most officials are not convinced that this law will be enforced when, in 2002, the first group of refugees will be eligible for permanent resident status. Henrik Kyvsgaard and Henrik Torp Andersen, representatives from the Division on Integration in the Ministry of Interior, say that they do not believe that the enforcement of this law will be at all strict. They state that the government does not intend to withhold permanent residency to refugees based solely on non-participation in language coursework, but that the law can be used as a scare tactic by municipalities to increase participation among refugees. 

Lam says that he is not certain as to the necessity of taking part in language courses with regard to attaining permanent resident status. He believes that three years is a long time in which political climates can change. Should the political climate of Denmark shift to a stronger disfavoring of refugees the letter of the law could be used against refugees. This is to say that refugees could technically be denied permanent residency if the political climate elects to enforce current law.    

Expectations from Danish Society and Danish Policy

What Does Society Want?

Those critical of the three-year integration program share deep concerns about the expectations made by Danish society. Omar Dhahir believes that traditional Danish society imposes upon persons wishing to reside in Denmark a standard that traditional Danes themselves label as impossible to reach. He says that traditional Danes believe that one cannot possibly understand Danish culture unless s/he is born in Denmark. Despite this belief, Danish policy insists that foreigners still be “worked upon, like raw material” and made to understand Danish practices. He says efforts to educate foreigners via culture courses are presumed to be futile by the society that creates the system, and therefore a means that is ultimately used to mock the participants. 

Abraham Mahmoodi, Director of Labor Concerns at IndSam, an advocacy and resource group for ethnic minorities in Denmark, and himself a refugee, agrees with Dhahir, adding that traditional Danes are not interested in supporting a multicultural society. He asserts that traditional Danes share a belief that the state of Denmark is home to only one ethnicity, and that anyone wishing to reside in the Danish state is expected to subscribe to the traditional common values and social mores. Despite this demand for voluntary incorporation into the perceived societal mass, he believes that a distinct level of exclusion is imposed upon individuals neither born nor nurtured within the borders of the Danish state. 

Both men agree that the expectation for assimilation is what underlies Danish Integration Policy – but that neither integration nor assimilation occurs. Dhahir asserts that the Integration Policy is unnecessary because anyone who wants to become integrated into Danish society will do so upon his/her own accord. He goes on to claim that if any cultural values are forced upon newly arriving people, the result will be cultural fanatics holding even more tightly onto perceived foreign cultural values and practices. In this respect, he says, the Program is divisive, working against its proclaimed goal of integration. Mahmoodi adds that if Denmark is simply interested in providing tools to refugees successfully to enter the labor market, the focus should be on vocational training. Language and cultural courses, he says, should not be made obligatory by the state, as they can be challenges to a foreign person’s identity.

In Defense of the State

Many in official government positions disagree with the presumed intentions of the Policy as labeled by Dhahir and Mahmoodi. Kyvsgaard and Andersen claim there is no intention within the current governmental policy on integration to change refugees into traditional Danish people, specifically with regard to culture, values and customs. Kyvsgaard and Andersen go on to assert that the Policy is concerned with the observance of laws, respect for male-female relationships and the creation of job opportunities for incoming refugees. They emphasize that the Integration Program is looked at as an investment by the Danish State to produce workers who will be able to contribute successfully to the Danish labor force. With a price tag of over DKK 4 billion (USD 500 million), the program is designed to prevent the high costs that result from a sizable unemployed, unskilled workforce within the Danish state, a state which has a highly developed, inclusive and expensive social welfare system, they say.  

Lam agrees with Kyvsgaard and Andersen, saying that the three-year process is not a bad policy at all. In fact, he says, it is a good service for individuals entering Denmark. He believes the principal intention of the Program is to allow refugees to develop skills with which they can create their own upward mobility both economically and socially. Education, he asserts, is the principal means through which empowerment can occur. Lam says it is ultimately through education of the Danish language and preparation for the labor force that integration can successfully occur. 

Nina Palle and Torben Bonde, representatives from the National Association of Local Authorities, agree with the Kyvsgaard, Andersen and Lam, saying that the integration process is designed to get refugees into jobs. The current Integration Policy, Palle and Bonde assert, is not rooted in societal expectations of assimilation but rather in lessons learned from Denmark’s failure with a previous wave of foreign-population migration into Denmark. This lesson is with regard to the population of guest workers who were invited to Denmark in the late 1960s consisting primarily of Turkish, Pakistani and Yugoslavian immigrants. Low-skilled employment opportunities for these people were prevalent in the sixties, but the situation changed rapidly when the economy took a sudden fall, resulting in few employment opportunities for low-skilled workers, vast unemployment and heightened sentiments of marginalization. No programs had been created to provide these workers with Danish language skills and vocational training that could have allowed these people more opportunities outside of the low-skilled work force. Palle and Bonde claim that today’s integration program is designed precisely as a preventative measure to avoid exclusion from the labor market

What Does the State Want?

