Making and Breaking Families in Danish Nation-Building

A guest post from Malene H. Jacobsen. Malene is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Geography, Maynooth University, Ireland. Grounded in feminist political geography, Malene’s work focuses on war, displacement, and the lived experience of refuge. Over the years, her research has been supported by the US National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Danish Institute in Damascus. Malene has published peer-reviewed articles and chapters on issues related to forced migration, citizenship, and feminist methodologies. Funded by the Irish Research Council, her current research project “Precarious Protection: Syrian and Somali Struggles for Refuge in Denmark” explores the legal shift towards temporary refugee protection in Denmark. 

Babies, birth rates, and borders. Like many other countries with declining populations, Denmark has become increasingly anxious about falling birth rates and their repercussions for the viability of the country’s famed welfare state. To bolster fertility rates, several campaigns have been created to encourage young women and heterosexual couples to have (more) children, preferably early in their lives. For instance, in 2015, the Danish Public Broadcaster DR produced a Saturday evening program called “Bang for Denmark” (Knald for Danmark), which focused on how Danes could become more reproductive. The same year, the municipality of Copenhagen launched the “Count your eggs” (Tæl dine æg) campaign to encourage women to have children earlier in their lives. In 2016, the Danish travel company Spies aired commercials under the title “Do it for Denmark!” Using crude terms and questionable statistics, these commercials encouraged Danes to go on short getaways to Paris or to take active sport holidays to foreign destinations to increase their fitness and desire for sex. Spies linked foreign travel with fertility, claiming that 10% of Danes are conceived abroad. While acknowledging its own commercial interests in promoting foreign travel, Spies urged young Danes to “do it”, if not for the nation (fædreland) then for “mom”.

These commercials presented a specific imaginary of the Danish family. Spies used white actors and portrayed an idealized version of heterosexual coupledom by showing upper-middle class leisure activities including traveling to foreign destinations, doing yoga, playing tennis, and dining out. “Doing it for Denmark”, then, means (re)producing the white, heteronormative, bourgeois nuclear family. And these efforts seem to be working. Several of these campaigns claim that birth rates are on the upswing, even if they have yet to reach the state’s desired levels. However, Denmark’s celebration of fertility and the family does not extend to all intimate ties. Alongside its growing obsession with babies and birthrates, the project of reproducing the white, heteronormative, bourgeois nuclear family has also involved a range of policies and practices that regulate, separate, and preclude the intimate ties of racialized, colonized, queered, and other subaltern peoples.

If reproduction, as Sophie Lewis[i] has elaborated, is an irreducibly raced and classed project of social engineering, I argue that in the Danish context this project has long been and continues to be a distinctly geopolitical project of bordering and intimate separation. I develop this claim by exploring the forced separation of kin across borders using two examples, namely the repatriation of Danish citizen children currently living in prison camps in Syria and the Danish state’s attempt to strip Syrian refugees of their protection status. As I explore below, these examples remain hotly contested by politicians, NGOs, and legal practitioners, yet are rarely seen as connected. By bringing them together and situating them in Denmark’s long history of empire, I de-exceptionalize them as somehow isolated and unprecedented, and instead show how they are part of a broader project of racialized nation building.

Danish citizens in Syria

Since 2019, Western countries have debated whether they are obligated to repatriate their nationals held by Kurdish-led forces in the two prison camps – al-Hol and al-Roj – in the northeast of Syria. A UNICEF report estimates that there are more than 20,000 children of at least 60 nationalities living in these two camps. While several countries, including Russia, the United States, Australia, Kosovo, Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, have begun to repatriate a substantial number of their citizens, Denmark has only repatriated one child from al-Hol: a seriously injured 13-year old boy paralyzed from the waist down, yet notably without his mother and siblings. Despite international pressure for Denmark to repatriate its citizens held in these camps, it has refused to do so, arguing that they pose imminent security threats to the nation-state.

In mid-March, however, it became clear that the Danish government had failed to inform the parliament about a report from the Danish Defense Intelligence Service, arguing that leaving these nationals in Syria placed them at risk of being recruited by ISIS, which could lead them to carry out attacks against Denmark. This revelation has led to renewed pressure on the government to repatriate the Danish citizens from al-Hol and al-Roj – a total of nineteen children and seven women. As a result, the government held several confidential meetings and established a task-force that has to develop a plan for how to repatriate the Danish citizen children, while leaving their parents behind.

