Annika Lindberg
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The politics of deportation and the Nordic welfare state
in Deportation limbo

The chapter provides an overview of the politics of deportation in Denmark and Sweden and contextualises the expansion of the countries’ respective deportation regimes since 2015. While Denmark and Sweden have been discussed as radically different in terms of their approaches to migration, the chapter traces similarities and continuities between them. They include, first, the social imaginaries of Nordic ‘exceptionalism’, which encompass a denial of complicity in racist global histories and structures, and related narratives of social, cultural, and racial homogeneity. Secondly, the bureaucratised welfare state apparatuses, ostensibly designed to foster and protect the lives of the population, are also mobilised to render the lives of those excluded from the welfare state, including non-deported people, unliveable.

Maybe you stay in one place for a few years, then you leave to a new place, you have to change places and then come back again … and from what I understand that’s what people do. They get frustrated in one place, they try their luck in another place. But when you are already in the position of being rejected here, it’s not the same as in Greece, Italy, or Spain … there, you are allowed to walk around freely without documents, because they cannot afford or organise your deportation. But in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, it’s more difficult … The system is made to protect you but can also control you. That’s why, when the economic situation was good, it was actually ok to be a refugee in Greece, Spain, Italy … that’s why it’s so difficult to live underground or as rejected here. Then you are basically wasting your time, you will never fit in. All is regulated.

Issa was a man in his thirties who was forced to move to Sjælsmark deportation camp when his asylum application was rejected by the Danish immigration authorities. Denmark had been the first country in Europe where he had sought asylum, but prior to his arrival, he had also lived as undocumented in Greece and France. One day, on the bus on our way from Sjælsmark, Issa and I discussed how the conditions for non-deported people differ across European states. Issa explained that Southern European countries are more lenient towards people lacking legal authorisation to remain, but at the same time, they only offer very limited welfare services. Still, he found it easier to get by in Greece or France than in Northern Europe, where the expansive bureaucratic system put in place to ensure welfare protections for its members was turned into an intricate web of exclusion for those who, like him, are rejected. Issa’s observation is in agreement with the bulk of comparative research on welfare and migration control regimes across Europe, which has highlighted the significant variations in terms of access to welfare, labour market regulations, and experiences of policing and control for people living with precarious legal status or as non-deported (Ataç, 2019; Floros and Jørgensen, 2020; Heegaard Bausager et al., 2013; Leerkes and van Houte, 2020; Triandafyllidou and Ambrosini, 2011). Issa’s reflection also points to the argument made by scholars that bureaucratised welfare states, which pay lip service to egalitarianism and inclusion, and which devote substantial resources to distributing welfare among its population, also practise radical forms of exclusion when it comes to people positioned as ‘non-members’, including rejected migrants (Abdelhady, Gren, and Joormann, 2020; Khosravi, 2010; Sager, 2011).

Issa’s remark serves as a starting point for critically interrogating Northern European deportation regimes. The Nordic countries are often heralded – in politics and in much scholarship – for their supposed humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and ‘exceptionalism’ from the global history of colonialism, slavery, and imperial warfare, yet their deportation regimes serve as entry points for analysing the radical exclusion of racialised (non)citizens and historically marginalised groups, which are and always have been inherent to the welfare state project (Keskinen et al., 2009; Leets Hansen and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019). Hence, notwithstanding their different policies on border and asylum issues, which are often centred in comparative research on migration in the Nordics (Brochmann and Dørvik, 2018; Schierup and Ålund, 2011), Denmark and Sweden expose important similarities in terms of how the welfare state becomes a vehicle for radical exclusion of ‘others’. The mapping out of the Danish and Swedish deportation regimes presented in this chapter should not be understood as a strictly comparative research endeavour. Instead, by putting emphasis on continuities, I employ what Theo Goldberg (2009: 1274) calls a ‘relational analysis’, which traces the ‘constitutive condition of the relational components’ and their various manifestations. Accordingly, and while I account for different politics and policies of deportation, I will in this chapter also describe the constitutive connections in terms of how violent exclusion operates in the bureaucratised, Nordic welfare states.

The deportation turn in the Nordics

‘Sweden has been too naïve when it comes to immigration. They took in too many and look at what’s happening there now.’ This was an almost standard conversation opener during my fieldwork with prison officers in Denmark’s detention and deportation camps. The conversation would then evolve along the following lines: the prison officer would begin enumerating the social problems that, in their view, were direct results of immigration to Sweden, such as rising crime rates, rape cases, and urban unrest. As sources, they would cite a Facebook account of a Swedish police officer, a blog entry, or a Danish newspaper article. When I questioned these sources, they would add that ‘Swedish newspapers don’t dare to write about this’ due to their political correctness. The same political correctness was what prevented me from seeing this reality, they claimed. We would continue quarrelling until we eventually changed conversation topics. On the other side of the border, Swedish detention officials would rhetorically ask me, ‘at least, the conditions here must be better than in Denmark, right?’. They awaited my confirmation that they were more benevolent than their Danish counterparts (a confirmation that I could not offer them since in my view, this was only superficially true), and they expressed surprise that people resisted Dublin deportations back to Sweden – because surely, ‘here’ must be better than elsewhere.

