Family Migration – don't fall into the Danish trap

An ongoing UK Government consultation on immigration policy makes an exemplar of the Danish system. But is Denmark's immigration policy really something to aspire to?

Anne Stoltenberg
26 September 2011

Having watched Danish immigration policy slide further and further towards a point where certain aspects of it, such as the rules regarding family reunification, are now criticised for possible human rights breaches by European and International bodies, I know all too well the far-reaching and complicated negative consequence the Danish policies have had. I am therefore concerned that in the UK Government's current consultation on its proposed changes to the rules for Family Migration, the UK sees Denmark as a model for its policies.

The consultation asks people to give their views on whether the UK should adopt certain aspects of Denmark's immigration policy, without fully explaining the context or consequences. I would strongly encourage people to take part in this consultation, and to look carefully into the background of what is proposed.

Denmark has the strictest rules on family reunification/settlement in the EU, with consequences that interfere directly into the lives of Danish citizens and their families. So when this consultation asks people to give their views on: whether in determining a couple's right to settlement in the UK, the Government should implement an “'attachment to the UK’ requirement, along the lines of the attachment requirement operated in Denmark”. The consultation guidelines further explain that views are invited on whether such a requirement could support better integration of family migrants in the UK and provide an additional safeguard against sham or forced marriages.” Any Government is free to work to further such aims. But I seriously question whether implementing a model like the Danish will do anything towards meeting those aims.

Look closer at the proposals. The attachment requirement as it is implemented in Denmark means that when a Citizen wishes to bring a partner (from outside the EU) to live with him/her in Denmark, they have to be able to prove that their joint connection to Denmark is greater than their joint connection to any other country. The Danish regulations - and their implementation - are so strict that many Danish people give up on trying to live with their spouses in Denmark. (It is a little easier if you are trying to bring in a spouse from the EU, or if the Danish citizen moves to an EU country first.)

The consultation guide explains to some extent how the Danish attachment is 'determined' and the factors taken into account: how long each party has lived in Denmark; whether one or both parties have family and/or acquaintances in Denmark; whether one or both parties have custody of or visiting rights to a child under 18 in Denmark; whether one or both parties have completed an educational programme in Denmark, or have a solid connection to the Danish labour market; how well both parties speak Danish; the extent of both parties' ties to another country, including whether extended visits have been made to that country; and whether the applicant has children or other family members in any other country.

In practice, proving your attachment according to these criteria is extremely complicated for those involved: let me present my own case as a hypothetical example, though many similar examples exist.

I grew up in Denmark and have lived there as an adult, but I have also lived in the US for several years and in the UK. Let's say I decided to marry an American citizen, who had spent his entire life in the US. Under the Danish rules, the years I had spent in the US and the years he had spent in the US would amount to more than the combined number of years we had spent in Denmark. Additionally it would count against us if we were not speaking Danish at home. Therefore, though the Danish Government can't prevent me from marrying this person, they cannot let us stay in Denmark together as we have a greater connection to the US. The government is interfering with my right to choose my partner and where to reside with them.

Fortunately for me, the attachment requirement which was introduced in 2002 was amended in 2004 so that any Danish person who had been a citizen for 28 years or more would not be required to demonstrate this. But the requirement continues to be an issue for people below the age of 28.

In Denmark we have a host of other requirements for family migration that also have to be met which combined make it very difficult for thousands of Danes to live with their families in Denmark.

As a Danish national you have to be able to support your spouse/partner (you must not have received public assistance for the past three years before you seek for your spouse to enter the country). You must have suitable accommodation and you must be able to post a bond of 100,000 Danish Kroner, about 12,000 GBP. The UK is not suggesting implementing this level, but is asking in consultation question 3 “Should we introduce a minimum income threshold for sponsoring a spouse or partner to come to or remain in the UK?” without specifying the amount, which is quite worrying. While it could be argued to be fair that the host country spouse should be able to support the spouse they wish to bring to their country, we should take care not to exclude those on a lower income, so we should look very carefully at what levels are proposed, (though there are some exceptions, for example for people with refugee status).

In Denmark, additionally, the spouse wishing to move to the country has to fulfil the following:

  • You must obtain 60 points if both you and your spouse/partner in Denmark are 24 years or older. You must obtain 120 if you and/or you partner are under 24. You earn points based on your work, education and language skills; the more highly educated/skilled you are, the better your chances of points. (This is a recent change as up until 2011 you had to be 24 to marry a person from outside the EU)
  • You must pass the immigration test, testing your Danish language skills and your knowledge about Denmark and Danish society (even though this is not about citizenship but simply about a residence permit). (Persons from Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, South Korea and the USA are exempt, as are people from the EU.)

The UK does not want to implement all the rules as they are in Denmark, but I think there is a need to stop and look very carefully at the direction the proposed policy is taking. The policy changes in Denmark have been implemented one by one, over a number of years. The reasons given in Denmark have been exactly the ones in the UK: to prevent forced or sham marriages, to improve integration.Is it working? Not in terms of integration, when many couples chose to move elsewhere because the uncertainty of whether they will be allowed to stay permanently in Denmark, removes any will to integrate.Is it working in terms of preventing supposed arranged or sham marriages? In Denmark the assumption has been that (all) arranged marriages are forced. One should question the notion that all marriages between Danes and foreign nationals are potentially considered sham, and be concerned about the impact in terms of integration on the Danish migrant communities who are constantly accused of forced marriages. While these kinds of marriages should be fought against in many ways, this kind of policy has wide reaching consequences for the wider population and is not the way to go about it. It incriminates and finds suspect the segments of the country you are hoping to integrate. But importantly, the focus on preventing forced marriages was used to get support for the policy from the more liberal segment of the population.

Perhaps the reason the policies are not working has to do with the fact that real rationale for their implementation was something else entirely. Worryingly, the background for all this is the restrictive immigration policy requested by the Danish people's party (Dansk Folkeparti), an 'anti-immigrant' nationalistic party which (until the recent general election) has formed the parliamentary foundation for the government, and which does not want any more (im)migrants, especially not with a Muslim background. The party believe that what we call first, second and third generation immigrants are still to a 'too great' extent marrying individuals from their home country thus supposedly preventing integration.

When the rule was changed in Denmark in 2004 so that the attachment requirement would NOT relate to individuals who had been Danish citizens for 28 years, it was in recognition that so many Danish diplomats, students, and citizens working overseas were unable to return with their spouses to Denmark. They were recognized as an unintended target for a policy whose real target was Muslim immigrants. However, since we cannot say this out loud, and since it is not possible in Danish law to discriminate overtly against a particular ethnic group or religion, we 'have had to' implement these increasingly strange requirements. The newly elected Danish Government may make some changes to the immigration rules, but its leading party has committed to maintain key principles of the current system (such as the rules for marriage for those under 24.)

It is possible that the reasons behind the UK government's policy changes are different from the Danish: they may have other additional reasons - such as reducing numbers - as Peter Lilley MP, from the cross-party Migration Committee, commented to the BBC's Newsnight programme on August 25th:

“we will have to make a lot of choices which may be controversial, we may have to go further than the policies already announced. We could well follow the Scandinavians and have a much higher age for people coming here for marriage and that would reduce the use of marriage as a proxy for immigration rights”.

Whatever the reasons, implementing these kinds of policies is a sliding slope affecting much more than migration. In my view it is not the government's role to determine who I may marry and where I may live with them. The Government should protect my freedom to choose whom to marry and support me when making that choice. Incidentally, that is how to fight forced marriages.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData