Denmark: Integrating Immigrants into a Homogeneous Welfare State
Traditionally, Denmark has not regarded itself as a country of immigration. This is due to its relatively homogeneous population of 5.4 million, a strong sense of national identity, and the fact that, until recently, immigration flows were moderate. Most immigrants in Denmark came from other Nordic or Western countries, and the country experienced more emigration than immigration.
In addition, the welfare state was designed on the basis of a culturally similar citizenry, and the Danish economy has successfully adapted to a variety of international challenges by taking advantage of institutions built around a powerful sense of civic solidarity.
Since the end of the guest-worker program was in the early 1970s, however, a growing numbers of immigrants, mainly refugees and family dependents of refugees and former "guest workers," has challenged the status quo.
One of the consequences is that more than half the growth of the Danish population in the last 35 years, or more than 250,000 people, can be accounted for by immigrants and their descendants. In fact, Denmark experienced a negative birthrate and negative population growth until 1984, when the curve was broken due to increased numbers of immigrants from non-Western countries.
Today, nonnaturalized Asian and African immigrants and their descendants constitute six percent of the Danish population, whereas in 1980 they made up just one percent. Danish society and Danish politics have had difficulties adjusting to this dramatically different, multiethnic population.
In particular, the question of how to handle cultural and religious differences, especially in the aftermath of the Mohammed cartoon uproar, has come to dominate the Danish political agenda.
Over the last six centuries, Denmark has experienced continuous immigration of groups and individuals into the country, including Dutch farmers in the early 16th century and Jews from several European countries in the 17th century. The Jews arrived at the express invitation of King Christian IV, who thought they would vitalize the commercial life of Denmark.
The constant inflow of Germans between the mid-17th and the mid-19th century left a particularly deep impact on the development of modern Denmark, culturally as well as economically.
During the second half of the 19th century and until World War I, sizeable numbers of unskilled workers arrived from Poland, Germany, and Sweden, sometimes expressly invited by the government or attracted by religious privileges.
There are no precise estimates of immigrant numbers for these early periods, but there is little doubt that they were considerable. In 1885, for example, foreign citizens constituted eight percent of the Copenhagen population. Germans came in great numbers to harvest potatoes. And, in 1914, 14,000 Polish citizens arrived on the islands of Lolland and Falster to do agricultural work in the turnip fields.
In the course of a few generations, all these groups were gradually assimilated into everyday Danish life and culture, even though their special backgrounds in certain cases are still identifiable, for instance in the form of religious communities.
Immigration during the 20th century primarily consisted of multiple waves of refugees. The two World Wars brought many east Europeans, Jews, and Germans to Denmark. In the 1970s, Denmark accepted refugees from Chile and Vietnam, probably some 1,000 annually. The Cold War, the breakdown of empires and federations, and conflicts in the Middle East led to the arrival of several new groups through the 1990s, particularly Russians, Hungarians, Bosnians, Iranians, Iraqis, and Lebanese.
None of these groups came in large numbers (for instance, about 1,400 Hungarian refugees were accepted in 1956), but, on aggregate, they and their descendants began to represent sizeable numbers by the 1980s and 1990s.
Until the mid-1990s, in fact, refugees were generally welcome in Denmark, particularly those from former communist regimes. As more refugees began to arrive from third-world countries, however, a shift of policy and perception started to set in. Repatriation became an integral part of temporary residence programs from the early 1990s. Since 2001, refugees have clearly been discouraged from applying for asylum, and numbers have declined dramatically.
For a short spell between the late 1960s and 1973, Danish companies imported so-called guest workers, especially from Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, and Morocco. Exact numbers are not available, but by the time the stop to labor immigration was introduced in 1973, residents from these four countries numbered some 15,000.
When Denmark entered the European Community (now European Union) in 1973, it became possible for citizens from the other Member States to settle and work in Denmark and obtain access to social rights. The same opportunities had already been open to Nordic citizens since 1952, when Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark signed a passport union allowing for the free movement of people across Scandinavian borders.