Indeed, the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, has repeatedly stated that “we are willing to examine whether we can help the children (…) but we do have a wish to help the parents.” Likewise, Jeppe Kofod, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has emphasized that “we have always had a wish to help the children, (…) now we have to examine how it can be done without the parents following” (emphasis added). Other politicians have more aggressively lashed out at these Danish women, calling them traitors and terrorists no longer welcome in Denmark. It is important to stress that these women have not been formally charged or convicted of any crime. Over the past few months, various politicians and pundits have cast these women out, framing them as “reckless”, “bad mothers” because of their decisions to travel to Syria. Accordingly, these voices have called on Denmark to “save” these children (from ISIS and/or their mothers).

A 4-year old girl, who I here call Mia, is one of the nineteen Danish children who Denmark is considering to repatriate. Mia, who has been diagnosed with PTSD, lives in the al-Roj prison camp together with her mother who is also a Danish citizen. And like the other Danish children, Mia is at the risk of being separated from her mother. As of April 22, the government has agreed to evacuate Mia because of her dire mental health condition, yet without her mother and brother. The government deems Mia’s mother — and the other six Danish women in al-Hol and al-Roj — to be security threats to Denmark, due to their alleged participation in ISIS. While international conventions make it difficult to repatriate Mia and the other children without their parents, the Danish government has invoked well-worn colonial and imperial tropes about “saving” children in foreign lands from their “bad” mothers in order to justify its violent role in separating kin from one another[ii].

Syrian refugees in Denmark

As these debates play out, Denmark has also become the first Western country to revoke previously awarded refugee protection status from Syrians living in Denmark. On February 21, 2019, the Danish Immigration Service (Udlændingestyrelsen) released a country report stating that the general conditions and the security situation in Syria’s capital Damascus had improved significantly. This report enabled the Danish state to deem Damascus sufficiently “safe” for Syrians to return to. Moreover, it argued that Syrians who had obtained refugee protection in Denmark on the basis of a general (rather than an individual) threat of inhumane treatment or punishment due to war and violence, no longer had a need for protection and ought to return to Syria. The Danish Immigration Service, thus, began to review the asylum status of Syrians from so-called safe areas – first Damascus and later Rif Dimashq[iii]. To date, the Danish Immigration Service has either revoked or denied the renewal of residence permits for more than 200 Syrian refugees.

Aya, a 19-year old high school student, is one of many Syrians who have lost her right to remain in Denmark. For the past six years, Aya has lived in Denmark with her parents and two brothers. While they were all granted refugee protection in Denmark after fleeing the war in Syria, Aya is the only member of her family whose status has been revoked. As such, Aya is now at risk of being separated from her family as the Danish state expects her to “voluntarily” return[iv] to Damascus.

Denmark is signatory to several international conventions protecting people’s rights to private and family life, which might offer Aya the right to remain in Denmark. However, by defining family ties as only pertaining to conjugal relationships and connections between parents and minors, the fact that Aya is 19 and unmarried precludes her protection on such basis. Moreover, the fact that she considers Denmark to be her home and that her brothers, mother and father all reside there does not appear to have been seriously considered in the judgment on her case. If Aya returns to Syria, it will be virtually impossible for her to see her family members in the foreseeable future. As a Syrian citizen, Aya would find it extremely difficult to obtain a tourist visa to Denmark and her family cannot travel to Syria as this would jeopardize their safety and legal standing in Denmark. So while Danish children may soon be repatriated and separated from their so-called “terrorist” mothers in Syria in the name of national security, Aya and other Syrians are facing the threat of being returned to Syria with no prospect of ever seeing their loved ones again.  

