By Katherine Dunn
For Shelley Smith, the problems began when her family returned to Denmark.
The family of four had been living in Canada for seven months while Smith, a Canadian architect and professor who has lived in Denmark for 25 years, was teaching at a college in Toronto.
On returning to Aarhus in 2007, the family moved straight back into their old house, which they had sublet while they were away, and called up the local school to re-enroll their two teenaged daughters.
But when the girls’ father, Sigurd, who is Danish, called the authorities that handle changes of address and health insurance in Denmark to let them know the family was back, they were greeted with a shock: his daughters were not Danish citizens.
In fact, according to the immigration authorities, the two girls – who were born in Denmark – were in the country illegally.
For Sofia and Esther, there had never been any doubt of their identities: besides those seven months in Toronto, they had never lived anywhere other than Denmark. When they travelled to Canada for visits in the summer, they carried Canadian passports, but their lack of Danish passports was not suspicious. Like many Danes, they had been written into their Danish father’s passport – a detail the immigration service now said was a mistake.
Toughest citizenship laws in the Nordic nations
Danish citizenship is a slightly different breed than that of the other Nordic countries.
Of the five nations, Danish citizenship is both the hardest to attain and the easiest to lose, according to Eva Ersbøll, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
Ersbøll presented her research on Nordic citizenship as part of an informal workshop in April organized through the political science department at Aarhus University.
The Nordic states had similar laws on citizenship for about a century, says Ersbøll, but starting in 2000, most of the other states began to ‘lighten’ their laws, allowing double citizenship in more cases.
In Denmark, however, dual citizenship is still only permitted in very specific cases, generally when a child is born with two citizenships via their parents.
But after a law allowing double citizenship in more cases, including allowing Danes who have given up their citizenship to reacquire it, that will change. The law is expected to go into effect next year.
Currently, attaining dual citizenship after birth is not possible – immigrants who wish to be Danes must give up their original citizenship, just as immigrants from Denmark must give up their passports if they wish to gain citizenship in their adopted country.
Compared to other Nordic states, it’s also easier to lose Danish citizenship once it’s acquired.
Citizenship can be nullified through evidence of fraud, loss of a family connection, or if a child born with Danish citizenship abroad does not or cannot demonstrate sufficient ‘attachment’ to Denmark by the age of 22. Citizenship may be retained after an application submitted before the age of 22 which will, however, normally require at least a year’s cumulative stay in the country.
In perhaps the best-known, and most controversial, tenet, a Dane can also be stripped of citizenship if they are convicted of crimes against the state. Still, this has not happened in practice.
This new law will mark a massive shift. From 2001 to 2011, the Venstre¬¬-led government was supported on major votes by the Dansk Folkeparti, who are staunchly against dual citizenship.
“I don’t think [the past government] even considered it, because it was out of the question that their supporting party would accept it,” says Ersbøll.
Now, Venstre has changed their minds, and the law allowing double citizenship has passed with broad political support.
Who are the dual citizens?
Of the dual citizens who currently exist, many look like Rebecca Thorning Wine, a graduate student at Aarhus University who holds both Danish and American citizenship.
Born with dual citizenship, Thorning Wine grew up in New York City with a Danish mother and American father; she spoke to her mother in Danish, and spent every summer in Denmark with her grandparents.
When she was 21, she had to apply to retain her Danish citizenship, which meant proving her attachment to the country.
“I actually went through my old passports, and had found that I had been in Denmark 37 times by the time I was 21. So keeping my citizenship was easy,” she says.
But questions of identity were a little bit harder – though she says New York City is a huge part of her identity, “there’s a reason why I’ve lived in Denmark the past four years or so.”
“In the US I’m never really seen as completely American, and in Denmark I’m never really seen as completely Danish. Sometimes it’s great to be unique like that, and other times it can feel like I’m rootless.”
