The Danish Immigration Paradox – When Ideal Meets Reality
Denmark, the Kingdom located in Northern Europe between the North Sea and the Baltics, is a wonderful country, and the friendly Danes a wonderful people. With its dependence on foreign trade, a knack for innovation and a small open economy, Denmark has managed to carve out an internationally competitive position in an increasingly globalized world. A country others turn to in admiration and seek inspiration from when it comes to progress, sustainability, work-life balance, and well-being.
She is the home of happiness, equality, ‘hygge’ and fairy tales, She is the home of freedom, free speech, trust, tolerance, and fairness, as well as sympathy for the unfortunate, welfare, and foreign development aid.
At the same time, she is the home of one of the most stringent immigration policies in Europe. An immigration policy, which even has been internationally criticized because it at times borders on what is seen as a violation of basic human rights (e.g., Human Rights Watch, 2023). How can we make sense of this apparent paradox? The paradox between the freedom and peace-loving country of fairy tales, on the hand, and the conservative, fenced in, “shut border” nation, on the other. The paradox between a national culture, applauding the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), on the one hand, and where the same national culture to some extent complicates DEI, on the other hand.
Needless to say, international migration in all its forms and the approaches to migration are complex, not to mention that any society is a complex system. This is the case for the small Kingdom in the North as it is for all other countries. However, three reasons in particular help explain why Denmark finds itself in a paradoxical situation in the 21st century. To begin with, the number of migrants worldwide has risen sharply over the last decades. At historical levels (Esses, 2018), migration has risen to a level where a small country like Denmark is unable to meet the demand. Secondly, like its Scandinavian neighbors, Denmark is a so-called welfare society. An exceedingly high number of immigrants puts the welfare model under pressure. In addition, Denmark is a homogenous country, and the Danish culture is not a culture, which lends itself easily to integration to begin with. This refers to ethnic Danes, as well as to immigrants. However, with increasingly more immigrants originating from so-called non-Western countries, large cultural differences make integration even more difficult. In what follows, the above reasons are reviewed. While a single article cannot adequately cover such a vast topic as culture and migration (let alone migration), a glimpse through a cultural lens is offered.
Keywords: National Culture, Immigration, Denmark, Non-Western Countries
Migration, i.e., “the movement of people from one location to another” (Esses, 2018, p. 1), is nothing new (e.g., UN, 2023; Esses, 2018; Hofstede et al., 2010). What is new, however, is that due to advances in technology, global mobility in all its forms have increased multifold (e.g., Esses, 2018). According to UN global migration statistics, in 2019, international migrants amounted to 272 million globally, equivalent to 3.5 % of the global population (IOM, 2020), and in 2022, UNHCR estimated the number of international refugees to surpass 35.3 million., 
Drivers of Migration
People migrate for a number of reasons. Typically, drivers of international migration are divided into push and pull factors, both of which may be of an economic or non-economic nature (Esses, 2018). Push factors are the factors which make migrants want to leave their country of origin (emigrate). Such factors include, e.g., poverty, poor economic conditions, poor education or employment opportunities (e.g., UN, 2023; Esses, 2018; Castles, 2013), climate change, natural disasters, environmental degradation, safety concerns, crime, political instability, conflict, violence, terrorism, war, and persecution (UN, 2023; UNHCR, 2017; Esses, 2018). Pull factors are those drivers that attract migrants to a particular host-country and make them want to relocate there (immigrate). Education and employment opportunities, high standards of living, presence of family and friends, political freedoms, safety (Castles, 2013; Esses, 2018), political stability and lack of corruption are examples of such factors.
Culture & Attitudes to Migration
Receiving-country attitudes tend to fall into the following categories: Perceived economic contributions and costs, perceived threats to health and safety, perceived cultural and value-related threats and competition as well as [threats] to national identity (Esses, 2018). Perceived negative attitudes to economic contributions and costs center around the belief that immigrants take resources from the receiving society (Esses, 2018). According to Hodson et al. (2006) perceived threats to health, and especially to safety are frequently due to the salient association between immigrants and terrorists (Esses, 2018). Perceived cultural and value-related threats and competition refer to belief that “immigrants are a potential threat to the dominant culture and values of the receiving country” (Esses, 2018, p. 6).