Such oppositional portrayals of the Danish and Swedish approach to migration – one being repressive and protective, the other one naïvely benevolent – are in line with most representations in media, and with what we find in much mainstream migration research, which tends to highlight differences between the two countries’ immigration policy regimes. However, these accounts tend to understate the continuities in policy as well as practice between the two countries, some of which have evolved historically, others which have been accentuated since Sweden joined the European ‘race to the bottom’ in asylum and migration policy following the 2015 long summer of migration (Slominski and Trauner, 2018). Sweden and Denmark have held similar positions on issues of borders and migration also prior to this partial convergence: both countries are part of the European migration and border regime, which ever since the 1990s has pushed states towards harmonisation of migration policies across EU member states and fuelled the criminalisation and securitisation of migration from the Global South and from Eastern Europe (Besteman, 2020). Sweden and Denmark are both members of the EU and of the Schengen Area (signed in 1996, the Schengen Regulation came into effect in both countries in 2001), and as a result, their border checks are externalised while proliferating internally (Balibar, 2004). They are both signatories of the Dublin Regulation since 1997, and Sweden is also signatory of asylum reception- and deportation-related EU regulations, while Denmark has a parallel arrangement that allows them to opt in and out of EU legislation within the field of migration policy, including the Return Directive.

Moreover, as two wealthy and resourceful states located in Northern Europe, Sweden and Denmark have to a large extent been able to steer migration remotely, by co-financing the expanding security apparatuses designed to deter, monitor, filter, and prevent undesired mobility into Europe through its Southern and Eastern borderlands (Bigo, 2014; Statewatch, 2020). This means that Sweden and Denmark have been able to buy themselves out of responsibility for the reception of people seeking protection or better life opportunities in Europe. Even in 2015, when Sweden claimed to have taken ‘exceptional’ responsibilities for refugee reception, the number of people who arrived in Sweden remains small compared to arrivals in Southern European countries such as Greece and Italy at the time. In politics and in research, the Nordic countries have thus largely evaded critique of malfunctioning bureaucracies, inadequate reception conditions, illegal pushbacks, and violent enforcement measures regularly directed against the EU’s externalised borders (Border Violence Monitoring Network, 2020). This is not to say that the Nordic countries are engaging in such practices to an equal extent as countries geographically located at the EU’s external borders, but that there are problematic bordering practices taking place in the Nordics, which due to geographical – and geopolitical – biases have remained relatively understudied, leaving intact the perceptions that the Nordic countries are overall characterised by well-functioning, effective bureaucracies and humanitarian ideals. There are, moreover, significant differences between Danish and Swedish migration politics and practices of policy implementation. In what follows, I try to account for structural similarities as well as variations between the two deportation regimes under scrutiny.

Denmark’s deportation-oriented migration regime

In April 2021, Denmark appeared on the front pages of international news media as the first EU country to withdraw protection status and revoke residence permits for Syrian nationals who had fled the decade-long war in the country. The decision targeted people originating from the Damascus and Rif areas where, according to Danish immigration authorities’ own, much-criticised reports (see ECRE, 2021), the security situation had improved to the extent that those who were granted subsidiary protection based on the ongoing war could now ‘safely’ return. The decisions on revocations were expected to encompass around 4,500 Syrian nationals and Palestinians who had lived in Syria. The first round of revocations has disproportionately affected women, people of older age, and those who had arrived in Denmark as children, sparing men who risk forced conscription to the military (Clante Bendixen, 2021).1 Commenting on why the security situation in Syria was no longer sufficient to qualify people for protection, the Social Democratic parliamentary spokesperson on immigration issues said, ‘it makes a big difference if the regime has a personal issue with you, or if you have fled because there’s a general situation of war. There might be a risk that a bomb will fall on your house. That doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything personal between you and the government’ (Stoklund, cited in Hørkilde, 2021, author’s translation). Syrian refugees in Denmark begged to differ, and in May 2021, the Syrian Association in Denmark staged a month-long sit-in protest in front of the Danish Parliament, demanding that Danish authorities acknowledged their well-founded fear of returning to a country still ruled by the regime they had fled from, of indiscriminate bombing and widespread poverty, and of the risk of arrest and disappearances that returning refugees were reportedly exposed to. A protester told the newspaper AlJazeera (Bjerkestrand, 2021), ‘The Syrian people were killed by bombs in Syria. Here in Denmark, we are dying from fear that the government will deport us.’ Since Denmark had no readmission agreement with the Assad government in Syria, they knew they could not be deported by force. Therefore, if they did not leave ‘voluntarily’, they risked forced relocation to Danish deportation camps, where they could be held indefinitely.

Formally responsible for the decisions to revoke the protection status of Syrian nationals are the Danish Immigration Service and the Refugee Appeals Board. However, the revocations have only become possible through the gradual shifts in the Danish asylum and migration control regime that have taken place since 2015: from restrictive asylum policies and an assimilationist integration regime (Rytter, 2018) towards the articulation of deportation as the explicit aim of Denmark’s asylum immigration policy. The case of the Syrian refugees is paradigmatic of this policy regime, which balances at the very edge of human rights conventions, and which extends the condition of deportability (De Genova, 2002) to people who are recognised refugees and their families. It is a regime where, in the words of legal scholar Jessica Schultz (2020: 172), ‘the “future returnee” is the new refugee’.

