Annika Lindberg
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in Deportation limbo

I first visited Sjælsmark on a pale April morning in 2016. The bus that took me there was empty, as were the streets connecting rows of military barracks lining up behind the camp gates as I arrived. Sjælsmark deportation camp, or departure centre (udrejsecenter), as it is officially called, is located in the middle of a military training field in Northern Zealand. A sort of hybrid between an asylum and detention camp, it opened in 2015 as part of the efforts of the Danish government to pressure people whose asylum applications had been rejected to leave Denmark. When it opened, most of its barracks were empty, the streets abandoned, and the fences dividing the camp into distinct zones were half-built and not yet secured. Deportations, and the intolerable policies adopted to enforce them, had yet to enter the centre stage in national debates on borders and migration, and Sjælsmark was yet to become a focal site of enforcement and contestation of the Danish deportation regime.

The absences, anticipations, and not-yets that characterised Sjælsmark at this time were probably among the reasons why the Danish Prison and Probation Service, who oversaw the camp, had agreed to let me conduct fieldwork there as part of my research on deportation enforcement. That first April day, I met the director of the camp to discuss the conditions for my research and plan the fieldwork. The director introduced himself as Niels, a middle-aged, lively Danish man with a long career in the prison service behind him. Once I had reported to the prison officer on duty, he came to greet me at the gates, wearing a full prison officer uniform: a blue shirt, tie, and cap, and a jacket with Kriminalforsorgen written across the back. Niels took me on a walk through the camp. The camp was still in a sort of start-up phase, he explained. Fewer residents than expected had arrived, the first couple of barracks along the street were only half full. The camp, which extended beyond our view, was therefore only partly in use, and beyond a temporarily erected fence, there were rows and rows of additional, still-empty buildings.

The camp, Niels explained, was set up to accommodate people whose asylum applications had been rejected but who refused to leave. The political intention, he continued in a matter-of-fact tone, was to make life so uncomfortable that residents would rather return to their countries of presumed origin than remain in Denmark. We passed a resident who was busy rinsing the bushes and planting flowers by the sidewalk of the main road. Niels greeted him with a jolly ‘hello my friend’, then turned to me:

We call him the Gardener. He keeps it nice and clean around here, it’s all on his own initiative. We would like to encourage that, maybe give him something in return, but we are not allowed to. It is not supposed to look pretty or be nice to live here – if it is, there’s no reason for them to return home … but it limits us in terms of what we can do.1

The reason why prison officers could not reward the Gardener for his work was the so-called motivation enhancement measures, which prohibited residents from taking up work or education, compelled them to report regularly to authorities in the camp, and obliged them to eat at the camp’s cafeteria at specific hours. These measures were, Niels explained, meant to make life as uncomfortable as possible for residents, discourage them from remaining and continuing leading a life in Denmark, and pressure them to cooperate with authorities in their deportation case. This was also the reason why prison officers were not allowed to encourage any activities that could make residents’ experience of the camp more pleasant or liveable.

Niels took me to the cafeteria, which was still empty, as it was not yet time for residents to have their lunch. Equipped with a lunch serving consisting of potatoes, beetroot, sauce, and beef, we sat down at one of the canteen tables. Niels asked what I hoped to find out during my fieldwork. I told him that I was interested in how deportation policies were carried out in practice, what the role of the prison service was in the camp (or, as it would later turn out, what it wasn’t), and what were the effects of the motivation enhancement measures. Niels nodded sincerely, as if he had been waiting for the right answer to his question, and explained that for himself and his staff, the setup of Sjælsmark was puzzling, even mysterious. As prison officers, they were trained to work with imprisoned people, whom they were supposed to assist in their rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into Danish society. In Sjælsmark, however, they were supposed to neither assist nor care for residents, nor to control them. ‘We were given this task for a reason’, Niels said, and added with a smirk, ‘we are just not quite sure what that reason is … and we still do not know.’ As for the effects of the motivation enhancement measures, he maintained that as a public official, he must not voice his opinion on the political measures he was supposed to enforce. But one thing that concerned him was the absence of a long-term plan for what would happen if residents continued to refuse to leave Denmark. The camp with its low standards was supposed to speed up their departure, but if residents kept resisting their deportation order, they could – in practice – remain in the camp indefinitely.

But politicians haven’t realised this implication. At one meeting with the management, I asked them, when do we hire a funeral undertaker in the camp? We will need one for when people start dying here. You see, I’m always the annoying one … but it’s true. Take the man we have here from a Central Asian country who already stayed twelve years in different asylum camps in Denmark. He never makes any trouble, but he has been here for a year now. He obviously thinks this place is better than going back home – so I could only imagine what it is like for him there – it must be something way worse than this.

Niels and I finished our potatoes. I was handed an electronic key that would permit me to move in and out of the buildings in the camp, including the staff building, and we agreed on a time schedule for my fieldwork. As I walked back towards the camp gates, I noticed that the Gardener had finished his work, and a few sprouts were emerging from the bare ground.

The Gardener’s name was Abolfazl Salehian. He spent a long time waiting in Sjælsmark, but unlike the scenario that Niels was contemplating, he did not die there. He eventually had his asylum case re-opened and was granted a residence permit in Denmark. A couple of months after that, he died by suicide. The purpose of this book is to investigate the ‘mysterious’ and indeed, violent implications of states’ intensified efforts to force people like Abolfazl to leave, and which sometimes take their lives. In so doing, it aims to understand the normalisation of the state violence that caused his death, and align with the ongoing struggles against it.


1 All interviews were conducted in Danish and Swedish and later translated into English by the author. See more detailed information on the interviews in the Appendix.
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Deportation limbo

State violence and contestations in the Nordics


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