Culture, “the unwritten rules of the social game” (Hofstede, 2001, Hofstede et al., 2010), is important when it comes to migration because migration implies that two or more cultural groups come into contact (Esses, 2018).  Such contact is more likely when it refers to international migration where members of “one national group (society of origin) come into contact with members of another national group (receiving society)” (Esses, 2018, p. 1).
Denmark’s Migration Policy
A country’s migration policy, “indicates Government’s policy to influence the level of documented immigration into the country” (UN, 2013), and is the result of a complex pattern of historical, economic, political, social, and cultural factors. This is true for Denmark, as it is for all countries.
Looking back, Denmark was a country known for its tolerance of alternative lifestyles (Mouritsen and Olsen, 2013). It was the first sovereign European state to grant women voting rights , and the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage  (Mouritsen and Olsen, 2013). The approach to migration (immigration), was one of acceptance and tolerance. The integration law of 1983, one of the most liberal in the world, emphasized immigrants’ rights. Similar, but not identical to the integration policy of the Dutch (Østergaard-Nielsen, 2003) where the focus was on acceptance of multiculturalism, “there should be room for [others’] particular ways” (p. 451). Participation in Danish society was encouraged and nudged, but assimilation neither forced nor required. (In general, an emphasis on integration as opposed to assimilation comes naturally to a feminine country [such as Denmark] (Hofstede, 2001; Hofstede et al., 2010)).
Today, the Danish immigration policy is strict, and the country known for some of the strictest immigration rules in the European Union (France 24, 2023). The reason Denmark’s immigration policy has become increasingly stringent is due to several developments and events (reviewed below), which have catapulted immigration to the top of the Danish political agenda. One of the consequences of Denmark’s immigration policy, which emphasizes making pull factors less desirable, is that the number of asylum seekers has fallen by nearly 80% between 2015 and 2022 (France 24, 2023).
At historical levels of migration (e.g., ION, 2020; Esses, 2018), a small nation like Denmark made up of approximately six million inhabitants is unable to take in the potentially high numbers of immigrants. In the words of Social-Democrat MP, Kasper Sand Kjær, “Numbers matter; If we have too many coming in a short time, then it is really difficult to make the integration work” (France 24, 2023).
Denmark, together with its Scandinavian neighbors, is a welfare society. The essence of the welfare model is redistribution of resources to guarantee a minimum level of quality of life for everyone; hence the higher taxes witnessed in such societies (Wursten, 2019). However, for the model to work, enough tax-paying residents voluntarily footing the bill for the greater good are required. In case of too many people on public support over a long period of time, not enough people will be able or willing to pick up the bill. With too many immigrants, who are unable to contribute relatively quickly, the welfare model comes under too much pressure.
Few people in this world, let alone Danes, do not remember where they were or what they were doing when New York and Washington were attacked in 2001, and approximately three thousand people were killed. The 9/11 attacks changed the world and ”polarized issues of local and global values and the outlook on Muslim residents throughout Europe and also in Denmark” (France 24, 2023), setting off an era of rising support for the anti-immigrant far right (France 24, 2023).
Anti-immigration support also came about as a result of the publication of a set of controversial Danish Cartoons. According to former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Per Stig Møller, the Cartoon crisis resulted in“the most significant foreign policy crisis since WWII” (AU, 2023). The controversial Cartoons were first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten September 30, 2005. The Cartoons came about after a call by Culture Editor in Charge Flemming Rose for illustrations of the Profet Mohammad, a hugely significant cultural manifestation for the world’s Muslims regardless of country, language, interpretation, tradition, and school (AU, 2021), and something which is forbidden according to Islam (Lex.dk, 2023). Many declined, however, twelve illustrators, of which the most well-known is Kurt Vestergaard (1935-2021), accepted the task. While many Danes did not have any knowledge of their publication, that is, until their existence was brought to their attention by the international community, putting Denmark on the global map, the Cartoons angered a large part of the Muslim world; abroad as well as in Denmark (AU, 2021). Within months, the crisis was a reality and “demonstrations and violent actions against Danish interests in the Middle East and in the rest of the world [took hold]” (AU, 2021, n.p.). Death threats were published against the cartoonists (Lex.dk, 2012). Following the publication of the Cartoons, in an act of support, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished the Cartoons in 2006, with fatal consequences. In 2015, seventeen employees at Charlie Hebdo were killed by Islamist militants in avenging the Prophet Mohammad, and more than one hundred persons lost their lives in Paris (Wursten, 2016). Around the same time (2014), attacks on the Danish cultural institution ‘Krudttønden’ and the ‘Jewish Synagogue’ in Copenhagen took place, which left two persons dead, in addition to one of the attackers.