The restrictive developments in Danish asylum and migration policy towards a deportation-oriented asylum regime have taken place over several decades but culminated after 2015. Denmark’s modern-day Aliens Act dates to 1983. At the time, it was considered ground-breaking both in terms of its strong human rights protections and in its ‘humane’ approach, where responsibility for people seeking asylum was transferred from the police to civil migration authorities. Yet already in 1986, Denmark adopted more restrictive asylum laws with a view towards rendering Denmark unattractive for those referred to as spontaneous asylum seekers (Gammeltoft-Hansen and Whyte, 2011), by imposing more restrictive conditions on those who were already present on the territory. In the early 1990s, Denmark saw increasing arrivals of people seeking protection from the war in former Yugoslavia. This, and the rise of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, which pushed a racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant political agenda, fuelled a politicisation of matters of asylum, integration, and deportation, and popularised the notion that Muslim migrants in particular were ‘unwanted’ and ‘threatening’ due to their presumed cultural and religious difference (Meret and Gregersen, 2019).

A series of restrictive policy changes were adopted in consecutive years by conservative-led and Social Democratic governments and with wide support from parties across the political spectrum (Whyte et al., 2020). In their historical overview of the evolvement of Danish immigration and integration laws, Gammeltoft-Hansen and Whyte (2011) estimate that laws in these fields changed on average once a month between 2001 and 2009. Changes include restrictions in admission policies in the fields of asylum and family reunification (Brochmann and Hagelund, 2011; Vedsted-Hansen, 2017), and the institutionalisation of asylum camps, which worked as a means to regulate, contain, and isolate people seeking asylum from the surrounding society while their applications were being processed (Syppli-Kohl, 2015; Whyte, 2011; Whyte et al., 2018). Restrictions were also introduced in terms of access to welfare, including social benefits and labour rights (Floros and Jørgensen, 2020; Rytter and Ghandchi, 2019), and in the rigorous so-called integration programmes, which authorised far-reaching state interventions into the lives and habits of migrants. The racialised social imaginary underpinning these laws portrayed migrants, and Muslim migrants in particular, as religiously or culturally archaic, unhealthy, and patriarchal, and as such, inherently ‘un-Danish’ (Rytter, 2018: 683).

Critical border and migration scholars have described how the Danish migration and so-called integration policy regime thus emerged ‘as a site for racial and racist discourse, and as a site of conjuncture between the welfare state and its citizens’ (Gullestad, 2002: 45). Danish state racism is manifested and continuously reproduced and reconfigured through this intrinsic web of external and internal bordering practices, which produces degrees of differential inclusion, precarity, and vulnerability in accordance with racialised, gendered, and classed rationales (Arce and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019; Eika et al., 2019; Suárez-Krabbe and Lindberg, 2019). While language of race is absent from Danish migration and integration regimes, the people disproportionately targeted for policing, surveillance, social control, detention, and deportation are primarily people racialised as non-white, or ‘non-Western’. The term ‘non-Western’ was invented by Denmark’s central authority on Danish Statistics. It is used in population registries as well as in political rhetoric, and encompasses migrants originating from countries outside Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States and their (Danish-born) descendants. In practice, however, ‘non-Western’ is used as a euphemism for Muslims (see Zhang, 2020). The language of Western/non-Western is illustrative of how racism in Denmark has morphed into a language of presumed cultural superiority/inferiority, where people’s rights to inclusion and participation are measured based on their perceived difference from the Danish/white/Christian norm (Eika et al., 2019). The presumed difference of the ‘non-Western’ in turn fuels the idea that ‘egalitarian’ welfarism presupposes ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial ‘sameness’ (Rytter, 2018: 693);2 and since people with non-Western backgrounds cannot become ‘the same’, they can be legitimately and radically excluded or expelled.

In 2015, Denmark, like many other EU member states, declared a ‘crisis’ of its asylum reception system, even though Denmark received relatively few asylum applications compared to other member states, since around 80 per cent to 90 per cent of those who passed through Denmark during the long summer of migration were heading towards Sweden (see Whyte et al., 2018). Yet, the crisis politics provided justification to introduce further restrictions in Denmark’s asylum and immigration policy regime, and between 2015 and 2021, the policies moved further towards absolute minimum human rights standards. The conservative Danish government (a coalition between Venstre, the Liberal Alliance, and the Conservative People’s Party, ruling with parliamentary support of the far-right Danish People’s Party) made it into a numbers game: during their years in power between 2015 and 2019, they counted – and celebrated – a total of 146 restrictions (stramninger) in the field of immigration and asylum. These included restrictions on family reunification, reduced material standards in asylum camps for the sake of deterrence, expanded legal grounds for detaining foreign nationals, and the criminalisation of a range of migration-related offences. In 2019, the same government declared a ‘paradigm change’ in the country’s asylum law (L 140, adopted 21 February 2019) ‘from integration to temporariness and repatriation’ (Danish Government, 2018: 5). The law was supposed to ‘send a clear sign that refugees’ stay in Denmark is temporary’, and that ‘Denmark is both willing and able to act swiftly and effectively, when the grounds for protection have ceased’ (Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration, 2019). It introduced automated reassessments of refugee status holders’ need for protection; the integration programmes were exchanged for ‘return programmes’ and social benefits for ‘repatriation and self-sustenance benefits’, to remind temporary protection holders that their future lay elsewhere than in Denmark.

