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Is this Europe’s most drastic move yet against ‘migrant ghettos’? | The World Weekly

Referring to ‘Europe’s migrant crisis’ typically conjures up images of crowded camps on remote Greek islands, restless crowds on Hungary’s border with Serbia, and the towering, heavily-guarded fences in Spain’s Moroccan enclave of Melilla. 

But if some are to believed, there is another, more slow-burning crisis gathering pace much closer to the centres of European power. Many cities have become home to what some describe as ‘ghettos’, or ‘parallel societies’, billed as hotspots of growing unrest and division.

In some, the need for action is not so controversial. Countries in southern and eastern Europe which bore the brunt of the recent waves of refugees have seen pockets of poverty and instability spring up where large numbers of arrivals have few options for employment and housing. 

European Commissioner for regional policy Corina Cretu recently said these “ghettos” risked creating a “nuclear bomb” of potential future unrest. 

When residents and migrants clash, “mayors are in the middle”, Ms. Cretu said, referring to the small Greek island of Chios which has been a hotbed of such tensions. 

Yet a number of cities in northwestern Europe have become increasingly popular examples of migration-based segregation. In many areas with large concentrations of non-native residents, some argue that immigrants and their subsequent generations - typically from non-white, non-Christian backgrounds - have failed to integrate adequately into society. 

Far-right media figures and politicians have been widely discredited for describing some of these as ‘no-go zones’, usually referring to areas believed to be out-of-bounds to non-residents or deliberately avoided by emergency services.

Yet such language is becoming increasingly mainstream. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, caused a stir last week when she explicitly referred to a phenomenon that many of her officials have been quick to dismiss.

“There cannot be any no-go areas... there cannot be areas where no-one dares to go but there are such places,” she said in an interview with German broadcaster n-tv. “One has to call them by name and do something about it.”

Key figures from Europe’s anti-migrant right seized upon her words. “It seems this taboo has been broken. Guess who is talking about ‘no-go zones’?” wrote Zoltán Kovács, spokesperson of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and self-proclaimed crusader against open-border cant, on an official government blog. 

German government spokesmen declined to name any such areas, according to the Associated Press. In the context of the interview, however, it is likely Ms. Merkel was referring to places in Germany, suggesting that she may be willing to open a debate on more settled immigrant-dominated areas, rather than refugee hotspots. 

Some of Europe’s mainstream politicians, however, are way ahead of her on that front. The Danish government has unveiled a wide-ranging plan to tackle what it calls “parallel societies” in the country’s underprivileged areas.

Published on March 1, the plan - titled 'One Denmark without Parallel Societies: No Ghettos in 2030' - has sparked controversy. While measures like a 12 billion kroner ($1.5 billion) housing regeneration project are not uncommon in liberal democracies, it also includes doubling punishments for certain offences committed in these ‘ghettos’, such as vandalism and theft. 

Other proposals in the 'ghetto plan' include “housing rules aimed at changing resident demographics”, according to The Local Denmark, and compulsory daycare attendance.

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen insisted the plan was not about race or religion, though his language and the nature of the policies make it difficult to pin down what he meant by this. 

"It concerns me deeply that we might not be able to come together around Denmark. We should be able to recognise our country. There are places where I don't recognise what I'm seeing," he said as he presented the plan on March 1 in Mjølnerparken, an area of Copenhagen that features on the Ministry of Transport and Housing's 'ghetto list'. 

He said too many residents of non-Western backgrounds were not contributing to society, while adding that most contribute positively. 

One of the plan’s proposals is to criminalise so-called “re-acculturation trips”, defined by the government as "sending children or young people under 18 years of age - often against their will - to their parents' homeland or another country for an extended period", in order to strengthen cultural identity, family relations, and language skills or for solving conflicts. Parents sending their children on such trips could face up to four years in prison if the bill is passed. 

The plan has raised concerns over its heavy-handedness. Birgitte Eiriksson, an attorney with Danish judicial think-tank Justitia, argues the double-punishment proposal “is against the principle that all citizens are equal before the law”, and that the ban on re-acculturation trips is against the right to freedom of movement. 

The government is otherwise generally respectful of rights, Ms. Eirikkson told The World Weekly, and the justice ministry may yet weigh in on the bill if it does not comply with human rights legislation. Some have accused the Danish government of disproportionately bearing down disproportionately on immigrant-dominated communities. 

The plan enjoys widespread support, with major parties including the centre-left opposition Social Democrats and the anti-immigration Danish People's Party (DF) putting their weight behind it.

More to come?

In some countries, the debate over ‘ghettos’ has a sharper edge, fuelled by outright bloodshed rather than social divisions. 

In Sweden, an upsurge in gang violence in recent years has led to a widespread belief that the country is home to ‘no-go zones’. Estimates of the number of fatal shootings in 2016, the latest year for which official statistics are available, range from 106 to over 300. The majority are believed to involve turf battles between gangs in areas with high concentrations of immigrants.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven denied the existence of ‘no-go zones’ during a press conference with US President Donald Trump this week, adding that they were a thing of the past thanks to increased investment in law enforcement. Yet some argued his remarks were the first to explicitly acknowledge the existence of ‘no-go zones’ in Sweden. 

In the same comments the prime minister added that he had inherited legislation that was “not sustainable” when it came to refugees and that his government had worked to reduce the number of arrivals.

Many point to the list of ‘vulnerable areas’ the Swedish police released last year, and later expanded, arguing that it is a euphemism for ‘no-go zones’. However, police and emergency services have rejected labelling them as such. They have been frequently reported as saying they have been subjected to attacks and vandalism, and sometimes adapt their behaviour in such areas by calling for backup and using alternative routes. But they have also told reporters this is not as frequent as it is sometimes made out to be.

Swedish right-wingers have accused the government of deliberately toughening its tone after previously downplaying the existence of such areas, in order to crowd out populist anti-migrant parties like the Sweden Democrats ahead of general elections this September. 

The Sweden Democrats have sunk in the polls since peaking at 20% in the aftermath of the 2015 migrant crisis, counting less than 15% in November 2017, the latest official survey. Some analysts argue immigration no longer dominates the country’s political debate, but many have questioned whether voters with such concerns have simply shifted their allegiance to the ruling party. 

Denmark is perhaps the most radical case of mainstream parties co-opting more hardline rhetoric and policies when it comes to immigrant communities. But if recent examples from the likes of Sweden and Germany are anything to go by, it may not be the last.

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