Denmark apologizes to Inuit children

Denmark apologizes to Inuit children taken from Greenland for social experiment in the 1950s. 

A group of Inuit children were taken from their families in Greenland to be re-educated as "model" Danish citizens in the 1950’s.  70 years later, the Danish government has apologized for a social experiment that caused tremendous damage. 

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Denmark's prime minister has apologized to 22 children who were removed from their homes in Greenland for a failed social experiment called Destination Denmark.  The purpose of Destination Denmark was to re- educate children as “little Danes” who would then return to their homeland to foster cultural ties.  

Only six are alive today

One of the Inuit children was Helene Thiesen, who told her story to the BBC in 2015. She had just lost her father when she was separated from her family in Greenland and sent to Denmark.  Greenland is now an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, and relies on Copenhagen to manage its finances, foreign relations and defense, as well as provide a large annual subsidy.

A recently report gives details on the case of children who came from Greenland's indigenous Inuit population, and who were victims of this experiment.

What happened to the Inuit children? 

Danish government in 1951 decided that one way to modernize Greenland would be to create a "new kind" of Greenlander.   The task of identifying children who could be re-educated and have a "better life" in mainland Denmark, and then return to be models of Greenland-Denmark relations, was given to teachers and priests.

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Greenland’s families were reluctant, but some gave in to the idea that they were giving their children a better life and in May 1951 the ship MS Disko sailed from Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, with 22 children on board.

Helene Thiesen, who is now 75 but was seven at the time, told the BBC that her mother, left alone with three children when her father died, had told her that Denmark was "just like heaven,” and she shouldn’t be sad. 

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However, when the children arrived in Denmark, they were deprived of contact with relatives, and found it difficult to understand the Danish spoken by their new foster families, whom they joined after an interval in a remote location, which turned out to be a quarantine.

Helene didn’t understand the real reason why she had been taken until 1996, at the age of 52, without having mended her relationship with her mother.

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She recounts feeling a sense of loss and a lack of self-confidence.  Most of the other children shared these traumatic sentiments.

An apology from Denmark

After years of demanding an apology, the Danish government has finally stepped up.  Previous governments always held themselves not responsible for the original “scheme."  But now Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has changed that, saying in a statement: "We cannot change what happened. But we can take responsibility and apologize to those we should have taken care of, we failed to do so.”  She sent a letter to each of the six children still alive with "an unreserved and long-awaited apology on behalf of Denmark.” 

Helene Thiesen told the Ritzau news agency today: 

"I am relieved that the apology has finally been delivered. It is really, really important. It means everything. I've been fighting for this since 1998."

Ph: Larwin / Shutterstock.com

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