In 2006, immigration in Denmark consists particularly of asylum seekers and persons who arrive as family dependents and in accordance with laws regulating family reunification. In addition, Denmark annually receives a number of citizens from Western countries, notably Scandinavian countries, the EU, and North America, who usually come to work or study for a limited period of time.
Recently, substantial numbers of workers, probably between 5,000 and 10,000, from the new EU accession countries, especially Poland and the Baltic nations, have arrived to perform menial labor in construction, agriculture, consumer industries, and cleaning, mostly working long hours at lower wages than normal for unionized Danish labor.
Although it has become more difficult for refugees and immigrants to gain residence in Denmark, the number of immigrants and their descendants has increased with every passing year since 1990. Yet the growth rate has varied and declined over time. Growth in immigration from non-Western countries in 1995-1996 was, for instance, 17.4 percent, but in 2004-2005 only 1.5 percent — the lowest growth rate since 1983.
In January 2005, the number of registered foreigners, i.e. immigrants and their descendants holding a non-Danish passport, was 452,095. They constituted 8.4 percent of the population. Out of this total number, 343,367 were immigrants and 108,726 were descendants of immigrants.
Approximately 320,000 (71 percent) of the total are from a non-Western country, implying that immigrants and their descendants from the "non-Western world" — those commonly identified as "immigrants" — made up 5.9 percent of the Danish population.
These stats (and all numbers that follow) do not include foreigners who have acquired Danish citizenship. Between 1995 and 2005, upward of 54,000 foreigners successfully applied for naturalization — the greatest number (9,000) in 2001-2002, and the lowest number (2,000) in 2003 owing to tighter rules for access to citizenship introduced by the Liberal-Conservative (L-C) coalition government, which came to office in late 2001.
The tendency has been for an increasingly smaller portion of immigrants to come from Western countries. This is because the inflow from the non-Western world has grown steadily and because far more Westerners than non-Westerners return to their country of origin.
According to Statistics Denmark, the number of resident persons from non-Western countries increased by 520 percent between 1980 and 2005, or by 268,902 individuals, whereas the corresponding growth rate for Westerners in the same period was a meager 19.8 percent, or 30,000 people (see Table 1). This means that 90 percent of the total increase of resident foreigners in Denmark originated in the non-Western world.
The inflow of refugees in recent years has come from a wide variety of countries, mainly the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In the mid-1990s, temporary residence was given to about 16,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in the late 1990s to many refugees from Iraq.
In the spring of 1999, the Danish government chose to evacuate 3,000 Kosovar Albanians, who had been displaced from the Kosovo province in Southern Serbia, from refugee detention camps in Macedonia. By virtue of a "special law," these refugees were given temporary residence permits; most of them have since returned to Kosovo. Return among Bosnians and Iraqis has taken place on a more limited scale.
By far the largest ethnic minority group hails from Turkey, due to the immigration of Turkish guest workers in the 1960s and, later, their dependents. On aggregate they constitute nearly 55,000, or 12 percent, of all resident foreigners in Denmark. Next are Iraqis, followed by Germans, Lebanese, Bosnians, and Pakistanis.
Most ethnic groups in Denmark are rather small, and as many as 25 percent of all foreigners in Denmark, currently 113,843, belong to groups that are each smaller than 1.5 percent (the equivalent of 7,000 persons) of the total stock of immigrants and their descendants.
This means, among other things, that immigrants represent a wide variety of different backgrounds and cultural norms. Muslims from Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon number around 200,000 and account for nearly half of all non-Western foreign residents in Denmark. They — and immigrant diversity generally — pose significant challenges to a homogeneous Danish culture and to welfare institutions predicated on a political culture of sameness.
Immigration and Welfare
Like the other Scandinavian countries, Denmark is a small, highly developed nation based on cultural homogeneity and social trust. Despite the impression left by the Mohammed cartoon affair in 2005 and early 2006 (see below), it has traditionally cultivated a self-image of tolerance. Since World War II, it has developed a universalistic welfare state based on high levels of public provisions (health care, education, unemployment benefits, old-age pensions etc.), accessible to all citizens and residents in the country.