The actual intention of the government remains uncertain. Despite the emphasis that members of the bureaucracy and the Act itself put upon the successful entrance of foreigners into the labor market, many in the political realm seem to center their support for the Integration Program on the protection of “Danishness.” According to Kyvsgaard and Andersen, Interior Minister Karen Jespersen puts a strong emphasis on the need for foreigners to “learn and respect Danish norms and values.” Observers are compelled to ask, “What exactly are these norms and values, and why are they assumed to be so different than the norms and values of other cultures?” Dhahir asserts that Danes mystify their own culture, and perceive that their “norms and values” are so inherently complicated and beyond the reach of any external person or group. He believes that it is this mystification that creates a system of exclusion that prevents any foreigner from ever achieving full integration. 

This leads to a central problem, as defined by Dhahir, that focuses on the definition of integration. Dhahir claims that there is no collective agreement on what integration is. While some claim that integration is a process of providing tools to create mobility in the labor market, others claim that it is a way of ensuring a monocultural society. Even with regards to enhancing foreigners’ participation in the labor market, key actors disagree on the necessary mechanisms. Do these mechanisms include Danish language, lessons in Danish culture, dispersion of foreigners among municipalities? Those working directly with foreigners in government programs, says Dhahir, do not have a solid understanding of what “integration” is. In fact, he continues, they are not, as a group, sensitive to other cultures. They are sent, as it seems, as delegates of Danish culture to impart upon foreign people the Danish value system, not to provide specific means for a cohabitation of cultures.  The intentions of the government, therefore, remain unclear. Are foreigners expected to integrate into the labor force and/or to assimilate to Danish culture? Are key actors asking for one thing but expecting something else? 


Evaluating a state’s system of integration is a daunting task. Over the past month, we have investigated various aspects of Danish society including Danish culture, the social welfare system, the prison system, the rights of refugees, and relations among political figures. In this process we have discovered a system that is highly developed, comprehensive and committed to providing a broad network of services that incorporates all members of society. Even in a system as seemingly advanced as Denmark’s, we have learned that no system is perfect. The Danish Integration Policy is interconnected with the various aspects of Danish society that we have studied. A truly fair examination of Danish integration efforts should include a very close look at the cultural situation from which these efforts have sprung. We do not presume to have fully met this task, but we do believe that a discussion about the motivations and details of the Danish Integration Program is socially necessary and legally responsible. 

In examining the Danish case, we are compelled to conclude that it is, overall, a good system. The Danish Integration Program provides a well-funded, well-developed system that serves as a resource from which the tools of mobility can be extracted. Foreigners coming into Denmark are provided financial assistance just like traditional Danish citizens and the Integration Program is free of charge. Dhahir, though a strong critic of certain aspects of the Integration Program, believes that it is ultimately a positive approach. Lam and Sass both assert that the vast majority of foreigners with whom they work are satisfied with the integration requirements and believe the Integration Program is of more benefit than harm. 

Despite our belief in the Program’s positive potentials, we maintain concerns about the original intentions. We believe that the government’s intentions, as stated in material presented in this paper, are largely ambiguous. At times the government appears extremely in favor of providing foreigners with resources as a means to encourage a return to their countries of origin; at others they seem interested in simply providing all persons within the borders of Denmark with the skills to contribute to the labor market. In addition to these concerns is that of assimilation. The government’s on-again and off-again emphasis on preserving the idea of a monocultural society not only causes concern about its policies toward foreigners but also demands close attention to future interpretations and executions of laws passed under varying political climates.  The ambiguity of the Policy, furthermore, can be a barrier to integration itself in that it creates uncertainty among foreigners about the intentions of the host society. This ambiguity, rooted in conflicting governmental statements, creates feelings of exclusion and ultimately hostility.

We believe there to be a considerable discrepancy in the perceptions of the goals of the Integration Program. As mentioned, many in political authority have expressed their intention to prevent a multicultural society. The concerns of Mahmoodi and Dhahir largely address this concern and not the actual way in which the Program functions, just as many political figures have not incorporated their intentions into the Integration Program. On its own, the Program is a good resource, but it does have room to improve. 