The Social Democratic government coalition that assumed power in 2019 maintained the restrictive, deportation-oriented approach. Although a record low number of 1,547 people applied for asylum in Denmark in 2020, the government declared its aim to reduce new arrivals to zero, launching a novel ‘Return Agency’ (Hjemrejsestyrelsen), whose job is to ‘assist foreigners without legal right to remain in seeing the opportunities in returning’ (Return Agency, n.d.) and to render deportations more effective. They adopted Denmark’s first deportation law, which legalises authorities to use more surveillance, coercive measures, and incentives to pressure non-deported people to leave. They also announced their controversial plans to externalise asylum processing to a third country. The case of the Syrian nationals finding themselves at threat of deportation to a country in ongoing war is therefore illustrative of the Danish government’s fantasies of stopping unwanted immigration altogether, expelling those already present from the country, and outsourcing their responsibility for human rights protections, which they remain bound to by international law (Brekke, Vedsted-Hansen, and Stern, 2020). The stakes are high, and the human costs of Denmark’s increasingly repressive, deportation-oriented migration regime are significant. Research has demonstrated how people holding temporary protection status are exposed to growing poverty (Egaa Jørgensen and Schapiro, 2019), precarity, and exploitation in the labour market (Floros and Jørgensen, 2020; Rytter and Ghandchi, 2019). Moreover, families risk being torn apart by restrictive entry laws or deportation. The ‘paradigm change’ with its protracted deportability disproportionately affects women, people with disabilities, and those of older age, who often hold subsidiary protection status and who are not valued as exploited labour (Clante Bendixen, 2021).

The bureaucratic structures that enforce these policies encompass the immigration service, which assesses asylum applications; the Refugee Appeals Board, which reviews their decisions; and the Danish Return Agency, the police, the prison service, the municipalities, and the Red Cross, who enforce deportations and run asylum, detention, and deportation camps. While these are formally independent of political influence, they are all affected by the restrictive shifts: the restrictive approach is reflected in the low accommodation standards in asylum and deportation camps, which are supposed to serve as infrastructures of deterrence (Whyte et al., 2018); it manifests in the asylum procedures, where decisions are made in an environment ridden by institutionalised suspicion and rules set up to reject, rather than support, people seeking protection (Clante Bendixen, 2020). It affects the politics that takes place behind the scenes, in the secret so-called readmission agreements with countries like Somalia and Iraq, which enable Danish authorities to deport people under conditions that are obscure even to the lawyers of those who are to be deported. Finally, it materialises in the rules and regulations set up to make the lives of non-deported people so intolerable that they will leave Denmark. As of 2020, the number of people who were in a ‘departure position’ after their asylum cases had been rejected or their protection status withdrawn, amounted to 1,900, compared to around 1,200 in previous years (Danish Refugee Council, 2020). These people, who are in ‘deportation limbo’, are the main targets of the intensified deportation efforts of the Danish state, although they extend to encompass temporary protection holders and their families, who are or risk becoming deportable.

Sweden: a ‘U-turn’ of the humanitarians?

In 2016, a stern-faced Social Democratic prime minister and a crying deputy prime minister of the Green Party announced that Sweden needed a ‘breathing space’ (andrum) from the arrival of people seeking protection (Swedish Government, 2015). The government officials inhaled deeply and adopted the Law ‘on temporary restrictions in the possibility to obtain residency in Sweden’ (Lagen, 2016: 752) om tillfälliga begränsningar i möjligheten att få uppehållstillstånd i Sverige), which rendered conditions for people seeking protection and their families among the most restrictive in Europe. In a second breath, they promised to expand the state’s capacity to deport those who had been rejected. The government was criticised for the hasty preparation of what came to be known as the temporary law, the disregard they showed for the concerns voiced by consultative bodies (many of which, including municipalities and the Swedish Migration Agency, questioned the need for a ‘breathing space’ in the first place; see Skodo, 2020), and for the law’s actual content (Lundberg, 2017). Among the most drastic changes were the introduction of temporary rather than permanent residence permits for protection status holders, severe limitations on their right to family reunification, and the withdrawing of welfare support for people who received a deportation order. In addition, steps were taken towards a merging of asylum and labour migration policy, when the prospect to remain and earn one’s right to family reunification was made contingent on labour market participation (Sager and Öberg, 2017). In 2021, the temporary law, which was temporarily extended in 2019, was made permanent. To create a migration policy that was going to be ‘sustainable in the long term’, they figured, they needed to permanently make life more precarious for people seeking protection.

