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Family (reunification) feud

Denmark's acceptance of alternative family structures is admirable. But not all its family-related policies deserve such praise, writes columnist Sarah Redohl.

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Sarah Redohl

"Did you know there are 37 different types of families in Denmark?" This fact has been mentioned to me in several interviews as evidence of Denmark's family-friendliness.

It's true. Statistics Denmark counts 37 different types of families with children, plus six categories of families regardless of parental status. At first glance, I thought this might simply be a matter of statistics. As an agency employee once told me, "We have statistics for pretty much everything." This is also true. Once you know how to use the agency's statistics bank, you can indeed find data for just about everything. When I began pondering what might be behind Denmark's variety of family types—and it was suggested to me that divorce might have something to do with it—I knew exactly where to look for evidence.

By the numbers

Although Denmark's divorce rate has hovered between 40 and 50 percent for the past 30 years or so, its divorce rate in 2019 was identical to the EU average. And it's not that Danes marry less, either; Denmark's marriage rate in 2019 was 20 percent higher than the EU average. However, where Denmark does stand out is the number of births outside of marriage, with 54.1 percent in 2019 compared to the EU's 42.7 percent.

What also makes Denmark unique, in discussion if not data, is the ease with which one can marry, divorce, and maintain non-traditional family structures. I was taken aback when a fellow international told me how she'd received a message to her E-Boks days after her now-husband proposed to confirm she wished to marry him. I was similarly surprised to discover Denmark had developed a reputation for being the 'Las Vegas of Europe' for quick and easy weddings. Divorces are also easy; one can simply apply online to the Agency of Family Law.

There's also the relative ease of maintaining alternative family structures, partially due to Denmark's social welfare system. In an article from The Guardian about the increasing number of single mothers in Denmark conceiving children with donor sperm (accounting for one in 10 babies born in Denmark), these so-called 'solomors' (solo mothers) said the choice was made easier both by society's acceptance of single parenthood, but also society's support: paid parental leave, affordable childcare, etc. Denmark is striving to make these benefits even more accessible to alternative families, setting a deadline of August 2022 for more inclusive parental leave reform.

Then, there's also Denmark's openness to alternative relationships. In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to recognise same-sex unions. It has a strong track record of protecting the rights of civil partnerships and recognising relationships of many stripes. I benefited from these policies when I could easily move to Denmark with my cohabiting partner. So imagine my surprise when I spoke to an American colleague about her own experience immigrating to Denmark after marrying a Dane. I thought her experience would be even easier than my own, but the opposite turned out to be true.

Family reunification feuds

Denmark's criteria for family reunification have on several occasions run afoul of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 2016, the Court ruled that Denmark's requirement that the Danish spouse be a citizen for at least 26 years discriminated against people who obtain Danish citizenship later in life. As a result, the Danish government eliminated the requirement but retained its 'attachment rule' that the couple "have a greater attachment to Denmark than to any other country." Then, it passed a law specifying that the attachment rule didn't apply to those with high salaries or professions facing labour shortages in Denmark. This has led some to declare Denmark's family reunification rules remain discriminatory.

Already, it's been suggested that Denmark's 106,120 dkk bank guarantee (in the event a foreign spouse draws certain social benefits) violates article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids discrimination based on personal fortunes. As recently as last summer, the ECHR ruled against Denmark's three-year waiting period for refugees applying for family reunification. In January 2021, the European Commission wrote that the remaining cost and criteria for family reunification in Denmark may still amount to discrimination. All that to say, the ECHR is watching, and they aren't impressed.

Benefits protect, benefits prevent

Why are there so many barriers for families of mixed nationality in Denmark? One government official I spoke to put it simply: The restrictions aim to limit access to social benefits. She didn't wish to put her name to that statement, but many other officials have been happy to do so. So, in a way, the same benefits that make it easier for Danes to have less conventional families are also the reason for preventing couples and families of mixed nationalities from being a family in Denmark.

I admire that Denmark recognises family—and, therefore, love—comes in many shapes and sizes. I directly benefit from this policy. But love also transcends nationalities and borders, and I think that's something Denmark could work on. Until then, having 37 different types of recognised families seems to me simply a matter of statistics.

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