In Order to Improve the Integration Program a Number of Changes Must be Made:

Clear explication of penalties. Without a clearly delineated and agreed-upon system of penalties for various levels of non-participation in integration programs, those who choose to not become involved with all aspects may receive a punishment that does not coincide with today’s interpretation of penalties, as exemplified by Lam. As mentioned before, the law states that someone who fails or the spouse of someone who fails to participate in the Introductory Program without “reasonable cause” will also receive a reduction in the allowance. “Reasonable cause” has not been defined and is therefore subject to interpretation by different governments. Not only is this penalty unfair to a spouse, it is ambiguous. The officials with whom we spoke do not believe this will be enforced, but that could legally change. Such penalties may become considerably more harsh based on the political climate, and under the law would still be completely valid. In order to prevent a serious violation of human rights, attention must be addressed to this concern now. 

Language and culture courses must be options, not mandates. We are satisfied with the requirements defined by the Activation Program, as they are consistent with the requirements placed upon all unemployed persons, foreign or not. However, legally mandating language and culture courses pushes the limit on the expectations of persons in a society. We conclude that attempts to force language and culture upon foreign persons in Denmark can be perceived as a means for the government to prevent a multicultural society. Language and knowledge of Danish culture are certainly tools that can be used to increase the success of one’s entrance into the labor market, but must not be presented as obligatory programs. If the programs are truly valuable, they will attract participants without coercion.    

Commonly accepted definition of integration.  As has been explained in this paper, actors throughout the Danish political system inconsistently use the term integration. Various parties employ the term in ways that have radically different policy implications. In order to coordinate the intentions and better identify the will of all involved, a discussion must take place that is centered on identifying a common definition of the term for use in debates and in policy.

Has Denmark created an integration program to combat multiculturalism or an integration program to enhance the labor market? It seems, considering the various components of the Integration Program, that it is trying to do a little of both. As the first three-year period has yet to end and thus the full potential enforcement of language and culture courses has not been imposed, only time will tell what Denmark expects of foreigners entering the country. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized and interconnected, it will be interesting to see what measures a highly homogenous state of only 5.5 million people will take to maintain its perceived monoculturalism. As Mahmoodi says, “Denmark is not ready for the global culture. The Danes must realize that other cultures are not a threat to Danish identity and that people of different backgrounds can peacefully coexist. Danes do not want to coexist. There is much resistance.” 





Andersen, Henrik Torp and Henrik Kyvsgaard.  Office of the Ministry of the Interior.  

Personal Interview.  23 June 2000.  

Bonde, Torben and Nina Palle.  Consultants, National Association of Local Authorities 

(Kommunernes Landsforening).  Personal Interview.  23 June 2000. 

Dhahir, Omar.  Associate Professor, Syddansk Universitetscenter, Odense.  Telephone Interview.  20 June 2000.  

Lam, Filip.  Integration Consultant, Municipality of Copenhagen.  Personal Interview.  21 June 2000.

Mahmoodi, Abraham.  Director of Labor Concerns, IndSam.  Personal Interview.  21 June 2000. 

Sass, Tina.  Coordinator of Culture Courses, Municipality of Copenhagen.  Personal Interview.  23 June 2000.  


Act on Integration of Aliens in Denmark (the Integration Act).  Official Law.    Minister of 

the Interior.  Act No.  474.  Passed 1 July 1998.

Bedre integration:  en samlet handlingsplan  Governmental Report.  February 2000.  

Bekendtgørelse om kursus i samfundsforståelse i medfør af integrationsloven.  Detailed Rules 

Concerning the Course in Understanding of Society.  Ministry of the Interior.  

Bekendtgørelse nr. 935.  15 December 1998.  

Bekendtgørelse om meddelelse af tidsubegrænset opholdstilladelse.  Detailed Rules 

Concerning the Granting of Permanent Resident Status.  Ministry of the Interior. Bekendtgørelse nr. 1065.  17 December 1999.  

Bill on Integration of Aliens in Denmark (the Integration Act).  Proposed Legislation.  

Minister of the Interior.  Bill No. L 60.  Folketinget 1997-98 (2nd Session). Introduced 16 April 1998.  


Radioavisen. News Broadcast. Danmarks Radio. 8 am, 23 June 2000.


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