When it was first adopted, the temporary law (and its temporary extension) was portrayed as a U-turn (Parusel, 2016) away from Sweden’s relatively generous asylum policy regime and an integration policy granting expansive rights to people who arrived to settle in Sweden (Brochmann and Hagelund, 2011). However, researchers have since underlined how the latest round of restrictive measures follows an established pattern: in the past, Swedish governments have regularly sought to reduce unwanted immigration in times of increased arrivals, while simultaneously seeking to retain Sweden’s high profile on human rights issues (Stern, 2014; 2017). This balancing act captures how Sweden has consistently sought to combine an expansive rights regime for those conceived as members with interventionist and exclusionary treatment of those conceived as ‘others’. This duality is important for understanding the continuities in Sweden’s restrictive, regulatory migration control regime. Khosravi (2018) has highlighted that the very first codified Swedish Aliens Act, the ‘Act regarding the prohibition of certain foreigners to stay in the country’ (Lagen (1914: 196) angående förbud för visa utlänningar att här i riket vistas) was a deportation law. It did not contain regulations on admission, passport requirements, or other conditions for controlling entry, but it codified the possibility to deport ‘unwanted foreigners’ who were variably perceived as competitors for jobs, security threats, or potential burdens to the state due to their poverty, illness, or old age (Hammar, 1964). The same law made possible the administrative detention of foreigners (Jansson-Keshavarz, 2016). Not only foreign nationals, but also other groups of mobile poor and historically marginalised groups have been exposed to spatial and social regulation and forced assimilation as part of the ongoing process of constructing the Swedish citizen and ‘anti-citizen’, respectively (Khosravi, 2009). Much like in Denmark, the Social Democratic ideology of the welfare state as the ‘people’s home’ (folkhemmet) has been premised on ideas of racial and social homogeneity; ideas which were also supported and promoted by the Swedish academy (as illustrated by the work of the State Institute for Race Biology (1922–1958)). The expansion of the welfare state has taken place in parallel with the dispossession, displacement, and oppression of the indigenous Sami, Tornedalfinns, and Finns, and historically marginalised groups including Jews and Roma (Mulinari and Neergaard, 2017). However, there has long been a laudable silence around the constitutive role of racism and race inequality in the formation of the Swedish welfare state. Instead, racial inequality is conceived as something that ‘arrived’ with racialised migrants and the ‘multicultural’ society (Mulinari and Keskinen, 2020). Accordingly, migrants and historically marginalised groups have come to be framed as threats to the welfare state and its supposed egalitarianism, democracy, and tolerance – by virtue of their very exclusion from these principles.

It is in this context that the Swedish ‘humanitarian’ approach to immigration needs to be read. Sweden’s history of immigration control after the Second World War was shaped by its demand for foreign labour, and the arrival of guest workers and their families, which came to a halt with an economic crisis in the early 1970s. The 1976 Aliens Act laid the foundation for a migration and asylum policy that combined relatively generous rules within the realms of asylum and family reunification as well as inclusive welfare rights. The act lent Sweden its reputation as a safe haven for people fleeing persecution (Hammar, 1999). However, following an increase in asylum applications in the late 1980s, with the so-called Lucia decision in 1989, the Swedish Social Democratic government adopted drastic restrictions in their asylum laws and expanded the grounds for detention of foreign nationals for the purpose of rendering them identifiable and deportable (Johansson, 2005). The decision was justified by the invocation of a ‘crisis’ of asylum reception, and by a convoluted understanding of humanitarianism, according to which the rights of all must be compromised and saved for ‘those who need it the most’ (Johansson, 2005: 90f). The Lucia decision has been cited as a precedent to the 2016 shift in Sweden’s asylum policy and illustrates how its humanitarian values have always been conditioned on relatively limited immigration (Jansson-Keshavarz, 2016). It also exemplifies how restrictive measures are justified in the name of benevolence and care for those deemed the most ‘deserving’.

The 1990s saw a steady expansion of Sweden’s detention and deportation apparatus. This was also a time of increased politicisation of asylum and immigration, and of a proliferation of political imaginaries where immigration was presented as a threat to Swedish national identity, its presumed racial homogeneity, ‘progressive’ humanitarian values – which were supposedly at odds with the presumed inferior, archaic culture of immigrants – and expansive welfare state (Mulinari and Neergaard, 2017). This was also a time when ‘voluntary return migration’ emerged as a main policy goal of migration policy, alongside a relatively generous and rights-based regime for those classified to be in need of protection. In the 2010s, several initiatives were taken to reinforce internal border controls and to enhance the effectiveness of deportations (among them the much-debated REVA project), and the budget for deportation enforcement gradually expanded: between 2011 and 2020, it grew by 49 per cent (Prop. 2010/11: 1; Prop. 2017/18). This legal and political ‘displacement’ of asylum and migration law towards a more restrictive, deportation-oriented regime, has been accompanied by a harsher political rhetoric (Elsrud, Gruber, and Lundberg, 2021), which has been fuelled by – but can by no means be attributed solely to – the growth of the far-right Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in the Neo-Nazi movement, and the mainstreaming of racist rhetoric among political parties both on the right and on the left of politics (see Mulinari and Neergaard, 2017).

