Migration and Civic Dialogue in Denmark – Is speaking Danish a precondition for integration?

Migration and Civic Dialogue in Denmark – Is speaking Danish a precondition for integration?

Nicole Doerr

The Danish government has recently cut spending for interpreting and translation services in hospitals making it harder for immigrants who do not speak Danish to access medical services. As part of the national debate over integration, the Minister of Integration, Inger Støjberg, has also called upon Danish citizens to report to the police restaurant workers who speak in foreign languages as a way to detect undocumented immigrants. Both the cutting of spending for translation services and the anti-immigration statements promoted by Danish government officials are suggestive of an increasingly exclusionary, assimilationist policy toward migrants who do not speak Danish (Jensen & Mouritsen 2017; Salö et al. 2018).

However, according to new research, of the 376,000 adult migrants living in Denmark, only asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants with few socioeconomic resources are actually affected by restrictive language assimilation policies (Jensen & Mouritsen 2017). In the shadow of the national government’s populist anti-immigration discourse, Danish companies increasingly recruit highly qualified international migrants to fulfill the growing demand for internationalisation in pharmaceutics, IT, and other private sector industries. Municipalities support companies by providing free Danish courses for a growing ‘expat’ community—they offer flexible language learning options that were created during an earlier period of liberal Scandinavian integration policies; still today reflecting one of the world’s most professionalized second language education programmes helping foreigners to learn Danish flexibly according to individual needs (Salö et al. 2018).

The problem with Denmark’s current two-tiered integration model based on assimilationist versus liberal language integration for different groups is that most asylum seekers have no right, by law, to participate in these high quality Danish language courses. Some remain in the country for decades, even once their applications for asylum are denied, as they are unable to be repatriated. As Denmark currently rejects over 50 percent of first-time asylum applications, a growing number of asylum seekers who do not have to leave stay in Denmark. Among them are many children and young adults remaining excluded from both public education and access to language courses reserved for other groups of migrants. While ‘expats’ benefit from relatively generous tax relief schemes, English-speaking workplaces and leisure environments in some of the nicest neighbourhoods Denmark has to offer, asylum seekers and their children are required to live in asylum centers located far away from the larger cities (Whyte et al. 2018).

Numerous families of asylum seekers in April 2019 publicly protested against their isolation from society, demanding access to education, a call that has been supported by thousands of Danish citizens. The prominent refugee solidarity movement Venligboerne (English translation: “Friendly People”) engaged over a hundred thousand Danish Facebook users to participate in local refugee solidarity initiatives, as well as communicating with asylum seekers directly via the help of digital translation services and volunteers fluent in English, Arabic, and Farsi (Toubøl 2017). Thus, just as Denmark is operating a two-tiered ‘integration’ model for migrants, so access to translation services has been bifurcated – while state services expect asylum seekers to speak, or at least understand, Danish, civil society groups are working hard to provide asylum seekers with access to free interpreting and translation services (Doerr 2019). The growing third sector of volunteer engagement on behalf of asylum seekers is embedded in broader challenges regarding state retreat under conditions of neoliberal reforms.

Beyond assimilation: civil society-based translation and integration ‘from below’
As a sociologist working with mixed methods research including participant observation, interviews, and survey tools, my research focuses on understanding the impact of volunteer-developed civil society translation services on supporting migrants’ and asylum seekers social integration (Doerr 2019). Fundamental to this research is the question how civil society – in the absence of state support— can support migrants’ and asylum seekers’ political demands for integration ‘from below’ – through local democracy, dialogue and volunteer practices of translation and multilingual education.

One of my case studies is a multilingual democracy education project started by a group of artists and NGOs supporting asylum seekers and refugees at the local level in the multicultural Copenhagen neighborhood of Nørrebro. In this independently-funded civil society democratic education project, there is no distinction between refugees, asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected, and volunteers—many of the volunteers themselves are, in fact, international students or resident migrants. During collective meetings all groups are identified as “users”, and all decisions are made democratically by means of consensus in the weekly meetings held between Danes and non-Danes. One of the Danish founders of the Nørrebro democratic education project explained that they necessarily have to take a multilingual approach to consensus-based democracy facilitated by translation in English as well as two or three migrant languages.  He said: “It is quite easy for many Danes to speak in English so all our joint meetings are in English with simultaneous translation into Farsi and Arabic made possible by volunteers. By speaking in English we Danes take one step back from our privilege.”

