Can Europe Make It?

Reclaiming the right to life: hunger strikes and protests in Denmark’s deportation centres

This movement aims to make public the consequences of this politics of dehumanisation; politics that ‘kill slowly’ which are structurally produced and legitimized by law. 

Annika Lindberg Susi Meret Martin Bak Jørgensen Jose Joaquin Arce Bayona
7 January 2018

Farjad and fellow-residents at the Kærshovedgaard 'departure' centre, Denmark. All rights reserved.‘If we return, they will kill us. But here, they are killing us slowly…They don’t care about us. They say we might stay here until we die’. (Farjad, hunger striker at the removal centre Kærshovedgaard, Denmark, October 2016)

Farjad and twenty-seven other fellow-residents at the Kærshovedgaard so-called ‘departure’ centre (udrejsecenter) had been on hunger strike for the seventh day when we met them. They live cut-off at Kærshovedgaard, one of two recently-opened Danish deportation centres, the other being in Sjælsmark, about 35 km North of urban Copenhagen. Kjærshovedgaard is a former prison placed in the remote woods in the Mid-Jutland peninsula. Today the buildings quarter about 200 asylum seekers, men and women. Most of these people had their application rejected by the Danish authorities; others are awaiting to appeal their first instance decision (they are so-called ‘phase-two’ asylum seekers).

The Kærshovegaard and Sjælsmark deportation camps bear witness to the widespread implementation, across northern Europe, of practices of ‘crimmigration’ (Stumpf 2006). These policies create a strict relationship between criminal and immigration law. This mutual dependence accomplishes a twofold strategy: on the one hand, within criminal law, a process of exclusion, resulting in physical and societal segregation from the rest of the society enacted through physical confinement and detention-like conditions. On the other, policies of exclusion entailing the isolation and then expulsion/deportation of criminalized migrants from the national territory (Aas and Bosworth 2013). Thus Denmark follows apace the developments observed in the rest of Europe, also triggered by European measures such as the 2008 EU directive on returns (2008/115/EC). This prompts the enactment of return schemes based on ‘common standards and procedures’ in the member states to ‘return illegal stayers from third countries’. The directive entails the possibility of detaining people for up to 18 months and putting in place a 5-year ban from EU territory. The implementation of these regulations have resulted in the physical and spatio-geographical control and isolation of the ‘undesired’, ‘unwanted’, turned into ‘deportables’. These people, according to the Danish Minister for Immigration, Integration and Housing Inger Støjberg ‘must be sent out of the country as soon as possible’, and their life in Denmark made as ‘intolerable as possible’.

The conversion of the Sjælsmark military barracks into a deportation centre was made public by the previous Social Democrat-led government. The first deportation centres for rejected asylum seekers were opened in 2013 (see also Gibney 2008; De Genova & Peutz 2010), with the aim of pressing rejected asylum-seekers, foreign national offenders, and individuals on so-called ‘tolerated stay’ to leave the country as soon as possible and preferably ‘voluntarily’. Those accommodated in the centres are held there either because deportation is not possible in the foreseeable future (that is, within the 18 months that mark the time limit for immigration detention) and/or because there are no legal grounds for detaining them. This way, residents are neither detained nor free, but held in a legal grey-zone, which the hunger strikers protest against, being fearful of detention in conditions of pseudo-captivity for the rest of their lives.

The poor standard of the structures, their geographical isolation and the withdrawal of all forms of economic support together with the mandatory (poor) food catering, are put in place by authorities in removal centres with the clear purpose of pushing people to a voluntary departure and return to the country of origin. The proposal to execute stricter deportation practices was formerly drafted and approved under the former centre-left government (backed also by the Unity List and the Social Liberals) and the support of the right-wing Liberal Alliance. In late summer 2013, the then Minister of Justice Morten Bødskov avowed that:

“The accommodation in the departure centre is a very clear message telling them [rejected asylum seekers] that this is the last stop in Denmark and that now you must go home. The asylum seekers will be further motivated to leave with the revoking of all forms of monetary support and instead the application of a packet lunch scheme and by accepting counselling on their voluntary departure”. 