An important insight from this overview is that migration control in Sweden has always balanced between political rhetoric praising humanitarianism and human rights ideals on the one hand, and an expansive capacity for exclusion, containment, and deportation, on the other (see Weber et al., 2019). It has shaped the organisation, politicisation, and operation of the migration control apparatus, and generated heated political debates over enforcement practices considered too harsh or unfairly targeting people who, in the eyes of the public, were deemed particularly ‘deserving’ (for instance, the cases of children suffering from resignation syndrome; or children classified as unaccompanied minors). On the other, it has solidified public perceptions – which, as I will show, are also prevalent within bureaucracy – that the Swedish migration control regime is morally superior and its bureaucracy practically infallible. The bureaucratic authority in charge of most migration-related processes is the Swedish Migration Agency, a civil authority that both registers applications for visa, asylum, and other residence permits; operates reception facilities and processes asylum applications; and is also responsible for ‘return migration’, encompassing ‘voluntary’ return processes, detention, and deportation. The latter part of the process is also supported by the Swedish police, who conduct internal Schengen border controls and may take decisions on the detainment of foreign nationals. The police also assist in carrying out deportations, with support from the transportation unit of the Prison and Probation Service acting as deportation escorts. For the pandemic year 2020, the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket 2021) reported 28,258 open deportation cases, which had not yet or could not be enforced, compared to 16,271 in 2018. All authorities, including those mandated to use coercive force, operate within discourses of ‘humane, voluntary’, and ‘discrete’ migration enforcement (see DeBono et al., 2015); indeed, an escort from the prison service whom I interviewed assured me that their job was to make deportation a ‘pleasant travel experience’. Some scholars have argued that the ‘humane’ face of Sweden’s migration enforcement regime, with its emphasis on rule of law and migrants’ dignity, leads to ‘goal conflicts’ and impedes the effectiveness of enforcement (Leerkes and van Houte, 2020; Malm Lindberg, 2020). In contrast, I will argue that there are forms of state violence enabled not despite but through such beliefs in the inherently humane or humanitarian nature of the state.

From racial exceptionalism to racial welfare state

The above overview exposes significant differences, but also continuities in the evolvement of the Swedish and Danish deportation regimes. The continuities that I wish to emphasise entail, first, the shared history and founding ideology of the Nordic welfare states, which rely on the exclusion of historically marginalised and racialised groups, who have all – in different ways and at different times – been portrayed as the ‘others’ challenging the imagined homogeneity and cohesion of the welfare state and nation (see Keskinen et al., 2019; Loftsdóttir and Jensen, 2012). These shifting and continuously evolving racial social imaginaries have legitimated the expansion of state powers to govern ‘anti-citizens’ (Khosravi, 2009), ranging from coercive control and surveillance to formal abandonment, which are also used to regulate non-deported people. Secondly, and relatedly, the countries share a generalised belief in the ‘good state’ and a welfare state apparatus characterised by a high level of bureaucratisation, which enhances the lives of ‘members’, but which also holds significant capacity to enact radical exclusion of ‘others’.

‘“Race”’, argues Gloria Wekker (2021: 2–3), ‘is a silent but powerful organizing principle in the way that we have organized society, our knowledge and ourselves […] however much it is denied and disavowed.’ Her argument, which discusses racial inequality in the Netherlands, applies well to the Nordic context. Public and political debates on issues of migration, ‘integration’, and racial inequality in the Nordic countries are characterised by a myth of ‘racial exceptionalism’ (Goldberg, 2006: 353). According to this myth, these countries, which include Denmark and Sweden, are excepted from the history of colonialism, slavery, and repression of historically marginalised groups, and instead marked by their presumed racial homogeneity and ‘humane’, progressive values (Leets Hansen and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019; Loftsdóttir and Jensen, 2012). The myth obscures the ‘colonial complicities’ of Nordic welfare states (Vuorela, 2009), and the processes whereby ‘(post)colonial imaginaries, practices and products’ are incorporated as part of the ‘national’ cultural project of the Nordic states (Keskinen et al., 2009: 17). It makes possible the claim that racism does not exist in the Nordic countries and that they are excepted from global processes that uphold racial inequality, even though they invest in and profit from white supremacist mythologies and the militarised border regime that sustains global mobility apartheid (Arce and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019). The myth of Nordic innocence also silences the erosion of livelihoods and inferiorisation of Sami and Inuit peoples, and the racist policing and interventionist social regulation of Roma, much of which has also taken place under the guise of humanitarianism, solidarity, and welfarism (Keskinen et al., 2019).

In public and political discourse on issues of racism and racial inequality in the Nordic countries (and for a long time, also in academia), ‘racism’ has been narrowly understood as acts and attitudes of discrimination based on beliefs in biological difference. Racism has been perceived as an exterior problem, existing only in the past (see Goldberg, 2006), far away (manifested in the routine dismissal of e.g., racist policing as an ‘American’ problem), or confined to the ‘fringes’ of far-right politics (Danbolt and Myong, 2018). This narrow definition hides the fact that racial hierarchisation and exclusion have been ‘core organizing principles’ in the evolvement of the modern Nordic welfare state, and how ideas of racial superiority/inferiority continue to inform practices of inclusion and exclusion, even as the reference points have shifted from ‘race’ to ‘ethnicity’, ‘cultural values’, ‘traditions’, and so on (Mulinari and Keskinen, 2020: 2; see also Loftsdóttir and Jensen, 2012; Keskinen et al., 2009). Notably, in the twenty-first century, the ‘difference’ around which racism has been organised is embedded in the figure of the migrant.

