Guest post by Alex Wuergler, MSc Student at the Centre for Criminology.

In this post I summarise a Border Criminologies event on Northern Borders: Addressing Immigration Detention, Deportation and Degradation in Scandinavia and the UK. A podcast of the presentations can be found here:

In February, Border Criminologies held an event focused on immigration detention and deportation in Sweden and Denmark. Three speakers shared findings from their research: Annika Lindberg from the University of Bern, Prof Shahram Khosravi from Stockholm University and Dr Vicky Canning from the University of Bristol. Their talks centred around migration, forced and (not so) voluntary deportation, detention centres and the tactics employed by the governments to wear the migrants down into leaving the respective countries. The accounts they presented were rather dark.

Annika Lindberg  began by focusing on the system in Denmark and how migrants are handled. During her research, she had spent many hours in deportation centres observing and interviewing staff and migrants. These centres, which are located in remote rural areas, far from nearby towns, are designed, she said, “to exhaust them” so migrants will leave voluntarily. Those who are placed in these centres often cannot be deported. Yet, they are also denied a legal right to stay. This catch-22 leaves them in these institutions without the chance to do anything to improve their situation. Matters are made worse by a system in which the state deliberately moves migrants from one centre to another without much advanced warning. This strategy undermines friendships and support. It also prevents migrants from settling building roots and developing a sense of home.

In his presentation, Shahram Khosravi also depicted a troubling set of practices. This time focused on Sweden he explained how many of the precise characteristics of this country that are usually associated with tolerance and human rights, actually underpin and encourage harsh policies of detention and deportation. Sweden, he said, sees itself as a humanitarian country that stands for equality and citizens generally view their government in positive terms. A society of equality, he said, cannot have poor migrants begging in public places; instead they are placed in detention.  In this system, the state retains its welfarism, by providing food, shelter and medical support. Yet, the whole system is oriented towards their expulsion through deportation.

In his talk, Khosravi gave examples of euphemisms deliberately deployed when the government discuss immigration matters. One argument, set out to deport migrants is focused on children’s rights, for instance. Children have the right to a home in the country that they come from. It is not fair of their parents to have prevented their children from having this right. In these terms, Sweden is deporting them to protect this right and let them go home. The fact that no such idealised version of a safe home exists is overlooked. Khosravi further pointed out that many of the migrants feel treated as if they were children or “minors in need of guidance by the Swedish state”. On the one side, the government disempowers them by taking away their independence and freedom through overly regulated immigration centres. On the other side, Sweden can preserve its self-image by claiming to care for the migrants.

The final presentation by Vicky Canning focused on women seeking asylum and on the asylum processes in Denmark and Sweden. Like Khosravi and Lindberg, Canning portrayed a system that seeks deliberately to harm those are particularly vulnerable. Professionals and volunteers who support migrants are pressured into giving away details on who might not have a legal right to be here. Keeping people in the system for years, she pointed out, is expensive. Its futility directs our attention to thinking about who profits from this arrangement. 

Whereas it is more comforting to assume that systems may become unjust inadvertently, all three of these talks suggested something darker.  The Nordic state, despite its immense wealth, is choosing to treat migrants this way. As Vanessa Barker has suggested in her work, close attention to these countries raises uncomfortable questions about the foundations of the welfare state and its capacity and willingness to include those from elsewhere. 

The governments’ desire to convince migrants to leave the country is clear. It seems also, to be having some effect. Whereas before many headed north towards Scandinavia, now more are trying to go back towards Italy, France, Germany or Spain. For those in detention the only way forward is to endure and wait. These options are bleak and leave little room to manoeuvre.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Wuergler, A. (2019) Disturbing Research on Immigration Detention, Deportation, and Degradation in Sweden and Denmark. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/03/disturbing (Accessed [date])