Desis in Europa

People marked as 'South Asians' in Denmark

1713 the 'Tamil' boy Timotheus is presented at the court in Copenhagen. He is brought from the Danish colony Tranquebar by missionaries of the “Dänisch-Hallesche Mission”, the first protestant mission in Southern India from 1706 to 1837. At their school he was taught not only the Christian religion but also the Danish language. Now he is brought to Europe as a show piece. Seeing Timotheus the widow of the king is so much impressed, that she asks for a Christian 'Tamil' boy for herself, whom she gets. Timotheus gets to know the 'Tamils' already living in Copenhagen. When his relationship to a 'Tamil' girl – a former slave of a 'Danish' priest in Tranquebar – becomes public in 1714, racist stereotypes about the sexual permissiveness of 'Tamils' are strengthened. Nonetheless Timotheus begins his studies to become a missionary. These are interrupted when the king allows a journey to Halle. After his return Timotheus is selected to teach two 'Danish' candidates for the mission in Portuguese and Tamil. Soon, however, another training is sought for Timotheus, he begins an apprenticeship as a bookbinder, which he completes in 1717. After marrying the 'Tamil' Sahra he returns to 'India', where he works for the mission. (Liebau 1996, 9-18)

Today - long after Denmark has ceased to be a colonial power - the link to Tranquebar seems to have gone as well. Only few immigrants of Indian origin live in the country, the considerable number of 'Tamils' are refugees from Sri Lanka. Tthe largest  group marked as 'South Asians' in Denmark is formed by the 'Pakistanis'. The latter seem to have come as 'guestworkers' in the 1960s and 70s (Steen 1993, 103). Ali (1982, 84-85) gives an account of the 'Pakistanis' in Denmark at the beginning of the 1980s. According to this report they come mainly from the Punjab, the majority are men, who work in the production and service sectors of the economy. An Imam of a mosque is a 'Pakistani', there are some Urdu magazines and already 1982 a convention of 'Pakistanis' in Denmark has been hold. A few years later in 1985 the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Denmark invites to an international Hindu Conference in Copenhagen with the objective of bringing the European Hindu community together.

While the majority of immigrants, who are marked as 'Indians' or 'Pakistanis' have  the Danish nationality in 1998, most 'Tamils' who came later as refugees are legally still Sri Lankans. Their entry is the second influx of refugees after the 4000 to 5000 'Asians' coming from East Africa at the beginning of the 1970s . In fact Denmark, which has had a history of assisting refugees (Steen 1993, 87 - the following references to this book will give the page number only) , received an unusual large number of 'Tamils' for its size (81).

When the first 'Tamils' applied for asylum in Denmark in 1984 they could not refer to an 'ethnic' support group living there already (81). The support came from the Danish state. Although in 1986 Denmark tightened its Aliens Act (87), most 'Tamils' have been recognised as de facto refugees, which gives them a legally secure status, allows for family reunion (81) and provides them access to the same social services as the Danes (106). The refugees pass through a process beginning with the pre-asylum phase from a few months to several years in refugee camps, where they are not entitled to work and their children cannot attend the Danish schooling system, continuing with the integration phase, when their asylum has been granted and they are - for in average17 months - in the care of the Danish Refugee Council, and finally finding their welfare in the responsibility of the municipality. (94-95) (However, since Steen published her book in 1993, the 'Danish' regulations for immigration and refugees have been made much more restrictive.)

Confronted with the bad reputation of other refugees and the 'guestworkers' of the 1960s and 70s the 'Tamils' make attempts to differentiate themselves from these (103). Their polite and reserved behaviour makes them the ideal refugee for the 'white Danes', makes them the favoured group of the officials (102-103). Nonetheless their life is not easy. Besides being faced by patronising and missionising instincts by the 'white Danes', who are guided by cultural stereotypes and use their assymetrical power position (100 ), they increasingly have problems finding employment (97). The 'Danish' system makes them clients rather then acting subjects (106). (In contrast to Steen I would classify this as instutionalised racism.)

After the first pioneers had found their way to Denmark chain migration set in. Newcomers – mainly young bachelors – are related to earlier refugees, are their friends or school-mates from the home village. Virtually nobody leaves Sri Lanka for Denmark without contacts and telephone numbers of Tamils living there already. Once arrived they often become closely attached to their “contact”- families. (166) The social life takes place primarily in the 'Tamil' community. Only few have relationships with 'white Danish' women and even less legalise these. (176) There is no feeling of belonging to the place they live in, which hinders also the establishment of their own institutions (186).

In 1985 the need for a Hindu temple is first formulated (183). The wish is however not strong enough to put it to realisation (185). The religious rites are performed by a travelling Brahmin (183). The first 'Tamil' death in Denmark brings total confusion about the rituals, a book of verses is sent for in Germany, but there are not the right persons present to perform the service (189). Nonetheless 'Tamils' from all over Denmark attend the burial as they were called by the leader of the LTTE in Denmark. Thus it became a political demonstration of the refugees in exile. (190-191) Well organised 'Tamil' militant groups in fact play an important role in the life of the 'Tamil' community in Denmark. Several groups compete with each other (129). The pressure on the refugees to support them financially is so high, that many have complained to the Danish Refugee Council and have requested its help against this (136).

With the emergence of the internet also the 'Tamil' community uses this medium. For some time the English gives a forum to 'Tamil' issues. But not only the 'Tamils' can be found in the virtual world. There are, for example, some appearances of 'Indians of the second generation'. A student, who links himself to the  Punjab, refers to these on his homepage and on the musician Dr. Bombay’s homepage one learns about his 'Danish-Indian' parents.


Further literature

For statistical material click here (pdf-file).

© Urmila Goel, / Europa or english / europe 2002/2012