From the above overview of the politics of immigration in Denmark and Sweden, we learn how immigration has historically been constituted as an exterior threat to the presumably homogeneous, egalitarian welfare societies. Indeed, national myths of homogeneity portray racial difference as something that ‘arrived’ in the Nordic countries with immigration from ‘non-Western countries’ (Keskinen et al., 2009). This ‘migratisation’ of racial inequality (Tudor, 2017: 1057) externalises problems of racism, and sustains the notion that immigration (rather than the differential treatment of people positioned as migrants) destabilises the egalitarianism of the welfare state. This trope has been used to legitimise restrictive policies that reinforce and sustain racial inequalities under the guise of ‘protecting’ the welfare state against the imagined threat posed by racialised migrants. Indeed, such rhetoric was behind the restrictive asylum laws adopted by the Swedish government in 2015 (Mulinari and Neergaard, 2017), and have justified welfare chauvinist policies that exclude non-citizens from social safety nets (Finnsdottir and Hallgrimsdotter, 2019). They have also been instrumentalised to promote the Danish ‘integration’ measures targeting people of so-called non-Western backgrounds for their ‘archaic’ and inferior cultural practices (Rytter, 2018: 683), while portraying the people exposed to such measures as responsible for their own exclusion. The structural racism underpinning Sweden’s and Denmark’s approaches to immigration has been documented and problematised in research detailing racialised migrants’ experiences of encounters with the bordered welfare state (Tervonen, Pellander, and Yuval-Davis, 2018). This literature has captured people’s experiences of racial profiling (Borrelli and Lindberg, 2020; Mulinari and Keskinen, 2020), racial exploitation (Sager and Öberg, 2017), and incarceration and deportation (Arce and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019; Khosravi, 2010). I draw on this body of literature when I investigate the deportation limbo as a site where the structural racism of Nordic welfare states manifests itself.

Bureaucratic exclusion ‘where all is regulated’

The Nordic welfare states were long known for their high social expenditures and relative social equality, with the state primarily manifesting itself in people’s lives via ‘soft’ regulations, such as bureaucratic inscription and public service provisions. However, scholars have debunked the myth of Nordic ‘exceptionalism’, highlighting how the welfare state apparatus also exercises coercive forms of social control (Schierup and Ålund, 2011: 45), and how they, too, have undergone neoliberal restructuring, notably since the 1990s (Baeten et al., 2015). Moreover, scholars of borders and social policy have demonstrated how certain groups of foreign nationals have consistently been denied participation and access to the rights afforded to citizens (Tervonen et al., 2018). Nevertheless, remnants of the idea of welfare exceptionalism and belief in the ‘good state’ prevail within the bureaucratic state apparatus in both Denmark and Sweden. A Red Cross employee who worked in a Danish asylum camp told me, ‘I could never work as part of the system in, say, Hungary, but in Denmark, we have a humane system’ (Lindberg, 2020b: 220). It is worth noting that my interview with this Red Cross worker was focusing on the Red Cross’s participation in operating the Danish deportation camps, which the Minister of Immigration and Integration in office at the time had promised to make as intolerable as possible for the non-deported people living there.

The welfare state ideology with its high level of trust in government institutions is sustained by the above-mentioned colour-blindness, and by a belief in Nordic democracies as inherently progressive, humane, and protective of human rights. Accordingly, when violence or injustices are generated within the bureaucratic state apparatus, these are portrayed as aberrations or deficiencies, external to the welfare state project itself.3 As a reformist project, the welfare state finds answers to any external critique within its own procedures. This has implications for how frontline officials working for state authorities (or NGOs operating on state contract) understood and practised their work, and for the form and content of the critique articulated from ‘within’ the system.

The Danish and Swedish welfare states are also characterised by high levels of bureaucratisation, which together with the widespread public belief in the ‘good’ of the state, has implications for deportable people and others who are excluded from welfare state services. For migrants lacking legal authorisation to remain, the welfare state’s ‘generalised mechanism of enrolment’ (Hörnqvist, 2018: para. 7) has exclusionary implications. The requirement of bureaucratic inscription renders access to the healthcare system, to housing and social benefits, to work, and to leisure activities – from libraries to football clubs – difficult to access for those lacking appropriate documentation (Khosravi, 2010; Tervonen et al., 2018). As Khosravi (2010) has argued, non-deported people are subjected to a form of ‘inclusive exclusion’: they are excluded from welfare services and labour rights, yet may remain included as taxpayers, and as cheap, exploitable labour in the informal labour market. They have legal protections but are vulnerable to intensive law enforcement, and to access minimum welfare, they must produce bureaucratic evidence of their exclusion: to give one example, in Sweden, an NGO working to support non-deported people with legal advice, healthcare, and social benefits explained that to access support, people had to provide documents from authorities proving that they lacked appropriate documentation. As proof, they might have to present a rejected asylum application, or a deportation order.

These strong internal bordering mechanisms and ‘gatekeeping’ were some of the challenges that Issa referred to in our conversation, and which he argued set the Nordic countries apart from, for instance, Southern European countries, where control mechanisms were relatively more relaxed (see Triandafyllidou and Ambrosini, 2011). Hence, if the mechanisms for formal welfare provisions are more rigorous, exclusion is also more orchestrated and, indeed, institutionalised (Floros and Jørgensen, 2020; Rytter and Ghandchi, 2019; Sager and Öberg, 2017). This has implications for how we can understand the forms of structural violence enforced through well-regulated welfare bureaucracies. Davies, Isakjee, and Dhesi (2017: 1269) argue,

Advanced states such as those in northern Europe have ample resources with which to ensure those within its borders are protected from hunger, provided with shelter and given the security required to live without constant fear. Welfare systems are relatively well funded; but just as power can be activated by such states through distribution of provision, exclusionary power can be exerted through its withdrawal.

