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UN human rights experts urge Denmark to halt contentious sale of “ghetto” buildings

Geneva (23 October 2020) – Denmark should suspend the controversial sale of apartment houses in a Copenhagen “ghetto” until its courts can determine whether laws permitting the sale violate residents’ human rights, UN experts* said today.

“Denmark must not go ahead with the sale of the buildings of Mjølnerparken under its “Ghetto package” laws until courts have had a chance to rule on it, taking applicable rules of international human rights law in full account,” they said.

Mjølnerparken is a housing project in the Nørrebro neighbourhood of the Danish capital. It is home to about 2,500 residents, 98 per cent of whom are either immigrants or born to immigrants, many from Africa and the Middle East.

Under a package of laws and amendments adopted in 2018, dubbed the “Ghetto Package,” the government can designate certain certain neighborhoods as “ghettos” or “tough ghettos” on the basis of the percentage of “non-Western” immigrants and descendants. Under this designation, buildings can be demolished in an effort to change the character of low-income, largely Muslim neighborhoods.

“We are particularly concerned that the sale of buildings of Mjølnerparken, now classified as ‘tough ghetto,’ puts its residents at a high risk of forced eviction in violation of their right to an adequate housing,” the experts said.

“While the legality of the “Ghetto Package” is being litigated in the Danish high court, the sale of Mjølnerparken must not move forward,” they said. “It does not matter whether they own or rent, all residents should have a degree of security of tenure, which guarantees legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.”

This “Ghetto Package” is part of Denmark’s “One Denmark without Parallel Societies—No Ghettos in 2030” initiative, which targets “non-Western” neighbourhoods. Under the Ghetto Package, a neighbourhood with more than 1,000 residents meeting two of four criteria on employment, education, income and criminality is designated “ghetto,” if more than half of the residents are immigrants and descendants of “non-Western” countries. “Ghetto” neighbourhoods are designated “tough ghetto” after four years.

The updated law, however, fails to concretely define “non-Western.” Statistics Denmark, under the Danish Ministry for Economic and Interior Affairs, defines “non-Western” as any country outside the EU, with the exceptions of Andorra, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, the USA, and the Vatican State. The effect is that “non-Western” disproportionately means Denmark’s non-white, non-European ethnic populations.  

Labelling neighbourhoods “ghettos” and “tough ghettos” on the basis of the percentage of “non-Western” immigrants and descendants raises serious concerns of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, and other protected grounds.

“The use of such language also stigmatizes individuals belonging to or perceived to belong to Denmark’s racial, ethnic, and religious minorities,” the experts said/ “Stigmatizing laws like the Ghetto Package risk intensifying and entrenching xenophobia and racial discrimination against residents in Denmark who are or are perceived as ‘non-Western’.”

Under the initiative’s stated aim of “No Ghettos in 2030,” non-profit housing associations in “ghetto” neighbourhoods can redevelop housing, and those in all “tough ghetto” neighbourhoods are required to submit plans to reduce their family housing to 40% by 2030. If redevelopment is not practical, housing in “ghetto” areas may be demolished and residents may be forcibly relocated.

The experts are concerned by this policy of redevelopment, demolition, and forcible relocation affecting social housing as it regards rights to non-discrimination, equality, and adequate housing. Because the Danish law defines “ghetto” by relying on a concentration of ethnic, national origin and racial minorities, policies enabling the redevelopment of “ghetto” neighbourhoods will necessarily affect those minorities at a disproportionately high rate. These changes increase racial inequality in security of tenure and enjoyment of the right to adequate housing.

Under the “Ghetto Package,” police can crack down selectively on “ghetto” and “tough ghetto” neighborhoods, and people convicted of crimes there generally face sentences twice as long as those individuals committing the same crimes elsewhere.

“The application of these laws targeting racial, ethnic, and religious minorities is a clear violation of the right of equality before the law and equal treatment before tribunals,” the experts said. 

Under the laws, when they are one year old, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week for mandatory instruction in “Danish values” and Danish language.

“Human rights law generally encourages the creation of programs that narrow social cleavages and aid integration, but mandatory instruction of “Danish values” and the Danish language appears incompatible with racial equality in the enjoyment of cultural rights,” the experts said.

“We call on Denmark to respect its obligations under human rights law based on the premise that all people, simply because they are human beings, should enjoy all human rights without discrimination on any grounds.”


* The Experts: Ms. E. Tendayi ACHIUME Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context; Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: Denmark

For more information and media requests, please contact Carmen Arevalo Flores (+41 22 917 9296 / carevaloflores@ohchr.org ); or racism@ohchr.org

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org) and Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org).

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