Main languages: Danish, Greenlandic, Faroese, German
Main religions: Evangelical Lutheran (76 per cent), Muslim (nearly 5 per cent)
Minority groups based on country of origin include Turks, Poles, Syrians, Germans, Iraqis, Romanians and people from former Yugoslavia. There are also other Asian and African populations.
Approximately 50,000 Faroese inhabit the Faroe Islands, located in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Scotland. Inuit account for the majority of the roughly 57,000 population of the island of Greenland, three-quarters of which is covered by ice and unsuitable for permanent settlement.
Denmark is mostly inhabited by ethnic Danes. Very few Faroese or Greenlanders have settled in mainland Denmark despite their status as Danish citizens. Small numbers of Germans, Roma, Poles and Hungarians, on the other hand, have been long established and are substantially assimilated. There is a small Jewish community comprising approximately 7,000 people.
In the 1960s an economic expansion required more labour than the nation could supply, and ‘guest workers’ (gæstearbejdere) made their way into Denmark. Between 1960 and 1972, Denmark recruited industrial guest workers, mainly from Türkiye, Yugoslavia and Pakistan. Immigration has in fact in the last few decades comprised over half of the country’s population growth – indeed, for a period until the mid-1980s the population was in net decline, until immigration from non-Western countries helped tip the country back into positive growth. This led to a significant shift in the demographic of this once highly homogeneous country, with African and Asian migrants increasing their share of the population from around 1 per cent in 1980 to around 6 per cent in the mid-2000s.
According to official 2018 data, classifying the number of immigrants (defined as someone born abroad whose parents are both foreign citizens) and descendants (someone born in Denmark whose parents are either immigrants or descendants with foreign citizenship), there are 247,874 immigrants and 29,056 descendants from Western countries (primarily Poland, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Norway, the former Yugoslavia, Sweden and the United Kingdom), and 343,805 immigrants and 149,663 descendants from non-Western countries (predominantly Türkiye, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan and Vietnam).
In terms of asylum seekers, the largest numbers of applications in recent years have been lodged by Eritreans, Syrians and Somalis.
While Denmark has been widely recognized for its inclusive and socially progressive policies, in recent years the increasing diversity of its population has resulted in growing tensions around Danish identity, values and multiculturalism. Historically a highly homogenous society with little immigration, in the past few decades its minority populations have expanded, driven in particular by migrants from Africa and Asia as well as from other European countries. The country’s traditional tolerance has at least among some segments of society shifted towards increasing hostility towards its Muslim population in particular, driven by fears of extremism and rapid demographic change.
Much of the debate, however, has focused around the perceived threat posed by non-Danish cultures to freedom of expression and other liberal values. In this regard, a key moment was the publication in 2005 by a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Protests against the illustrations, beginning in Denmark but then spreading across the world, led to a number of attacks against Danish and other European offices abroad, as well as Christian and Jewish sites. In subsequent years, threats have continued to be made against individuals associated with the publication of the cartoons, including an attack by a gunman in February 2015 in Copenhagen that killed two people, targeting an art exhibition where the illustrator of the cartoons was a speaker and later the city’s largest synagogue.
While Danish Muslims distance themselves from extremists, these incidents have led to increased intolerance towards their and other minority communities. This has manifested itself in public policies: for example, the February 2014 ban on halal and kosher meat – a move justified in terms of animal welfare but condemned by critics as discriminatory – and the May 2018 ban on full-face coverings, described by the Justice Minister as ‘incompatible with the values of the Danish society.’ In addition, Muslims have reported a climate of discrimination and exclusion, with one survey conducted in 2017 finding that more than a third of Muslim respondents felt that they were looked down upon by the rest of Danish society.
In this context, far-right political parties have made substantial dividends, including the Danish People’s Party (DPP), which with 21 per cent of the vote in the 2015 general election is the country’s second largest party. Among other measures, the DPP called in February 2017 for immigrants and refugees to celebrate Christmas if they wished to be seen as ‘Danish’ and in January 2018 presented an ‘anti-ghetto’ strategy for areas with large migrant populations that included curfews, increased policing and a ban on the construction of mosques with minarets. The so-called ‘ghetto deal’ was later adopted by the Danish parliament. It targets 25 largely Muslim-majority areas with restrictive policies such as mandatory ‘Danish values’ education for children. Non-compliance can lead to the cutting off of welfare benefits. Opposition politicians, including those who represent these areas, complained about the normalisation of the term ‘ghetto’ and how its contemporary usage in Danish discourse loses sight of the word’s connections to the Holocaust.
The shift towards right-wing attitudes has also manifested itself in increasingly harsh policies towards refugees and asylum seekers, a large number of whom originate from Muslim countries such as Syria, particularly since the escalation of refugee arrivals in Europe from 2015. Besides harder citizenship tests, reduced welfare benefits and higher barriers for family reunification, other measures have included the so-called ‘jewelry law’ – a measure that allows border police to seize valuables from asylum seekers to cover the cost of their stay in the country.