At the beginning of 2023 (and continuing), Danish as well as Swedish individuals from the far right, spearheaded by lawyer turned self-proclaimed politician, Rasmus Paludan, have taken it upon themselves to express their views on Muslims and Islam by setting the Quran, a religious book sacred to Muslims, on fire in public, including outside various embassies. Approximately two hundred persons (outside Denmark and Sweden) have been killed as a result of the Quran burnings. Furthermore, due to the burnings, Denmark as well as Sweden officially have been threatened by the militant Islamist terrorist organization, al-Qaeda.
Events like the ones described above have been seminal when it comes to attitudes toward certain cultures and religious groups, as well as migration in general.
Danish Culture & Immigration
According to Hofstede (2001) culture can be defined as the “collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another” (p. 9). The core of culture is made up by values, which form systems (Hofstede, 2001). At the societal level, such value systems are often referred to as cultural dimensions or cultural value dimensions (Hofstede et al., 2010). The most well-known cultural dimensions are those identified by Professor Geert Hofstede, i.e., power distance (PDI), individualism vs. collectivism (IDV), masculinity vs. femininity (MAS), uncertainty avoidance (UAI), long-term orientation (LTO) and indulgence vs. restraint (IVR) (Hofstede et al., 2010).
Although, cultural dimensions are autonomous, any country or situation can only be understood in full through their interaction (in particular the interaction of power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity and uncertainty avoidance). Countries, which share similar cultural values are typically grouped in what is commonly called a culture cluster. In other words, the countries in a cluster share a similar ‘mental image’ or mindset (understanding) of what society and organizations should be like (Wursten, 2019). It pertains to the governance of society, as much as it does the governance of any public or private organization, and such mental images have tremendous implications for political and societal issues (Wursten, 2016). Furthermore, within a culture cluster the small differences between the countries, are typically best interpreted as nuances, which nevertheless can translate into quite different ways of doing things, as for instance, observed in the different approaches to decision-making and formality between Denmark and Sweden.
Denmark falls into the cluster of national cultures referred to as ‘the network cluster’, which consists of the Nordic countries in addition to the Netherlands (Wursten, 2019). In the network cluster, core values include, but are not limited to a strong emphasis on equality, individualism, cooperation, solidary and belonginess. The governance model is one of careful stakeholder management. Continuously trying to align the interests of the various stakeholders, the leading principle can be summarized in four Cs, cooperation, consensus, collegiality, and cooptation.
The specific cultural profile of Denmark (the nuances) leads to members of the Danish culture in many ways behaving somewhat differently from her Nordic compatriots (as previously indicated). Not only does Denmark have the lowest power distance in the Nordics (third lowest in the world), but it is also the most individualist, which translates into an unwavering sense of (and demand) for autonomy among the Danes. The strong feeling of autonomy does not lend itself easily to control and even less to external control (as in the case of supra-national organizations). Furthermore, while Danes experience a high degree of both objective and perceived freedom as well as autonomy (Bjørnskov, 2019 cited in ‘Lykkeland?’), such freedom comes with the expectation that individuals will take personal responsibility.