Thus, volunteer-developed translation services found in some of Denmark’s civil society groups could become a model for face-to-face dialogue and consensus-based direct democratic decision-making across linguistic and socioeconomic differences. I have experienced groups of Danes, asylum seekers, refugees, international students and expats working together through multilingual dialogue. While most theories of democracy and civic participation assume that a multiplicity of languages would impede communication and democratic decision-making; in the Danish groups I have studied, multilingual dialogue and volunteer translation increased participation by different groups of migrants, both among asylum seekers and refugees, as well as international students and expats, who are looking for opportunities to volunteer in a language they already master to some extent.

In addition to civil society groups, some Danish churches are also following the trend of using voluntary translation services and bilingual education to integrate and forge bonds across different groups of citizens and migrants, expats as well as asylum seekers. In Copenhagen’s center, a local protestant church has translated its services and its entire program into Farsi and English relying on volunteer interpreters and amateur translation by church members. On any regular Sunday morning you will find the church packed with young Danish families and dozens of migrants, most of them refugees and asylum seekers, but also a number of ‘expats’ who use headphones for English translation.

While other churches in the neighborhood are empty or have been closed due to a lack of attendance, this church has noticed a steady increase in participation, also among minorities: “One third of our regular church attendants are Farsi speakers,” said the pastor during my field visit to this church in April 2019, explaining that Kurds, Iranians and Afghan refugees are among the active members of the congregation. Active participation by these groups was also confirmed through the observations I conducted. During church services, all prayers and sermons are translated through volunteer interpreters, and through the church lunch session, refugees, asylum seekers and Danes could be seen conversing in English and Danish in an informal, multilingual atmosphere.

Something that was perhaps unexpected before starting the research was that the introduction of volunteer translation by this majority white Christian church would lead to an increased general church attendance among majority Danes as well.  As the pastor recalled: “We have noticed a clear development throughout the past years. As soon as it became clear that we are a community that invites foreigners, in particular refugees, more Danes showed up, especially younger people and families.”

Empirical Research on Dialogue, Civil Society Translation, and ‘Integration from Below’
Based on my work on Danish refugee solidarity groups and churches, linguistic difference is actually not a hindrance to democratic dialogue and social integration, as previously assumed, but a challenge – that if proactively addressed can facilitate democratic engagement and integration. Studying Danish civil society organisations and churches who work with volunteer translation, it would appear as if it actually increases participation in their services by different groups, including both Danes as well as more vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers, and other more resourced migrant groups. I explicate this position through a few case study examples from my research.

In several of the Copenhagen-based refugee solidarity groups I have studied, volunteer translation services have opened up for all participants a way to better understand how structural inequalities can distort dialogue between members of privileged and those of more socially disadvantaged groups. For instance, a civic volunteer from Scotland and currently living in Copenhagen reflected on the differences she observed between multilingual translation situations and Danish-only meetings: “I noticed that when I switch to translate my words into a foreign language that I’m not very good at, but several of the asylum speakers are fluent in, the atmosphere shifts. It feels immediately more balanced, at least for a moment, some of the inequalities dividing us seem to disappear so we can start having a true conversation.”

Like this ‘expat’ volunteer living in Copenhagen, the Danish meeting facilitators that I have interviewed conceived of translation as a practice for democracy that stems from the need to address inequality and challenges of communication based on civic and social status differences. I have developed a term for these kind of volunteers – “political” translators (Doerr 2018). In the context of states suspending translation support and language courses toward asylum seekers and refugees I conceive of political translation as part of a broad set of critical citizenship practices  whose goal is support migrants’ and asylumseekers’ public voices and political claims by offering experiences of participation in protest and grassroots democracy in civil society groups and social movements (Isin 2008).

Political translation, distinct from linguistic translation, is a self-organized practice developed by participants in order to address perceived cultural misunderstandings or conflicts based on inequities hindering democratic debate and to entreat powerful participants to work more inclusively with less empowered members and groups (Doerr 2018). For example, volunteers support refugees in multilingual interactions with employment officials, housing officers and health care providers—interactions that are shaped by multiple power and status asymmetries and sociolinguistic barriers. Here, the experience of accompanying asylum seekers in encounters with officials, and translating as part of demonstrating solidarity with the asylum seeker appears to generate in volunteers a self-reflective knowledge of the complex inequalities and patterns of institutional discrimination asylum seekers experience (Doerr 2019). I argue that volunteers act as political translators—acting beyond their role of linguistic interpreters—where they perform critical interventions with officials to support and echo asylum seekers’ voices in encounters across differences of language, citizenship status, and social status.