While the mainland has long been dominated by an almost entirely Danish population, Denmark also includes a number of ‘autonomous countries’ within it, including Greenland. The legacy of colonialism is still felt here, particularly in the post-war development of the region. Orchestrated by the central government, the 1950s onwards saw a dramatic shift in the local economy as commercial fishing industries were established, bringing rapid change to the way of life and livelihoods of the indigenous Inuit population. Since then, Greenland has suffered one of the highest suicide rates in the world, particularly among its youth. Communities, uprooted and from their traditional areas, have been fragmented and as a result social issues like alcoholism and child neglect have reportedly risen. Greenland’s April 2018 elections led to a shift away from the ruling Social Democratic Siumut Party, which while remaining the largest party went from 34 to 27 per cent of the vote.
The other autonomous region in Denmark is the Faroe Islands – where the majority of inhabitants are members of the Faroese minority. The latter speak their own language, Faroese: while the Home Rule Act has established Faroese as an official language alongside Danish, Faroese has been identified by UNESCO as one of 150 European languages in danger of disappearing. As of 2014, there were only 66,000 speakers between both the Faroe Islands and Denmark. While many Faroese speak the language at home, there are many children who are educated in Denmark, where it is not always understood. The Faroese were set to vote in April 2018 in a referendum on a new Constitution paving the way towards independence; this has been postponed to allow more time for consultations.
Various UN and other international bodies have expressed concern about Denmark’s limited anti-discrimination legislation, in particular with regard to access to effective remedies. For instance, the Danish Board of Equal Treatment has a more restrictive mandate when it comes to dealing with discrimination outside the workplace. The UN Human Rights Committee has recommended that the relevant laws be amended to apply to all aspects of life and also mirror the protected characteristics described in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The only people officially recognized as a national minority in Denmark is the German community of South Jutland; according to the government this is the only minority that falls within the scope of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) – a view that the FCNM Advisory Committee feels is too restrictive and about which it has repeatedly sought to hold a dialogue. In addition, the current process for reporting and prosecuting hate crimes allows for the Director of Public Prosecutions to stop investigations or withdraw charges. This has resulted in a number of cases being dismissed, which potentially limits the reporting of hate crimes. Moreover, many people accused of hate speech crimes do not receive convictions.
A culture of religious ‘freedom, but not equality’ persists in Denmark. In 2016, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern with the different treatment given to various religious groups, particularly the seemingly preferential status ascribed to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is awarded this status and is established as one of the three pillars of the state through Denmark’s Constitution. The national government that took office in 2016 included in its party platform the desire to respect the status of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the duty of the government to promote Denmark as a Christian country. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has recognized the ability to freely construct places of worship as a sign of societal integration, yet in some areas those campaigning for the construction of mosques have faced significant opposition.
The Kingdom of Denmark consists of the mainland Jutland Peninsula and the islands, which constitute one-third of the country’s territory. Its only land border is with Germany to the south. The two Danish external territories are Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
During the Viking period (ninth to eleventh centuries), Denmark was a great power based in the Jutland Peninsula, the Island of Zealand and what is now southern Sweden. Viking raids brought Denmark into contact with Christianity. In the early twelfth century, Denmark became a separate ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The Reformation was introduced in 1536 and Denmark quickly became a predominantly Lutheran state, which it remains. Denmark’s current boundaries are the result of centuries of political conflict and cooperation. In the fourteenth century, Queen Margrethe I succeeded in uniting Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland under the Danish crown. Sweden and Finland left the union in 1520 and Norway in 1814. Iceland remained in a ‘personal union’ under the Danish crown until 1918 and finally became independent in 1944. Meanwhile, the present border with Germany mostly dates back to the Dano-Prussian War of 1864. At this time, Denmark was forced to cede Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia. Today, Denmark is a constitutional monarchy and a member of the European Union.
The Faroe Islands and Greenland are self-governing communities within the Kingdom of Denmark. Home rule was introduced in 1948 and 1979 respectively. These home-rule arrangements are not based on ethnic or linguistic criteria. Accordingly, the populations of these territories are not officially recognized as national minorities. In contrast, for historical reasons, the German minority in Denmark is characterized as a national minority.
Denmark ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on 22 September 1997 and it entered into force on 1 February 1998. Since that time, Denmark’s minority rights provisions have undergone four monitoring cycles under the Framework Convention. Denmark has declared that the provisions of the Framework Convention apply only to the German population of South Jutland and have no wider application. This position has been criticized by the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention who are concerned by its exclusion of Greenland Inuit, Faroese and Roma minorities. In 1996, Denmark ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169 at the request of Greenland.
In 2003, Denmark passed the Act on Ethnic Equal Treatment. This legislation, reflecting the principles of Articles 4 and 6 of the Framework Convention, provided additional safeguards against discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin in a number of social settings. Another positive measure has been the establishment of the Danish Institute for Human Rights along with the Danish Board of Equal Treatment for processing cases and providing opinions on whether there have been contraventions of the prohibition against discrimination. The Board of Equal Treatment Act was amended in 2012 to strengthen the capacity of the body to handle complex cases by requiring that its highest positions be filled by judges. Nevertheless, controversy regarding racism and xenophobia has persisted, as the 2005 Danish cartoons case demonstrated.
Amnesty International, Denmark
Amnesty International, Faroe Islands
Danish Institute for Human Rights
Oqaasileriffik (Language Secretariat of Greenland)
Germans of South Jutland
League of North Schleswig Germans
Updated May 2020
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