It also translates into the most trusting society in the world. More than three in four Danes trust other people (78 %) (Tinggaard, 2018). Such trust is also referred to as general social trust, i.e., “trust in strangers you have not met before”(Tinggaard, 2018, p. 13), and implies general confidence in others to interact and behave decently (Tinggaard, 2018). Denmark is also the most trusting country in the world with respect to institutional trust, which refers to “people’s confidence in formal public bodies such as the courts, police and administration” (Tinggaard, 2018, p. 14), according to whom 84 % of Danes have been found to trust the government, legal system, police, and bureaucrats. Trust in such institutions is a typical characteristic of low power distance societies (Hofstede et al., 2010)). In a high trust society, citizens trust and expect power holders to act in the best interest of society (Tinggaard, 2018). Citizens are therefore more likely to respect the law (Tinggaard, 2018), as well as comply with requests and guidelines. Furthermore, trust is a two-way street; Power holders in such societies also tend to place their trust in citizens. According to Elinor Ostrom, power holders trust citizens and expect them voluntarily to cooperate through self-enforcement (Tinggaard, 2018). However, trust is put to the limit if expected behavior does not materialize.
Although Denmark, in a similar way to the other Nordic countries, often is erroneously taken for a collectivist society due to the strong emphasis on the collective, Denmark, as previously mentioned, is an individualist country, and a highly individualist one at that. In individualist cultures, the starting point is the individual (Wursten, 2016). Individualist cultures, are in principle, characterized by equal rights and equal obligations for everybody, independent of religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, which are reflected in the rule of law (Wursten, 2016).
The belief in human rights for everyone depends on an individualist value system (Wursten, 2016). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] adopted in 1948, and to which Denmark is a signatory, “is only whole-heartedly supported in Individualist cultures” (Wursten, 2016, p. 3). The purpose of the UDHR is to safeguard an individual’s human rights as understood in individualist cultures (commonly referred to as Western countries in the immigration discourse). In contrast, the Islamic world has its equivalent to the UDHR, the so-called “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI)” (cited in Wursten, 2016, p. 5). Briefly, the CDHRI guarantees many of the same rights as the UDHR. However, at the same time “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia” (CDHRI cited in Wursten, 2016, p. 5), and thus exceptions are made for issues related to gender, sexual orientation, political rights, and separation of state and religion (Wursten, 2016).
Collectivism is defined as “loyalty to your‘ in-group (clan, religious faction, region, ethnic group) with the expectation to receive help and support from this in-group” (Wursten, 2016, p. 3). Collectivist cultures take the group as the starting point (Wursten, 2016). People from collectivist cultures put the interests of their in-group first (Wursten, 2016, Hofstede et al., 2010). The rules for dealing with one’s in-group are specific to the in-group, and not automatically transferrable to outsiders (Wursten, 2016). In immigration discourse, non-Western countries commonly refer to collectivist cultures, and especially collectivist cultures, which are poor (Wursten, 2016).
The Cartoon crisis raised the seminal question of which rights are the most important in a democratic society in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and consideration of religious minorities (AU, 2021), however, “the perception of being under attack in the exercise of essential democratic rights had little impact outside Europe”; especially in Muslim countries (Lex.dk, 2021). In other words, the crisis created a clash between individualist and collectivist value systems.
Furthermore, the Danish communication style is one of directness, explicitness, and informality. One says what one means and means what one says. Sugarcoating is uncommon. While polarization is not favored, when it does happen the tone in the debate can at times come across as somewhat harsh. This has been the case with the political discourse with respect to immigration, which at times has been very harsh (Østergaard-Nielsen, 2003), opinions clearly polarized. For outsiders (even to some extent Denmark’s Nordic neighbors), the desire for as clearly as possible getting a message across (meaning), the communication style may even come across as rude or appear somewhat aggressive, although it is not meant to offend the other party.
Where would Denmark be without the collective. The people-orientation observed in the Nordic countries does not originate in collectivism, but instead in femininity. Feminine cultures are characterized by an emphasis on solidarity and cooperation, in addition to a desire for a society, where everyone is guaranteed a minimum quality of life; a society with sympathy for the unfortunate (Hofstede, 2001; Hofstede et al., 2010).
In the tension between individualism and femininity, lies the very seed of the debate on how to best balance the individual’s freedom, including the individual’s freedom of expression and the concern for others and not hurting others (including their feelings). Where lies the limit for intervening in the autonomy of Danes? Where lies the limit for consideration for others? How is it best balanced?
