Working-Class City Confronts Culture Shock Of Immigrant Concentration
ISHOJ, DENMARK — IN the covered shopping center of this small town 10 miles south of Copenhagen, the clothing, food, and electronics shops look just like those one would find in any Danish city.
What is strikingly different here are the shoppers - a mix of the world's races and skin tones in among the blond-haired, blue-eyed Danes that gives even cosmopolitan Copenhagen a feeling of provincialism by comparison.
Ishoj (pronounced "Ishoy"), a 25-year-old city of 21,000 built where only a few farms and a small village once stood, has the highest foreign population of any Danish city - about 15 percent. That may seem small to someone from the West's more multicultural countries. But for many Danes, accustomed to an extremely homogeneous society, it is a worrisomely high figure.
Ishoj is now a city where Denmark's tradition of tolerance and magnanimity toward the world's less fortunate is confronting the reality of international migrations. And according to the city's mayor, who finds himself with apartment buildings where native Danes now refuse to live and schools that Danish children won't attend because of the concentration of foreigners, the Danes are turning out to be pretty much like anyone else: They are leaving the problems of cultural integration for society's strained
working class to figure out.
"Here in Ishoj we have Danes with low income and social status, but the parliament tells this city to be the best and the big-hearted, and take care of the foreign people," says Per Madsen, a former machinist and now Ishoj's mayor. "Those with high incomes don't want to have to worry about these problems."
Mr. Madsen, a big man who is very popular in his town, has made a name for himself in Denmark as the Social Democratic politician who dares to buck political correctness by speaking out on the issue of foreign residents.
He says it is not foreigners themselves but their concentration that causes problems. But his pleadings with the country's parliament to facilitate a wider distribution of Denmark's 175,000 immigrants, especially through laws that govern public housing, have won no results.
Most of his Social Democratic colleagues dismiss his arguments as an unfortunate alibi for the country's far right. At the same time, leaders of Denmark's ultraconservative Progressive Party do indeed cite him as an example of how "even some Social Democrats are beginning to see the dangers of too many foreigners," says Progressive parliamentarian Anette Just.
Ishoj's foreign population includes more than 50 nationalities, with a high concentration of Turks, Pakistanis, and Yugoslavs (most of whom came as guest workers before their country's breakup). The biggest problems arise when "large numbers of rural, low-educated people come to a developed and well-educated society," Madsen says. "People just don't mix."
This is especially true of the town's 1,900 Turks, he says. "No matter what we try, they live as though there were in a little village back home," he says. "Their children don't learn Danish, their women don't live like Danish women, and they don't even marry Turks in Denmark," he says. "They prefer to bring over someone from back home."
Denmark would be better off, the mayor says, if it limited the concentration of foreigners in public housing complexes, did more to educate foreign children to speak Danish, and approved stricter restrictions on family reunification laws for immigrants - a direction other European countries, most recently France, are already taking. Madsen says Ishoj's public school population, with a 27 percent foreign average and topping 35 percent in the lowest grades, indicates the concentration will only become more
acute. And as it does, he says, the integration problems he faces now will only get worse.
"I remember when the US had racial riots in the '60s, the Danish people were so fine, they held their head high and said we couldn't have such problems in Denmark. But now we are having the beginnings in Denmark," he adds. "It will be of small help to me if, when it leads to something bad for us all, people say, `We see you were right.' "