These welfare structures entail both a significant amount of state intervention in the social domain and economic redistribution across social groups. The system is rooted in ideas of social egalitarianism, but also in the assumption that citizens earn their entitlements by contributing (through taxation) over a lifetime of active work to the maintenance and growth of the national wealth. Cultural belonging and political rights are thus intertwined, and "equality" is interpreted to mean two different things simultaneously: "cultural similarity" and "political sameness" (in regards to civic rights).
Cultural homogeneity on the one hand, and the universalistic structures and ideological presumptions of the Danish welfare state on the other, are central to understanding immigration and integration in Denmark.
The emphasis has been on both trying to acculturate immigrants as speedily as possible by means of public control and regulation, and on extending egalitarian universalism to cover "old" citizens as well as newcomers. In this sense, the welfare state was viewed in the 1970s and 1980s as an instrument for efficient integration.
At the same time, the benchmark of successful integration has always been one of successful individual inclusion and acculturation to the mores of Danish life, since the Danish political system — unlike the systems of other Nordic countries — does not base itself on the recognition of minorities and only in exceptional cases makes juridical or political allowance for minority rights and cultural claims based on minority status. In this sense, Denmark is similar to France: egalitarian, secular, and assimilationist.
Over time, however, the two historical staples of homogeneity and equality have come to be seen as obstacles to integration. Immigrants are now seen as an unwelcome presence because cultural assimilation has been more difficult than originally expected.
At the same time, both citizens and political actors have started to focus on (and often ideologically exaggerate) the financial burden newcomers place on the welfare system. A balanced estimate indicates that current net costs, including the costs of caring for asylum seekers, are in the range of 10 to 15 billion Danish kroners (US$1.5 to 2 billion), a figure generally considered high. By comparison, the annual fiscal budget is some 500 billion kroner (US$90 billion), out of which about one-third is spent on welfare programs.
Consequently, negative stereotypes of immigrants have become common: refugees are routinely branded as "welfare scroungers" or "refugees of convenience" who unfairly take advantage of a system that was never intended for their benefit. Immigrants from the non-Western world, Muslims in particular, have become singled out as objects of disparagement, whereas Danes are far more open and welcoming toward immigrants from the EU and other Western countries.
Not surprisingly, therefore, politicians believe the panacea for the integration problem is labor-market incorporation. The most common arguments heard are that the relatively high level of welfare benefits has helped keep immigrants out of the labor market for a number of reasons:
- many immigrants stand to gain nothing or very little by getting a job in terms of real income;
- state-regulated integration programs have not been conducive to providing immigrants and descendants with jobs;
- the close-knit nature of civil society tends to exclude culturally distinct immigrants from the networks that lead to participation in both the labor market and in civic and political institutions; and
- the political system is generally not ready to accept, and both private and public employers are not inclined to use, the alternative social and educational resources of immigrants.
Political initiatives have pivoted around attempts to solve a number of these structural problems.
Policies and Debates
With former guest-workers and refugees bringing their families to Denmark, the number of immigrants quickly grew in the 1980s. In response, the government tightened the Aliens Act in 1986, making it more difficult to obtain asylum or citizenship and making it easier to deport fraudulent or criminal immigrants. The law regulating family reunification was tightened in 1992. This law imposed a "breadwinner" condition on resident spouses and removed the automatic right to reunification, which dates back to 1983.
Another consequence of increasing levels of immigration was that, from the mid-1980s onward, immigrant integration developed into a controversial public issue in Denmark, a fact fanned by high unemployment rates among immigrants and refugees.
The issue became heavily politicized throughout the 1990s, receiving extra impetus through the establishment of the Danish People's Party (DPP) in 1995, which mobilized electoral support on the immigrant issue above all others. This politicization dominated the electoral campaigns of 1998, 2001, and 2005.
More than any other question, immigrant integration has divided both public opinion and the party landscape, threatening the consensus which has been a hallmark of Danish politics since World War II. In particular, the Social Democrats have had problems staking out a clear, coherent, and united political position, partly because their membership, like the population at large, has been split between a tolerant/international and an inward-looking/patriotic approach to the presence of non-Western foreigners.