In times of mass migration, where refugees and asylum seekers are often forced to learn not just one but a whole number of different languages, the volunteer-organized civic experiments based on political translation point to an innovative model that can facilitate alternative pathways of social integration and mutual learning and cooperation between local civil society groups and  asylum seekers and groups excluded by the state. Civil society based political translation capacities have a broader potential in helping to solve the urgent global demand for high-quality professional translation for asylum seekers among international organisations and NGOs given national governments’ varying capacity or reluctance to support or provide such services. Research needs to explore how civil society organizations can support refugees with high-quality translators and digital translation devices, as well as improve the transparency and inclusivity of interaction with government institutions. Furthermore, initial case studies show intersectional gender barriers to accessing official language and civic integration courses, indicating a need for systematic research about the benefits and limitations of civil society-based translation capacities for different status groups among asylum seekers—particularly women, vulnerable refugees, and those facing trauma or linguistic barriers (Doerr 2019).

The examples from Danish civil society and church groups illustrate how various volunteer-led practices of translation can encourage and facilitate local participation, civic dialogue, and social integration in settings of linguistic and socioeconomic diversity. My research argues that such translation practices bridge cultural differences and re-address structural inequalities which usually shape social interactions. Furthermore, as these are usually run by volunteers, it is a relatively cheap but effective approach which governments should take note of, and find ways to further facilitate and promote. Given this finding, the Danish government’s vision that cutting professional translation services and promoting linguistic assimilation policies will aid integration for vulnerable and low socioeconomic status migrants and asylum seekers is likely to be mis-placed.

Some countries, like Canada, invest actively in settlement organizations and local civil society groups as a means for engaging multilingual groups of refugees in civic dialogue. The intention behind this is also to foster learning around basic civic norms, but to do so through democratic practices. Studies led by myself on the US show that bilingual education and translation for migrants and linguistic minorities actually improve their confidence and ability to speak publically and actively participate in decision-making concerning their own needs, those of their communities, and broader society too (Doerr 2018). This is especially the case for women and migrants from low socioeconomic backgrounds, often the most vulnerable groups.

Findings from my research in California indicate that in the context of migration and demographic change, states benefit from supporting independent civil society organisations who provide critical, political translation capacities not controlled by the influence of local power holders or officials. Key to the success of groups of political translators is to facilitate egalitarian dialogue and social inclusion in asymmetric settings between state authorities, local officials and migrants. Here the ‘art’ of political translation is to empathize with the perspective of local elites or that of majority citizens without giving in to their pressure, financial or otherwise. To maintain this intermediate position, political translators require a certain level of financial and organizational independence from institutions, as well as needing a collective motivation and an oppositional consciousness in order to take the risk of intervening critically in relation to power holders and institutions—even when these institutions, such as local elites try to quell these critiques. My research suggests that independent, civil society-led practices of political translation have the potential to make a real contribution to promoting democracy in multilingual, multicultural societies.

Doerr, Nicole. 2018. Political Translation—How Social Movement Democracies Survive. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.
Doerr, Nicole. 2019. “An Intersectional Perspective of Civic Dialogue and Refugee Solidarity Organizations in Germany and Denmark.” In: Gendered Mobilizations in an Enlarged Europe. Sabine Lang, Celeste Montoya, and Jill Irvine. New York/London: Routledge. Forthcoming 2019.
Isin, Engin F. 2008. “Theorizing acts of citizenship.” In: Isin, Engin F. and Nielsen, Greg M. eds. Acts of Citizenship. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 15–43.
Kristian Kriegbaum Jensen, and Per Mouritsen. 2017. “Nationalism in a Liberal Register: Beyond the ‘Paradox of Universalism’in Immigrant Integration Politics.” British Journal of Political Science, (7):1-20.
Salö, Linus, Martha Sif Karrebaek, Natalia Ganuza, and Christina Hedman. 2018. “Mother tongue instruction in Sweden and Denmark: Language policy, cross-field effects, and linguistic exchange rates. Language Policy, 17(4): 591-610.
Toubøl, Jonas. 2017. Differential Recruitment to and Outcomes of Solidarity Activism.  Ethics, Values and Group Style in The Danish Refugee Solidarity Movement. PhD Thesis, University of Copenhagen Sociology Department.


Nicole Doerr is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen. Doerr’s research investigates how and under what conditions increased linguistic and cultural diversity fosters democratic innovation in the areas of social movements, local democracy and participation by migrants, refugees, and minorities. Doerr’s research has been awarded the EU Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship, the EU IPODI Fellowship, as well as the Harvard Ash Center Democracy Fellowship.

Image: Purchased from Colourbox