The deportation centre Kærshovedgaard was opened under the government so-called asylum political package in the fall of 2015. It was meant to act as a supplementary facility to the already up and running Sjælsmark centre. Throughout 2016, people staying at Sjælsmark were transferred to Kærshovedgaard, mainly to make space for families with children. Today about 160 rejected asylum seekers, including several children are living in isolation at the Sjælsmark centre. In the near future, the selection will start at an earlier phase: all those who receive a negative answer to their asylum application will be moved immediately to Avnstrup center, nearby Roskilde. This centre will function as a new removal center, where authorities will assess whether the rejected asylum seeker cooperates or not with his/her ‘repatriation’. If considered unwilling to cooperate, the rejected asylum seeker is to be moved to the deportation centers Kærshovedgaard or Sjælsmark. The ‘return center’ is part of the 2018 state budget implementations agreed by the government and the Danish People’s Party.

Compared to the deportation centres already operative in other European countries (e.g. Spain, Italy, the UK), Danish authorities tend to emphasize the more lenient conditions required for the duration in Danish removal centres. Official brochures and homepages inform us for example that ‘the residents are not detained and they can thus move freely to and from the centre. However, as a point of departure they will be subject to so-called ‘residence-duty’. This means that while they are ‘free’ to leave the centre in daytime, they have the duty to stay overnight at the centre. Those who are obliged to respect this, can only stay overnight outside the centre if the immigration service has given them permission’.     

Yet we argue that these concessions to the rule do not change the inhumane conditions of this system and tend actually to reinforce paradigms that associate immigration with crime, and crime to the perceived need for physically and socially isolating people. This logic underpins deportation centres despite the fact that no crime has been committed, unless migration and asylum are treated as such. The mainstream media and the political narrative further contribute to entrenching in public opinion this criminalization framing.          

Hunger strikes as performative and citizenship acts

Farjad and the others have chosen to protest against what they see as their collective criminalisation and stigmatisation by Danish authorities. They see their exclusion and isolation from the rest of the society as a way to erase them as persona, to leave them with only their bare life, deprived of all basic rights. They decided to protest by the only way still available to them, taking their situation fully into account: by refusing to eat. In this sense, their hunger strikes are in itself to be understood as an act of citizenship (Isin and Nielsen 2008) a radical political performative act (Butler 2015) in line with similar acts of protest and struggles initiated by non-status refugees living in deportation centres in Denmark and elsewhere. At the end of 2015, for instance, a group of residents in Sjælsmark centre initiated a movement that aimed at making public the consequences of this politics of dehumanisation; politics that ‘kill slowly’ which are structurally produced and legitimized by law. Tragically, most of them were lately forcibly relocated to Kærshovedgaard.

Findings from other countries show that removal centres only lead to a deterioration in life conditions and increase the numbers of individuals forced into illegality, who decide to go underground to avoid deportation, and who are pushed into a life of uncertainty and destitution. Personal testimonies, reports and articles further prove irrefutably how longterm confinement to the deportation centres afflicts the psychological and physical well-being of the residents, and particularly children. The hunger strikers at Kærshovedgaard explained that they had observed their fellow residents undergo a transformation after arriving in deportation camps, whereby ‘the lights in their eyes go out’. That these are matters of life and death is illustrated for example by the tragic news of the fourth death at the immigration removal centre Morton Hall in the UK. Also at Kærshovedgaard, several suicide attempts have been registered in the past year.

Stuck in a legal and existential grey-zone, living in isolation, invisible to the rest of society, nearly under detention and with minimal prospects of pursuing a future life in Denmark or Europe, hunger strikers highlight the intolerable life conditions that Danish and European politics have condemned them to, regarding their motives for migrating and their aims in life as a criminal offense.

We argue that rather than facilitating returns, deportation centres have opened up a legal grey zone that allows nation states to deny their legal, political and humanitarian responsibilities for rejected asylum-seekers, with tragic implications for the present and future life of these people. Also, the politics of refusal and contempt practiced by the Danish government towards rejected asylum seekers is regularly justified by the need to safeguard the welfare state and the country’s social cohesion. We want to expose this link between nationalism, racism, and welfare chauvinism.       