However, it is particularly the DPP, supported by the media, which has managed to keep the debate alive over the last 10 years and has been successful in placing it squarely at the center of political attention. The strong support for DPP's articulate anti-immigrant policies has meant that, by and large, all other parties in the Danish Parliament have chosen to mobilize on this issue and have prioritized migration and integration policy area in their policy statements and legislative proposals.
In November 2001, the present Liberal-Conservative (L-C) government came to power after ousting the old Social Democratic-Radical (i.e., social liberal) Party coalition. The general election was largely fought on the issue of immigration.
In a post-September 11th atmosphere dominated by widespread islamophobia, the L-C coalition promised stricter controls and tougher policies, and an end to the lenient immigration policies and practices of the Social Democratic-Radical coalition.
After the 2001 election, a new Ministry for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration was formed, taking over tasks that had belonged to the Ministry for the Interior. The new minister assumed responsibility for the Aliens Act, the Integration Act (see below), statistics on foreigners, ethnic equality, naturalization, instruction in Danish language and civics, etc.
The L-C government soon presented a legislative "package" on immigration and integration to Parliament. Its principal purpose was to restrict the number of immigrants and refugees, to introduce tougher requirements on access to permanent residence and citizenship, to ensure the loyalty of newcomers to "Danish values," and to speed up the integration of immigrants, particularly women and young, second-generation males, into the labor market.
The proposals passed into law in the summer of 2002 due to DPP support. Since then, a large number of new policy statements, proposals, and initiatives have followed, including an agreement between the government and the DPP titled A New Chance for Everybody (2005).
Yet policies based on the idea that thorough integration and acculturation are necessary for guaranteeing the welfare state and its social cohesion were introduced well before the L-C government came to power. One of the most important pieces of legislation in that regard is the Integration Act of 1999.
Being the first of its kind in a Western country, the act assigned the main responsibility for integration to the municipalities. Previously, the Danish Refugee Aid organization had been responsible for an 18-month-long introduction program, with municipalities responsible for "activating" (i.e., putting immigrants to socially useful but unpaid work outside the ordinary job market) and housing refugees, and regional governments for language instruction. The government intended the Integration Act to improve the management and coordination of the integration process by uniting all its disparate elements under the same political authority.
In addition, the formal integration period was extended from 18 months to three years, during which refugees and immigrants over age 18 are expected to learn Danish; familiarize themselves with Danish history, culture and society; acquire skills and competences needed to find jobs; and generally participate in everyday life.
Family dependents, EU and Nordic citizens, and immigrants on the so-called Job Card Scheme (an initiative passed by the government in 2003 that allows companies to bring high-skilled workers to Denmark with little bureaucratic hassle) are not obliged to take part in the introduction program or to be "activated" for labor-market integration, but they may join the program, and many family dependents have done so.
On its introduction in 1999, the Integration Act became the object of intense public debate, partly because it contained a monthly integration allowance, which was considerably lower than the corresponding welfare benefits Danes receive in comparable social situations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), among others, found it to be a case of negative discrimination and unequal treatment of foreigners and thus a violation of international refugee conventions, to which Denmark is a signatory. After a few months, the government backed down and withdrew this section of the act.
However, when the L-C government took office, the reduced payment was reintroduced in a new form and under a new name ("start allowance" or "introductory allowance"), in extreme cases receivable for up to seven years. Conditions were phrased so that the law does not formally discriminate against ethnic minorities, since Danish citizens also risk being subjected to its provisions.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the law was motivated by the considerably higher unemployment rate among ethnic minorities and a belief that lower welfare benefits might work as an incentive to look for employment more actively.
The DPP made it clear that, in its perspective, the objective was also to reduce the attractiveness of Denmark for potential asylum seekers, in other words to minimize the alleged pull factor for would-be "welfare scroungers." And whether or not this or other initiatives introduced to curtail immigration were responsible, the number of asylum seekers over the last five years has dropped by nearly two-thirds.