The long history of forced separation

Mia’s and Aya’s stories, which have featured prominently in the national and international media outlets, draw attention to the violence of family separation and the ways that Denmark’s recent draconian immigration policies are affecting individuals, families and communities in Denmark and elsewhere. And, of course, this practice of forcibly separating families and people with intimate ties is far from new. Over the past three decades, Denmark has introduced a range of immigration laws and domestic policies specifically designed to prevent immigrants of color from making lives and building families in the country. These include “the 24-year rule” that stipulates that immigrants under the age of twenty-four are not able to bring their spouses into Denmark through family reunification; the three-year suspension of the right to family reunification for refugees holding a general temporary protection status; and the so-called “Ghetto Law” that gives the Danish state authority to police and displace “non-western” residents from their homes, families, and communities in so-called “ghettos”.

It is impossible to fully make sense of these anti-immigrant policies and practices without considering the centrality of regulating intimate ties within Denmark’s long imperial and colonial histories. Denmark has treated Indigenous, Black, poor, and queer families as threats to the nation-state and thus, in need of surveillance, regulation, and in some cases destruction. For instance, during the time of its colonial and imperial activities in contemporary Ghana and the Virgin Islands, Denmark separated those it enslaved from their kin, selling different family members to different owners. And until the early twentieth century, Denmark frequently displayed colonized subjects at human exhibitions in Danish metropoles like Copenhagen at venues such as zoos and Tivoli gardens, sometimes together with exotic animals like lions[v] (Andreassen 2020). Alongside its colonization of Greenland, in 1951, Denmark forcibly removed twenty-two Indigenous children from their families and communities. For the first five months, the twenty-two children lived together in Save the Children’s “vacation home” Fedgården south of Copenhagen, before they were dispersed to white Danish foster families. While six children were adopted by (white) Danish families, the rest were returned an orphanage in Nuuk, Greenland. Most of these children lost their language, culture, identity, and ties to their families and communities.

As the complicity of Save the Children in such activities alludes to, the forced separation of these children from their parents has been rationalized in the name of “saving” them from their “uncivilized” parents and in order to “modernize” occupied Indigenous societies. Within liberal Danish public discourse, such programs continue to be represented as well-meaning in their intentions, even if unfortunate in their consequences. It was only in December 2020 that the Danish Prime Minister officially apologized for the theft of these twenty-two children and the harm it has caused. However, taken together, these examples illustrate a thru-line of separating kin from one another in the service of the Danish nation.

The intimate ties that bind loved ones together are deeply personal and private. Yet, these same ties have also long been and continue to be terrains of nation-building and geopolitics in the service of a (white) Denmark. While fertility campaigns like “Do it for Denmark” openly celebrate state and private sector interventions to build the white, bourgeois, nuclear family and  nation, these projects of social engineering also require interventions that attempt to fragment and destroy other forms of kin-making for those deemed unfit for inclusion.

Mia’s and Aya’s stories should be front and center in thinking about and mobilizing against these unjust state practices, whether justified in the name of saving children or protecting national security. Yet, it is also important to de-exceptionalize them. Placing them in Denmark’s long and ongoing imperial and colonial histories with their racial imperatives, violences and logics is a crucial part of this. But so too, is their centrality in class policing. Indeed, Mia’s and Aya’s stories invite us to make connections between immigration enforcement practices and the more mundane and less visible forms of state power that also separate marginalized and working-class people with intimate ties. To be clear, this is in no way a defense of the family as such. Rather, it is about the right to make kin on one’s own terms.

[i] Lewis, Sophie. Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. Verso

[ii] On the evening of May 18, 2021, the Danish government announced that it is ready to repatriate the 19 children, five of whom will be repatriated without their mothers.

[iii] The Danish state deemed Rif Dimashq safe in February 2021. Based on minutes from the Danish Refugee Appeals Board committee meeting in October 2020, the security and socio-economic situation in the government controlled areas such as Tartus, Latakia, and Quneitra are to be assessed and these areas can potentially be added to the list of so-called safe areas.

[iv] At the moment, Denmark does not carry out forced deportation to Syria as it does not wish to collaborate with the Assad-regime. Some of the Syrians who have had their status revoked have left Denmark “voluntarily”, while others – approximately 128 Syrians – hold a deportation order.

[v] Andreassen, Rikke. 2020. Human Exhibitions : Race, Gender and Sexuality in Ethnic Displays. Routledge.


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