Guest post by Annika Lindberg, Anna Lundberg, and Sofia Häyhtiö and Elisabet Rundqvist from the Swedish Network of Refugee Support (FARR). Annika is a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen. Anna is a professor in Welfare law and one of the initiators of the Asylum Commission. FARR is an umbrella organisation for groups and individuals working to strengthen the rights of people who seek protection or live as undocumented in Sweden. The FARR survey that this post builds upon was designed and conducted by Sofia Häyhtiö and Elisabet Rundqvist. This post is part of our themed series on border control and Covid-19.

‘Help us, we don’t want to die in here.’

This is how a person detained in a Swedish migration-related detention centre expressed their fear for the health situation at the centre, in light of the ongoing pandemic. The quote is derived from a survey conducted by the Swedish Network of Refugee Support (FARR), which was distributed to people detained in five of Sweden’s migration-related detention centres in spring 2020, when COVID-19 was steadily spreading throughout Swedish society. It captures well respondents’ concerns over the lack of measures taken by the authorities to safeguard their health during the pandemic, and further points at the virtual absence of public and political debate on the situation for detained and deportable migrants in Sweden.

This blog post is part of the research initiative the Asylum Commission, which is a collaborative effort between FARR, people who sought refuge in Sweden, professional groups and researchers to shed light on the consequences of the current Swedish migration control regime. In it, we summarise the findings of the survey on COVID-19 inside Swedish migration-related detention centres, and discuss how the pandemic has rendered acutely visible how governments prioritise border enforcement over migrants’ health, in Sweden and elsewhere.

Migration-related detention centres in Sweden are run by the Swedish Migration Agency and have a total capacity of incarcerating 519 people. The official guidelines for the Swedish detention regime state that the Migration Agency shall run detention centres in a ‘purposive manner’ and ensure that ‘detention centres are run in such a way that detained persons are treated in a dignified, humane manner and in accordance with rule of law’. Moreover, ‘the safety for both personnel and detained persons shall be secured’. How far have these regulations been followed during the ongoing pandemic?

Kållered migration detention facility (Photo: Annika Lindberg)

In order to investigate this, FARR generated an online survey that was circulated among people who are detained in five of Sweden’s six migration-related detention centres. Participation in the survey was anonymous and included questions regarding hygiene and cleaning routines and access to information and healthcare inside the detention centres. The 58 survey responses – which represented 22 percent of the detained population at the time – were compared to official regulations and guidelines for how public authorities, including the Swedish Migration Agency, should handle and prevent the spread of contagious diseases such as COVID-19 inside their facilities.

The pandemic has resulted in countries around the world closing their borders, which has impeded  deportation enforcement; however, Swedish police and migration authorities have continued to detain people and try to deport them.

The Swedish detention capacity was reduced to 300 in order to facilitate ‘social distancing’ and contain the spread of COVID-19. Yet, the survey results revealed significant shortcomings in the implementation of rules and recommendations for how the spread of COVID-19 should be prevented and contained inside migration-related detention centres. Survey respondents reported continued overcrowding, a virtual impossibility to maintain physical distance to other detained persons, and shortcomings in cleaning and hygiene routines. Detained people shared they had received only limited information about the virus and were recommended to ‘wash their hands and keep physical distance to others’, even though such recommendations are very difficult to follow in a locked environment.

Respondents also confirmed that more people kept being incarcerated and staff regularly exchanged without undergoing health screenings. Meanwhile, 57 % of respondents reported having felt ill and exhibited COVID-19-related symptoms including fever, cough and sore throat, yet only 13,8 % reported that they had seen a nurse. 75,9 % reported feeling very worried that they would be infected by the COVID-19, either by fellow detained persons or by staff; several of them referred to the death of a fellow detained person who had tested positive to the virus in March 2020. In a free comments section, several respondents explained that their health concerns were not taken seriously by staff, and shared that they were afraid to tell staff when they were feeling ill for fear of being moved to a section with people infected with the Coronavirus and ‘become even more sick’.                                                

‘It takes a long time before we get to see a doctor, and I’m afraid to get infected by Corona but unfortunately, nobody cares’, one respondent wrote, while another shared that ‘I have told them I want to speak (to a nurse) but nobody comes and those who have seen the nurse just get a sleeping pill’. Similar experiences of neglect were recurring themes in detained people’s responses. One respondent added,

‘I always feel like checking my health, but it seems they don’t like black people as much. Because anytime we give them idea or need something from them they don’t take it seriously. So is no need to tell them about how we feel because they don’t care, and we know it’.

The Swedish Migration agency has previously received criticism for deficiencies in the provision of health care inside detention centres. Yet, detained persons’ reported experiences of neglect for their health and well-being also speak to broader political and structural issues, whereby migration enforcement systematically takes precedence over migrants’ right to health: or, as a respondent noted, ‘Sweden has no consciousness, they just do business with us’.

Migration-related detention is a case point here: as has been extensively documented in prior research, this form of so-called administrative detainment has a significant negative impact on detained persons’ mental and physical health (see for instance overviews by Mary Bosworth and by Martha von Werthern and colleagues). These harms are not only avoidable but unnecessary, as migration-related detention has proved more effective as political ‘spectacle’ than as a tool of actual migration enforcement (see e.g. Cetta Mainwarig and Stephanie Silverman). As has been discussed in prior contributions to this blog, the ongoing pandemic has provided an opportunity to rethink the use of migration-related detention, as countries have suspended deportations, opted for alternatives to detention, or even regularised all people with precarious legal status to ensure their full access to healthcare.

In Sweden, however, no such progressive initiatives have been proposed. 200 people were reportedly released from detention since their expulsion was not enforceable within a foreseeable future. Yet, like in other situations where there are practical impediments to deportation enforcement, people released from detention are placed in a precarious limbo. In our previous research, we have highlighted how this condition negatively impacts non-deported people’s health and well-being. Migration authorities would have a legal possibility to grant residence permit to these people under current conditions, when there are practical impediments to enforcing expulsion orders, yet they have not used this opportunity during COVID-19. As a result, those who have been released from detention when their deportation order is not enforceable are excluded not only from legalisation options but also from social rights protections as a direct result of restrictive laws and legal praxis.   

The ongoing pandemic has rendered visible pre-existing social inequalities in terms of access to healthcare and to basic social rights and services; inequalities that are gendered, racialised and classed. When Swedish government authorities keep people detained and deportable during an ongoing pandemic, fail to take adequate measures to protect their safety and well-being and dismiss their health-related concerns, this is one manifestation of how racialised inequalities are upheld and reproduced. Addressing the harmful consequences of detention and deportation policies requires that we as members of the public, academia and civil society urge governments to take appropriate measures to safeguard the rights and health of detained and deportable people. Meanwhile, we must challenge the structures that allow the systemic disregard for their lives in the first place.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Lindberg, A., Lundberg, A., Häyhtiö, S. and Rundqvist, E. (2020). Detained and Disregarded: How COVID-19 Has Affected Detained and Deportable Migrants in Sweden. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/detained-and [date]