Requirements to obtain citizenship are undermining democracy

The road to becoming a Danish citizen have become an unfair obstacle course and particularly excludes refugees from their democratic rights

The op-ed was brought in Information 20. September 2022.

According to an article in Danish newspaper Information on September 14th, an increasing share of the population in Denmark does not have the right to vote, nor do they have full rights in a number of other citizen matters. It applies to every tenth inhabitant nationally, and in some municipalities up to every fourth. This poses an obvious democratic problem.

Unfortunately, it is the result of a deliberate policy over many years, which has made it more difficult to obtain citizenship. The process has been made infinitely long and almost impossible to understand. In the end, the granting of citizenship is not administrative at all, as politicians form part of the direct case management, and in the end, citizenship is granted by the parliament.

Currently, people who succeed in becoming Danish citizens have been living here an average of 19 years, and in the future that number will probably rise when the latest restrictive immigration measures take effect.

Last year, the Danish Institute for Human Rights published the report 'Stranger in your own country', documenting that more and more young people who are born and/or brought up in Denmark are unable to obtain Danish citizenship. The institute assesses that Denmark does not live up to international obligations on this matter.

In addition, the requirements for citizenship have become completely out of step with what the population thinks is reasonable – only, the population is not aware of how far things have really gone. A large survey among young people in Denmark, Sweden and Norway showed that there was very broad agreement, regardless of background, as to what the requirements for citizenship should be, and that the Danish requirements were far too strict.

Practically impossible

In a European context, Denmark stands completely alone when it comes to both citizenship requirements and procedure. In fact, a growing number of people are entirely barred from ever obtaining citizenship. This applies to three groups in particular:

•  Those who have not had a proper schooling in their home country and will therefore never be able to pass the highest Danish exam
•  Those who cannot work full time due to mental or physical issues
•  Those who at some point in their lives have made mistakes and received a conviction or a large fine.

If you cannot fulfil one or more of the requirements for citizenship, you can apply for a dispensation with a medical certificate. But last year, only 2% of the exemption applications were accepted – as these decisions are made by the 17 Danish Parliament members who form the Naturalization Committee and who vote on each individual case. A procedure which, to say the least, does not belong in a society governed by the rule of law.

One of the requirements for applying for citizenship is that you must have had permanent residence for a period of time. Combining the requirements for permanent residence and citizenship and the practice for dispensation, the three groups seem effectively excluded from ever obtaining citizenship.

These rules hit refugees much harder than other groups, because refugees are more often traumatized and more often have insufficient schooling, and they hit women harder than men. That’s despite The UN Refugee Convention article 34, which says that member states must facilitate access to citizenship for refugees. A refugee is not a guest, but a person whom Denmark is obliged to protect. In the nature of the matter, a refugee cannot simply be 'sent back'.

Exclusion and deportation

And then there are those who do something wrong, make mistakes or bad decisions – apparently, they are just supposed to be deported, regardless of how long they have lived here: "When you as a foreigner have been allowed to stay in Denmark, you have to behave. Our hospitality must not be exchanged for legal offenses of any kind”, said Minister for Integration Kaare Dybvad Bek recently, when proposing a new law with the purpose of expelling even more foreigners.

And Søren Pape Poulsen, chairman for the Conservative Party, said the following in defense of Inger Støjberg, an ex-minister who was recently sentenced to jail by a state court for illegal administration: "My view is that it should apply to everyone in society, that if you have done something wrong, you must be punished. And when you have taken your punishment, you can start all over again'. But Søren Pape Poulsen has consistently worked for foreigners to be deported after their first mistake, so apparently only Danish citizens should get a second chance after serving their sentence. This is, evidently, according to both social democratic and liberal politicians.

A person who is born and raised in Denmark is a Dane, regardless of whether they have a Danish passport or not. Of course, refugees and immigrants must obey the law like everyone else – but when they break it, the punishment should also be the same as for everyone else: equality before the law. That is not how it is today, when even a minor violation may result in the regular sentence that any Danish citizen would receive plus an additional life sentence on top: that is, the exclusion from permanent residence and citizenship, and risk of being deported from the country that is actually one's country of birth – or to have to spend the rest of one’s life in a deportation centre.  

Allow me to give an example:

A 25-year-old, let's call him Alex, was born in Denmark to foreign parents, has been educated and worked quite normally and lives with his Danish girlfriend. If he gets into a drunken fight with a friend in a pub and punches him, this offence triggers an unconditional sentence of 30 days in prison, which can barre Alex from ever obtaining citizenship and even cause his deportation to a country he may never have been to. If his friend had been convicted for the same offence, he could continue his life exactly as before after serving his sentence. It is a completely unreasonable difference that Alex risks losing his entire life and all his loved ones, and could be banished to an unknown fate, just because he has a different nationality.

Failing young people in particular

There are only two ways to obtain Danish citizenship. You can get it as a child if you are lucky enough that your mother or father meets the extremely high requirements before you turn 18 years old. If not, you have to wait until you turn 18 before you can start applying for permanent residence, which you cannot get as a child.

Obtaining permanent residence is easier for the 18-19-year-olds. It is only required that you have lived here legally for eight years and have attended school continuously. If that is the case, you can be lucky to get a Danish passport by the time you are 23 years old. But some young people do not actually get that chance if, for instance, they have changed schools and therefore lost a month of schooling.

And if as an 18-year-old you forgot to attach some of the documents, or simply did not pay attention to the fact that you had to apply and pay the fee of DKK 4,300 before you turned 19 years old, then you must meet all the requirements for permanent residence like all other adults, including 3.5 years of full-time work. Here education no longer counts, and you will have to choose work over studies, if you don't want to postpone your citizenship for many years.

If you do not succeed in obtaining permanent residence under the more relaxed rules for young people, you can get Danish citizenship at the earliest when you are 26 years old. And that is only if you have passed the 9th grade, the citizenship test, have not stayed too long outside Denmark, have no debt to the state, etc. Any prison sentence, conditional or unconditional, excludes you from ever obtaining citizenship, and a fine of more than DKK 3,000 triggers a six-year ban.

We need to start over from scratch in this matter. The road to becoming a Danish citizen today is more of an obstacle course and a means of exclusion than the important tool for integration and inclusion that it should be.

My suggestions for a more reasonable level of requirements could be: if you have had seven years of legal residence; if you have acquired Danish at the level that can reasonably be expected from your background; if you can answer relevant questions about Danish society and if you have expelled willingness to the best of one's ability to become self-sufficient.