For Thorning Wine’s mother, Helle, who has lived in the US since her early 20s, it’s still not a formal possibility to have two identities. She has never given up her Danish citizenship, and consequently, has never been able to vote in an election in either country.
Pressure from expats abroad
Danish expats like Thorning Wine’s mother have been the ones putting pressure on the government to change the rules, says Ersbøll.
For these citizens, it’s partly a matter of logistics and rights in their adopted countries – but the real fuel is the question of identity, she says. They may feel invested in their new homes, but they’re simply not willing to stop being Danish.
But within Denmark, immigrants are also pursuing citizenship as a sign of belonging, says Ersbøll.
Smith, for her part, says she has never been willing to give up her Canadian identity, but when the laws change, she will definitely apply for Danish citizenship.
After spending almost exactly half her life in the country, she says that she still feels more Canadian, but feels she has “landed in the middle.” Attaining Danish citizenship is “absolutely an identity thing,” she says.
“I think the possibility of having Danish citizenship while maintaining Canadian citizenship . . . I think that would be the picture of my life.”
Losing Danish citizenship
After the initial shock, Smith says there didn’t seem to be a real risk the girls would be deported back to Canada, although the immigration service maintained that, technically, they had the right to do so.
Instead, the girls were required to prove they met certain criteria for residing in Denmark, much the way Thorning Wine had, demonstrating they had lived in the country, had a network here, and could speak Danish.
Both Esther and Sofia were initially granted temporary residency. Since then, Esther has been granted permanent residency after receiving a letter from the immigration authorities telling her she was eligible to apply before she turned 18. Sofia, the older daughter, did not receive the letter and so missed the deadline as a result.
But for the girls, the loss of the Danish identity was not merely practical – it was a loss of personal identity.
“I think they were so angry and frustrated and shocked, and I think it had a really negative impact on them, because their take on it was, ‘then we don’t want to be Danish!’,” says Smith. “And they took a lot more of the racist things that happen in Denmark, and they take that more personally, because they’re ‘outside’.”
Cases like these are not uncommon, says Ersbøll. In situations where a Dane and a non-Dane had children without being married, the police quite often gave the children passports. In these cases, citizenship had not actually been formally granted.
Since 2000, all children born in Denmark with at least one Danish parent were granted Danish citizenship regardless of whether their parents were married.
“Loss” or nullification of citizenship through administrative errors and other complications, including the loss of the family member through which the citizenship has been gained, is far more typical than the threat of being “stripped” of Danish citizenship
In the 2000s, the Dansk Folkeparti demanded that citizenship be stripped from those that committed serious crimes, says Ersbøll. But such a law would violate Denmarks’s international obligations. According to conventions ratified by Denmark, deprivation of citizenship is only allowed under certain, limited circumstances, including crimes against the state, but not ordinary crimes, regardless of their seriousness.
Therefore, deprivation of citizenship due to crimes is allowed in one case, only: if a person has committed crimes against the state – namely, an act of terrorism. The proportionality principle must be complied with and it is a condition that the person is not left stateless.
In the two cases in which a person could have been stripped of their Danish citizenship for these crimes, the court weighed the costs of stripping their identity against their connections to Denmark and their families living here, and decided not to use this power, says Ersbøll.
“The legal system is actually protecting people.”
“The damage has been done”
Sofia is now 22, and Esther is 18. The family is appealing Sofia’s denial of permanent residency, although Ersbøll says the girls may be able to attain Danish citizenship later on. Their cases can be submitted to a special committee to grant them an exemption – given that they had passports and, as a result, had every reason to believe they were Danish citizens, she says.
They may be included in the new rules on double citizenship, but Smith fears it’s too late for her daughters to truly feel Danish again.
“The damage has been done. I don’t know how they would feel about that . . . I think, being invited into the fold, after you’ve been kicked out, you will never feel 100%.”
But having a double citizenship would better reflect their lives, she says – for her part, Rebecca Thorning Wine says having two identities can be complicated.
But she says ultimately, it enriches her life for the better.