The same kind of dual motivation also applies to other immigration policy compartments, including the "24-year rule" for family reunification introduced by the L-C government in 2003. The general rule is that no Danish citizen can marry a non-EU or Nordic foreign national and settle in Denmark with his/her spouse unless both parties are 24 years or older.
Even so, the Danish Integration Service has to screen and approve the spouse based on criteria such as "aggregate affiliation," a discretionary assessment by the Immigration Service on whether the couple has stronger ties to Denmark or to some other country; proper housing facilities, which the resident spouse must have at his or her disposal; and financial independence of government aid, based on an assessment of the financial circumstances of the resident spouse.
One unintended effect of the law has been that young, native Danes with foreign spouses have had to settle in other EU countries; most of them choose neighboring Sweden, which has no such restrictions.
The law, which had support from the Social Democrats, was supposedly meant to restrict forced marriages and protect ethnic minority women from family pressure. The DPP's support was based on the law's ability to restrict the number of foreigners entering Denmark.
Both the 24-year rule and reduced welfare benefits have been roundly criticized by the UN, the EU, and the Council of Europe for being discriminatory and making life more difficult for people who are already in a marginalized and vulnerable social position.
Citizenship and Participation
Citizenship in Denmark is based on the principle of ethnic descent (jus sanguinis). Danish law does not allow for multiple citizenship, and the acquisition of citizenship by foreigners through naturalization has traditionally been a lengthy and politically supervised process that passes through the Danish Parliament, Folketinget, on a yearly basis.
Conditions for naturalization have been tightened even further in recent years, and it now takes a minimum of nine years' continuous residence on Danish soil, full-time work, proper housing conditions, a clean criminal record, fluency in Danish, and economic self-sufficiency, among other criteria, to obtain a Danish passport. Permanent residence, where immigrants must meet many of the same requirements, can be achieved in seven years (five years in exceptional cases).
In principle, Danish law applies to Danes and foreigners alike, irrespective of citizenship. For example, everyone has equal access to social services and the health system, even though certain regulations, like those discussed in the previous section, have been specifically designed for ethnic minorities.
However, foreigners cannot run for Parliament or vote in parliamentary elections, but they can take part in local government elections if they have lived in Denmark for at least three years. Finally, foreigners cannot be drafted to the Danish armed services and cannot be employed as commissioned officers.
The official Danish position has been that ethnic minorities should be treated on an equal footing and that the ambition should be to have as few specially designed laws as possible. This implies that, unlike more pluralistic societies, there is little sympathy for multicultural policies or positive discrimination, which give, for instance, certain privileges to ethnic minorities in job-seeking situations.
Nor are there formalized rules for how institutions may adapt to cultural diversity. The ground rule is that minorities must learn how to come to terms with Denmark — not vice versa.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that several integration policies and initiatives in practice aim to promote better integration and more mutual understanding by taking immigrants' and their descendants' problems and points of departure into account. For instance, cities have established ethnic neighborhood improvement initiatives, and the government offers programs that place immigrants in temporary jobs, often backed by public wage support, with the goal of improving marketable skills.
Compared with earlier attempts at integration, most of the emphasis is now placed on these policies being part of a transitional phase in which immigrants — if they want to be accepted and be able to see a future for themselves in Denmark — must do everything in their capacity to earn their own living, contribute to the economy, and thus make themselves independent of public welfare.
Denmark's political culture leaves little space or understanding for the collective organization of migrant interests. Ethnic minorities can take advantage of Danish law's provisions for the establishment and maintenance of civic associations. Since their arrival, guest workers have made systematic use of this opportunity to set up multiple cultural and homeland organizations.
However, the number of interest organizations and political representation groups has been dwindling, and the influence of such groups is marginal. Formerly prominent organizations like the Council for Ethnic Equality or POEM have either been dissolved (the former by government decree in 2001) or are virtually moribund. Taking their place are Islamic fundamentalist groups, like Hizb-ut-Tarir (a group organizing both Sunni and Shia and estimated to have a membership of between 500 and 1,000), or Muslim imams from the Islamic Faith Society.