Most of the (un)deportables in Danish removal centres come from countries that Denmark declares safe (amongst these Afghanistan, Somalia), or countries with which no bilateral agreement has yet been enforced. In their monthly binding meetings with the foreign police, they are relentlessly encouraged to leave the country for destinations they know are unsafe, from whence they fled years ago, or sometimes have never visited (e.g. the case of children with parents in Sjælsmark centre). Yet the incitements to leave the departure centres have reportedly been poor, if not non-existent: as of early 2017, only two of the then 116 Kærshovedgaard residents have been returned. At the same time an unknown but increasing number has gone underground before or after arrival in deportation centres. Thus, while on the one side there are clear records that these practices of isolation, exhaustion, and segregation are failing their goal, on the other side their evident impact includes putting non-status refugees in distress and under psychological pressure, through legally-sanctioned practices of state violence and the deprivation of basic rights.  

These practices also put removal centre staff in the awkward position of ‘managing’ rejected asylum seekers who the government seems neither to care for, nor wish to control. The prison and probation service operating the centre reflect the logics of the crimmigration procedure. Prison officers lack a mandate to perform any of their core functions, including using force, disciplining, or ‘rehabilitating’ residents. Meanwhile, Red Cross workers, who carry out ‘humanitarian’ tasks navigate uneasily between their humanitarian mandate and the restrictive conditions of the centres. A prison officer remarked bluntly during an interview:

‘They say we should make life ‘intolerable’ for them, to make life shit. I find that appalling. They should get out here and see the reality. A colleague of mine said that one day we’ll have to get a funeral undertaker out here, because what are we to do with them? (…) This gets right to the long-term question: what do we do with them? They are unwanted here, they are unwanted everywhere they go. It’s not dignified to treat them like that’. 

The officer’s concern brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s diagnosis of the situation for ‘undesirable’ refugees and the stateless, for whom there is no law and no place to turn to, no rights to claim. Inmates are indeed reduced to a condition of bare life, denied both political and legal representation. The hunger strike should be interpreted in this light: an act of refusal and rebellion against their being forcefully made invisible to the rest of the society. A way to make this visible in the only possible way left available: by using their bodies.

This is Noman’s Land

There is a spatial approach and a racial control through which migrant populations are managed in Europe today. Through spatial means to the extent that spaces of detention and deportation need to be produced and reproduced. Through racial control in the sense that it targets disproportionately populations racialized as non-white. 

The condition of rightlessness is partly generated by the fact that residents of Kærshovedgård are not referred to as detained – although this indeed is a matter for debate (Ugelvik & Ugelvik, Valenta & Thorshaug). As the hunger strikers at Kærshovedgaard observe:

‘We have to pass by seven locked gates and doors to get out and back in again … We are treated like criminals, but still, prisoners have more rights than we do’.

The biometric control system enables the immigration service to register residents’ movements inside and out of the centre; a practice which has been directly criticised by the so-called Helsinki-committee. Also, failure to regularly register and be present can generate a prison sentence of up to one and a half years. But according to authorities, residents are nevertheless ‘free to move and free to leave’ at any time; yet whether they leave to their countries of origin, or abscond and remain irregularly in Denmark or elsewhere in Europe, whether they remain detainable and deportable, seems to mean very little to these Danish authorities.

Indeed, what seems vital for them is to find ways to offload responsibility for the residents’ fate. In a recent article on the treatment of rejected asylum-seekers in the Netherlands, Barak Kalir coins the term ‘surrogate deportation’ to describe the strategy, which saves states any costs and administrative efforts associated with forced removals, such as: operating detention, administering appeals processes, purchasing flight tickets, arranging travel documents, and offering medical attention.

Hunger strikers have not managed to engage their controlling, or ‘caretaking’ state representatives in dialogue regarding their action. People at Kærshovedgaard and Sjælsmark are ‘nobody’s problem’ in no man’s land – at least not until they ‘show up’ in another European country to get trapped in yet another of the vicious cycles of the European bureaucratic roundabout procedures. Meanwhile, the Danish version of a deportation centre provides the state with an economically, politically, and legally convenient alternative to detention. For the people at Kærshovedgaard and Sjælsmark this can only mean being trapped in a legal and social limbo, deprived of their basic rights. This is why people have been on hunger strike at Kærshovedgaard, to expose and thereby counter the culture of criminalisation, abandonment, and deportation. 

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