In Chapters 4 and 5, I discuss the withdrawal and denial of access to welfare for non-deported people as a form of structural violence. At the same time, the withdrawal of rights and services causes tensions among the regulatory welfare state authorities, and the continued presence of non-deported people, and their participation in social, political, and economic life, thus challenges the welfare states’ bureaucratised boundaries of inscription and its capacity for violent exclusion.

Concluding remarks

This chapter has contextualised the politics of deportation in Denmark and Sweden, two Nordic welfare states traditionally known for their generous welfare provisions for members, but also for their strong bureaucratic ‘gatekeeping’ (Triandafyllidou and Ambrosini, 2011: 251) and capacity to regulate, control, and enforce the exclusion of different groups of ‘anti-citizens’ (Khosravi, 2009: 40). This capacity was what made exclusion tangibly felt by non-deported people like Issa. In addition, and as postcolonial and critical border scholars have emphasised, the exclusion of racialised migrants – and historically marginalised groups – is facilitated through the myths of Nordic exceptionalism, and beliefs in a benevolent and indeed, infallible state. While denying that ‘race’ and racism are inherent to Nordic welfarism and egalitarianism, the Nordic countries rely on and profit from notions of racial superiority/inferiority (Wekker, 2016). Their egalitarianism and welfarism, then, are not opposed to racial inequality but presuppose it (Mulinari and Neergaard, 2017). For the purpose of this book, it is important to emphasise how ideas of ‘the state’ as colour-blind and, indeed, ‘good’ lend normative coverage for the state-sanctioned violence, enacted through strong, regulatory bureaucratic structures, which makes racialised border crossers vulnerable to premature death (Gilmore, 2007; Leets Hansen and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019). It is also important to underline that border and immigration control is far from the only policy field where the ‘racial formation’ (Mulinari and Keskinen, 2020: 378) of the Nordic welfare states takes place; indeed, as noted by Tudor (2017), there is a risk that research tracing racism in the field of migration reproduces the idea that racism is something external and indeed, exceptional; something that only applies to people positioned as ‘migrants’. Deportation is but one manifestation of a border regime that on the one hand is part of global processes of racial hierarchisation (Leets-Hansen and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019), and, on the other hand, operates (and always has operated) internally to produce and govern ‘difference’ within the Nordic countries (Tervonen et al., 2018). Therefore, while this book focuses on transnational expulsions and the coercive regulation of international mobility, these practices should also be considered in relation to internal bordering practices that encompass the regulation, assimilation, and expulsion of indigenous and historically marginalised groups. I return to this matter in the concluding chapter.

In this chapter, I have emphasised the similarities and continuities between the ideological and bureaucratic formation of the Danish and Swedish deportation regimes. Needless to say, and as the policy overview also demonstrates, there are also important differences between them. However, in placing emphasis on relations and continuities, I seek to avoid a conventional, ‘comparativist’ account (Goldberg, 2009: 1274), which risks overlooking the ways in which global structures and practices, which are manifested and reconfigured differently across different localities, nevertheless remain interconnected (see also Leets-Hansen and Suárez-Krabbe, 2019). Tracing continuities in the logics and techniques used to govern cross-border mobility enables us to overcome the trap of methodological nationalism (Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002) and of reproducing ahistorical notions of nation states as natural, bounded, and fixed entities. Indeed, deportation regimes produce and reconfigure state borders – and connect them. Deportation regimes are at once globally structured and configured, and locally and intimately felt in their effects (Hiemstra, 2020). Therefore, following Issa’s lead, this account of deportation regimes ‘where all is regulated’ is but a localised starting point for a systemic critique of deportation regimes in their abhorrent ordinariness.


1 This is possible because of a novel form of subsidiary protection introduced in Danish immigration law in 2015, which lowers the bar for when changes in the security situation in a protection holder’s presumed country of origin are considered ‘sustained’ enough to warrant cessation of protection.
2 It is important to note that not only migrants, but also long-term residents and citizens of so-called non-Western background, are targeted by racist policies that circumscribe their access to welfare and criminalise their cultural practices. The most notable manifestation of this is perhaps the laws on so-called parallel societies (formerly ‘ghetto laws’), which single out socio-economically deprived residential areas with more than 50 per cent ‘non-Western’ population for interventionist government programmes of intensified policing, a parallel set of penal codes, and social interventions in children’s upbringing (see Almend modstand, n.d.). As a result of the forced redevelopment plans of the Danish government, 11,000 people were as of 2022 facing the threat of forced eviction and redevelopment based on the racial composition of their neighborhood. The laws on parallel societies demonstrate the complementary ways in which racist laws in Denmark discriminate, stigmatise, and criminalise racialised residents, creating hierarchies between groups that transcend citizenship, and effectuating a system of apartheid (Suárez-Krabbe and Lindberg, 2019).
3 Critiques of discriminatory and harmful practices by authorities are either refuted or generate strong political backlashes. This is illustrated by the political dismissal of critique against e.g. police authorities voiced by researchers (Nefstad and Parsa, 2020), and by the political attacks on ‘activist researchers’ within the fields of migration studies, gender studies, and critical race theory, and scholars working with abolitionist and decolonial approaches in Denmark and in Sweden (see Danbolt and Myong, 2018; Schmidt, 2021; Suárez-Krabbe, 2022).
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Deportation limbo

State violence and contestations in the Nordics


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