Local and national associations are represented vis-à-vis Danish authorities through the Council for Ethnic Minorities (CEM), which aims to foster ethnic equality and speak for ethnic minorities as well as to serve as a sounding board for the government. Similar tasks have been assigned to the so-called Integration Councils, set up at the municipal level pursuant to the Integration Act. Neither the CEM not the Integration Councils, however, can be said to wield any decisive influence or to be vocal or visible in public debates.
Challenges of Muslim Integration
At present, the Danish view of immigration is to a large extent couched in terms of an Islamic menace and a clash of cultures. The so-called cartoon affair illustrates the state of affairs well.
Prior to the affair, a number of Danish cartoonists had refused to contribute drawings of Mohammed to a children's book on Islam by a controversial Danish writer. Jyllands-Posten, a Danish daily newspaper with the country's largest circulation, decided to remedy this instance of supposed self-censorship by commissioning and printing 12 satirical cartoons.
This act was portrayed as necessary and legitimate because the principle of free speech was allegedly threatened by Muslim communities wanting to curtail democratic practices, impose their own culture on Denmark, and eventually introduce Sharia law. Hence, it was argued, provocation was warranted and offense justified in order to teach Muslims a serious lesson in Danish democracy and public irreverence.
The paper, tacitly supported by the government and large sections of the public, depicted its decision to print the cartoons as almost an example of civic disobedience, in order to prevent the "Muslim Other" from winning this clash of cultures.
Far from being an exceptional occurrence, the affair is in line with the forms of Danish islamophobia and anti-immigrant skepticism that have come to dominate public debates and that have been the foundation for government policies since the late 1990s. The free speech argument, in particular, is a key element in anti-Islamic alarmism.
Although freedom of expression is a conditional right and is usually handled with the care that common sense dictates, the absolute and insensitive use of it is just as commonly encountered when immigrants, Muslims in particular, are the objects of negative stereotyping: "We talk frankly about them, make demands on them, and portray them as we please, because it is our right!"
Free speech and the defense of "our values" is thus the formal framework within which Danish politicians, public commentators, and ordinary people alike find the space and the justification to express disparaging views on Muslim communities and the security threat they are seen to embody.
In this way, the cartoons stand firmly in the tradition of a peculiar Danish migration discourse, which singles out the threatening "other" as an object of public lampooning while reassuring everyone that satire is an integral part of Danish culture and is nothing out of the ordinary.
The problems the Danish welfare state faces in terms of integrating immigrants are rooted in two interconnected phenomena.
One is that the government and the public believe the continued success of Denmark depends on cultural homogeneity.
The second is that policies of entry and integration have been inadequately geared to distinguishing between different "categories" of immigrants (e.g. economic migrants versus refugees, male versus female immigrants, Muslim versus non-Muslim), and have also been unprepared for the increase in the number of refugees and family dependents.
In a sense, the Danish approach to integration recognizes these challenges and proposes a way to deal with them. However, the government has chosen to focus on labor market integration, placing low priority on political and civic integration.
This strategy may hamper the incorporation of minorities into the political system and jeopardize institutions that ensure socioeconomic trust and equality. Traditionally, such institutions have been critical in maintaining social peace and political consensus.
Considering that strongly held views of cultural incompatibility between Danes and immigrants characterize public debates, the overall conclusion must be that there is a pressing need for more far-sighted, flexible, and visionary integration policies in Denmark.
Are there any signs that such changes might be underway? The answer to this question is a cautious "yes." Politicians and the public are beginning to realize that Denmark will need more immigrants in order to cope with the an ageing population and to ensure a sufficient supply of skilled as well as unskilled workers to a booming economy.
It is also possible to find traces of more openness toward cultural-diversity policies in the political establishment.
Finally, one of the consequences of the cartoon affair has clearly been to teach political actors and public-opinion leaders that they must behave more cautiously and diplomatically in similar situations, and that they cannot act as if domestic provocation and global repercussions are not connected.
Together, these factors are currently making life slightly easier for immigrants in Denmark, but it is impossible to determine at this point in time if they represent a more long-term tendency.
Danish Immigration Service and Statistics Denmark, 2005. Statistical Overview 2004. Copenhagen.
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