AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It's hard to believe, but Denmark has ghettos. And yes, that is the word the government uses despite its troubling connotations. They are officially designated areas defined by things like unemployment, crime and especially large numbers of non-Western immigrants. A new government policy aims to improve integration by ridding the country of its 25 ghettos by 2030. But critics say in trying to protect Danish values, the plan undercuts one of its most important - equality before the law. Sidsel Overgaard reports from Copenhagen.
SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: Emerging from a supermarket in one of the Danish neighborhoods defined as a ghetto, Idil Ahmed hesitates a moment before putting down her groceries. She says she came here to the city of Kolding from Somalia decades ago. And back then, she felt welcome.
IDIL AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).
OVERGAARD: But in recent years, the tone has changed. Ahmed has not read the entire government plan but says she understands the premise - one set of rules for the rest of Denmark and a different set for her and her neighbors.
AHMED: (Through interpreter) You must do this. You must do that. What they mean is, go home.
OVERGAARD: Ahmed says she's considering it even though she has a job and three grown sons all born in Denmark.
AHMED: (Through interpreter) Even though I came as a child, I think, this is a bad feeling. I cannot grow old in this country.
OVERGAARD: Among other things, the government is proposing doubling punishments for crimes in the ghettos, restricting who can and can't move into these areas and even making day care mandatory for all children in ghettos as soon as they turn 1.
Some residents see positive elements, like the promise of an increased police presence. But overall, Ahmed worries that the constant negative attention is destroying relationships between neighbors. Finn Norbaek is an ethnic Dane who lives here, too.
FINN NORBAEK: (Foreign language spoken).
OVERGAARD: Norbaek says he likes it. The people are nice, and he hasn't had any problems. But sometimes he thinks there are too many immigrants living in one place, and some of them seem to have nothing to do.
NORBAEK: (Foreign language spoken).
OVERGAARD: "See him over there," he says, pointing to a tall, young man.
NORBAEK: (Foreign language spoken).
OVERGAARD: "He doesn't do anything. He just gets money." Unemployment is a serious problem in Denmark's ghettos. According to the government, a third of non-Western immigrants have been out of work for four of the last five years. The government and its far-right allies fear that ghettos are cultivating a parallel society where people get by with no understanding of Danish and generations live only on welfare. Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen says his administration will do whatever it takes to prevent that.
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PRIME MINISTER LARS LOKKE RASMUSSEN: (Through interpreter) We are prepared to implement special rules for special areas. And if the municipalities and institutions don't solve the problem, the state is prepared to grab hold.
OVERGAARD: Perhaps in a sign of growing nationalism in Denmark, the center-left opposition has had little negative to say about the government's plan.
Back at the shopping center, Ahmed Said, who has lived in Denmark for 15 years, says he's not surprised.
AHMED SAID: Every single morning, you listen to the radio, or you read the media. So it's just about us all the time.
OVERGAARD: The integration debate often boils down to a question of whether immigrants should be swayed with carrots or sticks. This time, the emphasis is on sticks. But Said says history shows none of it works.
SAID: Twenty-five years ago, the people living here - they were all Danish people - white Danish people.
OVERGAARD: And then the foreigners moved in, and the Danes moved out.
SAID: So if they do it again and they move Somalis to another place where there are only Danish people living, they're going to do the same - the Danish. They're going to leave.
OVERGAARD: If integration is truly the goal, he says, it has to be a two-way street. For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark.
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