Like its Scandinavian neighbors, Denmark is a so-called welfare society, which weighs heavily in how the Danes views themselves, what it means to be Danish. A welfare society is characterized by a model where resources are redistributed to maintain social cohesion (Wursten, 2019). The Danish welfare model is furthermore based on people being willing to help themselves. The system works because it rests on the premise of ‘freedom with responsibility’, and before one can enjoy one must give (“yde før man kan nyde”), a common Danish saying. The sympathy for the unfortunate is combined with a strong requirement with respect to accepting responsibility for one’s own life. In other words, a constant nudging for self-reliance takes place. Unfortunate people are assisted to help themselves, and if the unfortunates who should be, are unwilling to help themselves, it ultimately comes down to a choice and a fault of their own. If someone is not willing to help him or herself, sympathy ends. A high number of immigrants puts the welfare model under pressure because of the costs involved, especially in the cases where immigrants cannot start contributing almost right away (despite being unfortunate).
The fact that solidarity and consideration for others are important in the Danish culture is no more evident than in the Law of Jante (Janteloven), the implicit moral code for behavior so characteristic of Scandinavian societies, documented by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose. Ask any Dane, and the chances are high that he or she will convey a strong dislike for it, or at least its consequences. At the same time, there is probably not a single Dane, who is unfamiliar with it, and obeys it at least to some extent, and at least domestically, whether it be in the local community, at school, at university, or in the workplace.
Contrary to common belief, the Law of Jante originates in a desire for something good. It comes from a place where the aim is to make sure everyone at the table is incorporated and everyone gets an equal piece of the cake. Moderation by all is required, otherwise the risk is that someone may not get a piece. However, when the implicit push for incorporating everyone is extremely strong it becomes exceedingly difficult to be allowed to stand out. This together with making sure everyone is treated equally, results in an emphasis on modesty taking hold in the culture, i.e., one should not think that one is better than others (and therefore entitled to a bigger piece of cake than others).
Beginning at school, any child, who thinks he or she is better than the other children, will ‘gently’ be put in place by the other children through slight ridicule and though the implicit threat of exclusion from social life, all to get the individual to adapt his or he way to be able to fit neatly into society again. Because no one wants to be left out, most people comply. If one wants to be part of the community, it is expected to voluntarily comply. In the Danish culture, it translates into a situation where people will include others if they behave like them, otherwise they put themselves at risk of being excluded. One’s appearance in terms of skin color matters less; what matters is people’s behavior. It is also unrelated to xenophobia. It is so well put by Schwartz (1985) when quizzed about the difference between Denmark and the U.S., “In America, there is one politics, and fifteen ways to celebrate Christmas. In Denmark, there are fifteen political parties and one way to celebrate Christmas” (Østergård, 2000, n.p.) In other words, in Denmark there is one way of doing things, one way to behave to be a [true] member. The social control in Denmark is extraordinarily strong, which reinforces a culture of likeness for ‘sameness’; “We will accept you if you are like us, i.e., behave like us”.
The key to understanding the Law of Jante is that it pertains to everyone. Thus, it pertains as much to Danes as to foreigners, as much to Mr. and Mrs. Jensen as to Mr. and Ms. Abdullah. Not only foreigners, but also ethnic Danes, who behave differently from the majority are at risk of social exclusion. With respect to immigrants, it amounts to a situation where ‘‘you have to integrate ‘our way’ for us to truly accept you.’’.
Such fundamental Danish cultural values or perspectives have not significantly changed. What has changed, however, is that now more than ever the homogeneous Danish culture comes into contact with a multitude of different behaviors, ways of doing things, than has ever been the case before. This means that successful social integration is made even more difficult.
