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“We are invisible; we are ghosts”: Inuit in Denmark and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

“I’m one of the kids that was stolen from Greenland to Denmark back in the 1970s. I grew up in a Danish family, with Danish traditions, and we never spoke about Greenland. Not a word. I lost my language, my mother tongue. In my school we never learned about Greenland, our history, culture or tradition. Not a word. I grew up in Denmark and I thought I was white. I thought I was Danish. But somewhere inside me I always felt wrong, different, and shameful.”

So began the first of many powerful and emotional Inuit testimonies to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples Mr. Francisco Calí Tzay on his first day of his official visit to Denmark and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) from 1-10 February 2023.

Broad spectrum of issues raised

In an IWGIA-organised dialogue between Inuit living in Denmark and Mr Calí Tzay, many stressed the adoption process, questioning the cultural biases of the psychological capability test for single mothers. They also criticised the Danish foster care system, which does not include any procedures allowing Inuit children to preserve links with their homeland, culture, and language, and to honour their Inuit traditions, including the Inuit’s own traditions and ways of fostering their own children so they do not become separated from their community and culture. As a result, many of these separated children are no longer able to communicate with their parents and relatives without the aid of an interpreter.

“Research presented in 2022 revealed that Inuit children in Denmark are seven times more likely than Danish children to be placed in out of home care away from their parents," Mr Calí Tzay said.

Apart from these issues of family separation and culturally biased psychological evaluations for single mothers, other issues raised were: the forced and often unknown insertion of intrauterine devices (IUD) in women, daily racism, unequal or lack of access to proper medical care and education opportunities, differentiated application of government policies toward Inuit, lack of teaching Inuit history and culture in all Danish schools, as well as a lack of teaching Inuit in their mother tongue in Danish schools, and discrimination in the work place and job market, as just a few of the many human rights violations Inuit in Denmark face.

“Serious human rights issues continue to face Inuit in Greenland and Denmark. There are heartbreakingly high numbers of suicide and violence against women and girls, including sexual violence, which is one of the biggest issues we face. We also still see former state policies [from the 1960s and 1970s] being revealed, such as the so-called IUD-campaign, where half of the women and girls in the fertile age had contraceptive devices inserted, sometimes without their consent or even their own knowledge,” Sara Olsvig, International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and IWGIA Board Member, said.

“It was of particular importance that the Special Rapporteur met with Inuit in Denmark where high numbers of Inuit children are taken from their families into foster care. From the Inuit Circumpolar Council, we are deeply concerned that the rights of Inuit in Denmark are systemically violated, particularly because the system does not know how to support Inuit when it pertains to cultural and language differences.”

One step forward, two steps back

During his visit, the Special Rapporteur noted the positive and strong developments in Greenland’s self-governance and self-determination.

”I want to reiterate that Greenland’s extensive self-governance is an inspiring example of the implementation of Indigenous self- government and a peaceful process towards self-determination for many Indigenous Peoples worldwide,” Mr. Calí Tzay said in his end of mission statement at a 10 February press conference held at the UN City in Copenhagen.

However, despite hearing that the government and administration has been making positive steps to mitigate the effects of its history of colonialism – a word the Danish government still is uneasy to use – the legacy of colonialism is still felt by Inuit.

“Despite significant progress, during my visit, I observed that Inuit still face barriers to fully enjoying their human rights,” he said. “I call upon the Governments of Denmark and of Greenland to address the root causes of the negative impact of the legacies of colonialism that translate today into structural and systematic racial discrimination against Inuit both in Denmark and Greenland.”

This was a sentiment echoed by Olsvig: “The country visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is of extreme importance. We have seen much positive development in political self-determination, but we have yet to see a thorough implementation of Indigenous Peoples' rights in both Greenland and Denmark.”

“The Danish Government asserts that the welfare state is based on equal access. However, in practice Inuit people face significant administrative and institutional obstacles, as well as racism and racial discrimination, which prevents them from enjoying their rights on equal footing and often leaves them feeling marginalized and excluded. Inuit in Denmark told me they feel like ‘invisible ghosts’ as they have nowhere to turn to for advice and assistance,” Calí Tzay said.

“Inuit in Greenland and Denmark are increasingly debating our identity and rights as an Indigenous People. We see that as a very positive development. We hope that the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur can support an informed debate and raise awareness, both among the public and in the official government systems, of the necessity of implementing the human rights instruments, such the ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Olsvig said.

IWGIA was privileged to host two dialogue meetings for Mr Calí Tzay’s visit. In the first dialogue meeting, he met with Inuit from Kalaallit Nunaat living in Denmark and representatives of Inuit and Greenlandic civil society organizations in Denmark to hear about their experiences, human rights work and their recommendations for what he should investigate. In the second dialogue meeting, the Special Rapporteur met with Danish civil society representatives working closely on Inuit issues in relation to Danish policies.  

Follow-up of 2020 visit

This visit, at the invitation of both the Government of Denmark and Naalakkersuisut (Government of Greenland), was a follow-up to the initial 2020 visit of the then Special Rapporteur, Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, which had to be cancelled just two days in due to COVID-19 lockdowns in Denmark making it impossible for her to travel to Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland). The visit was one of her last official country visits at the end of her term.

Throughout his visit, Mr. Calí Tzay met with government officials and ministers, Greenlandic institutions, Indigenous organisations, civil society, academics and UN representatives. He also visited communities to discuss their priorities and concerns and while in Copenhagen he met with Inuit living in Denmark, civil society organisations and government representatives, including several ministers.

His full report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2023.

>> Watch our video interview with Mr. Calí Tzay here

Background on the UN Special Rapporteur

Mr. Calí Tzay is Maya Kaqchikel from Guatemala, with experience in defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala and at the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS). Prior to his role as UN Special Rapporteur, he founded and was a member of various Indigenous organizations in Guatemala, served as the Ambassador of Guatemala to the Federal Republic of Germany and was President of the UN Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) for two consecutive four-year terms. He also served as Director of Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala, member of the Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism against Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala

(CODISRA), and President of the National Reparation Program for Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict.

Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to examine and report on a country situation or a specific human rights issue. They serve in their personal capacity and are independent from any government. They are mandated to undertake two official country visits per year.

>> Read more about the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples mandate here

Tags: Human rights



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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