Denmark is also characterized by a weak uncertainty avoidance (the weakest in the network cluster). The weak uncertainty avoidance translates into a situation where practice counts more than principles (Wursten, 2019). A desire for flexibility is, furthermore, seen in the attitude to rules, which are understood as “useful as general guidelines and subject to change depending on the situation” (Wursten, 2019, p. 37). The pragmatic, inductive approach of the Danes is a far cry from Descartes’ philosophical, deductive reasoning; “I think, therefore I am”. The key issue is ‘does it work in practice?’, and if it turns out that something does not work, it will most likely be changed. In contrast to Descartes’ thinking, the Danish way is best summarized as, “it works, therefore it is”. The pragmatic Danes take the cue from the situation, letting the situation determine actions to be taken.
Both in terms of the Muhammad Cartoons and Quran burning incidents, Danes realized the hard way that what is expressed domestically does not necessarily stay domestic. Advances in technology means that any domestic conversation or event may become known anywhere in the world. As a result, the line between domestic policy and foreign policy is fluid (Lex.dk, 2021). Although it divides the waters, the Danish Government’s recent legislative proposal, would outlaw “improper treatment of religious scriptures and other objects of importance to religious communities” (Politiken, August 25, 2023). Likely to be adopted (albeit by a narrow majority), this legislative intervention validates that completely disregarding others’ sentiments in a globalized world does not work in practice for reasons of safety.
When Hofstede (2001) defines culture as the “collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another” (p. 9), what is important to keep in mind is that when it refers to culture, it is not about the individual. Cultures are not giant-size individuals (Hofstede et al., 2010). Individuals are influenced by personality, several types of culture of which national culture is only one, in addition to life experiences. Furthermore, an individual’s behavior “is only partly predetermined…he or she has a basic ability to deviate…and to react in ways that are new, creative, destructive or unexpected” (Hofstede et. al., 2010, p. 5). In other words, it does not make sense to equal the individual Rasmus Paludan to Denmark and the Danish culture, in the same way extremist militant individuals are not indicative of all the Muslims in the world.
Contrary to what many may believe globalization does not result in a world where cultural differences at the level of values are disappearing (Hofstede et al., 2010; Wursten, 2016) leaving only differences at the level of individuals (Wursten. 2016). With global mobility in all its forms on the increase, the more different cultures (often quite different cultures) get into contact with each other. As a consequence, the more important it becomes to increase awareness and understanding of other cultures and ways of doing things, as well as to be able to bridge cultural differences to ensure successful integration.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals are at the top of everyone’s list of priorities, and the reader is probably left with a feeling of powerlessness; pondering what can be done when it comes to immigration. is successful immigration even possible? The short answer is ‘yes’ and this especially important topic is addressed in a follow-up article, ‘Culture & Migration – Proven Best Practices; What Really Works’, in which practical solutions to this complex issue are offered.
“The survival of mankind will depend to a large extent on the ability of people who think differently to act together.”
(Professor Emeritus Geert Hofstede, 1928 – 2020)
About the Autor
Pernilla Rorso, Consultant, Public Speaker, and Researcher
Ph.D. Fellow, M.Sc. International Business Strategy
Pernilla primarily deals with culture from an international business perspective (corporate culture as well as national culture). Her focus is culture and strategy in action. Areas include organizational development, leadership, global processes, M&As, DEI and implementation of the UN Sustainability Goals in practice.
Working globally, she has more than 10 years practical experience in helping corporations turn cultural strategy and goals into action; solving complex cultural challenges in the process.
While her focus primarily is on the corporate world, she answered the call by Drs. Huib Wursten (one of her mentors) for a journal article on the topic of culture and immigration from a Danish cultural perspective. Because Pernilla is bicultural (Danish-Swedish), having grown up in both countries; literarily with one foot in each country, she has both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective when it comes to the Danish culture (i.e., an etic and emic perspective), which is ideal when it comes to understanding a single culture (personal conversation with Professor Geert Hofstede).
“Culture may be a soft factor, but it has a very hard effect on performance in all its forms.”
Correspondence with author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Connect with or follow the author on LinkedIn: https://dk.linkedin.com/in/pernilla-rorso-608481
This article does not address migrants in terms of expatriates.
This article does not address the issues related to the few young immigrants or children of immigrants who fall through stools and end up in a downward spiral, and in search of an identity turn to adopting extreme ideas, or the even fewer young individuals, who take the big step from extremism to terrorist acts (Wursten, 2016).