Alighting from bus number 381 on a frosty December evening, the three authors found ourselves on a poorly-lit country road. Using our phone torches to avoid tripping over potholes, we made for the nearest light source, and soon found ourselves in front of the main gates of Sjælsmark Deportation Centre. A person-sized entrance opened automatically and we entered, unsure what to expect within.
Sjælsmark is a deportation center in Hørsholm, one hour North of Copenhagen by bus. It was established in February 2015 and is operated by the Danish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalforsorgen). “The mission of the Danish Prison and Probation Service is to contribute to reducing criminality. This mission is shared by the police, the prosecution services and the courts.”. Residents here have not been accused or found guilty of any crime, but are placed here because they are not welcome in Denmark; for example when their request for asylum has been rejected.
After presenting identification to a staff member and being told the rules (no entry to the canteen, no staying after 22:00), we met with our guide for the evening. Rohan is a 20-year-old from Lebanon who has been residing in Sjælsmark for 6 months. He and his brother came to Denmark to join their mother, who has been granted residency and lives in Jutland. Because they are over the age of 18, the brothers were unable to apply for family reunification. Rohan was moved to Sjælsmark while awaiting a decision on whether he can apply for asylum in Denmark; expecting to stay there for only a month or so. As months pass, he has been making the best of the situation by attending classes at Trampoline House as often as possible and learning to play guitar.
The asylum process in the EU is partly legislated by the Dublin III Regulation, which came into effect in January 2014. This lays down criteria for determining which member state is obliged to assess the asylum request of a person arriving from outside Europe. Generally, this is the country in which the individual first arrived or was first identified by local authorities. Clearly, this system does not take into account the person’s plans for where they ultimately wish to live. For example, Rohan was originally identified by authorities in the Czech Republic, and so will be sent there if his appeal is rejected. Other Sjælsmark residents settled in different EU countries after their initial asylum claim was rejected by Denmark; but because of the Dublin III Regulation they were sent back here and ended up in the deportation camp.
Rohan shares a room with his brother; inside they have a table, chairs, and set of bunkbeds. You would be forgiven for mistaking it for basic student accommodation; until you reach the building’s communal shower room, where there is minimal privacy and the odour from neglected institutional drains pervades the corridor. Sjælsmark residents are not allowed to work, and if they plan to visit relatives they must give notice five days in advance. Staff know if you have slept elsewhere, because the electronic key system logs what time you return to your room. If you make an unauthorised visit, you risk losing your fortnightly allowance of 120 Danish kroner (about 16 Euros). With such a meagre sum of “pocket money”, it’s difficult to afford public transport to leave Sjælsmark and participate in Danish life. The state’s goal is clear: make living conditions so intolerable that people will not want to stay.
As we walked around Sjælsmark, it felt clear that it had been used as a prison before. Residents are housed in long, low buildings and the facility is surrounded by tall wire fences. Entering the area with residential buildings required us to double back through a fenced corridor illuminated by blazing floodlights. We found a small grassy area with a playpark, but for the most part we were walking on uneven tarmac.
Entering one of the buildings where families are housed, we were briefly rendered silent as we couldn’t help but compare the cold deportation centre to the cosy-looking homes we had passed on the bus. Looking down a long, featureless corridor, we could hear a baby crying in one of the rooms, and were once again keenly aware of the lack of privacy. Some families share a communal bathroom and must go out into the corridor to access it, while others share an inside bathroom between two apartments.
Rohan took us to visit a family he knew, who apparently have one of the nicest apartments in Sjælsmark. The largest apartments comprise three connected rooms, and here the space had been made homely by its five residents using their own artwork and furniture coverings. While the decor gave the space a warmer feeling, it was hard to miss that there was no kitchen. It is forbidden to cook inside the rooms; residents are expected to eat all their meals at the canteen. Pre-made food is delivered and reheated on-site. Adults and children have periodically been on hunger strike, citing the poor-quality food as a cause of ill health. Fresh fruit and vegetables are minimal, and children report that they regularly experience stomach pains after eating there. Staff are known to enter rooms if they suspect residents have been cooking, and do so with little respect for privacy. “Some of the guards here…treat us badly and don’t have any sympathy. I know that they want us out of the country. Some of them even say ‘You have to leave, you’re not supposed to be in this country’… At least stop treating us inhumanely.”
As our visit drew to a close, we heard several loud gunshots from the nearby military training area. Apparently, this is a regular occurrence. This sort of noise would be intolerable for most people, but is particularly problematic when you consider that Sjælsmark residents may have fled violent oppression to arrive in Denmark. As Rohan stated, “You can think about it like this, they’re going back to their countries, and they hear this…and they’re like ‘Oh I’m going to leave back to this, to the actual firearm or the gunshots’”. The potential mental health implications of living with such daily triggers are extensive. Rohan shared that he asked to see a psychologist and was told he’d have to wait over 3 months for an appointment. As Denmark continues to be at the forefront of PTSD treatment research for refugees, the lack of access to psychological care at Sjælsmark is clearly a political choice.
A group of Sjælsmark residents have been holding a series of protests in Copenhagen over the last month, drawing attention to the detrimental effects the camp is having on the children who live there, and demanding that it be shut down. We were inspired to visit the deportation centre after attending these protests and hearing speeches by the residents in which they encouraged Danes to visit and see the poor conditions for themselves. We asked Rohan what he hopes they will achieve: “For me, personally, I just hope that the people would know [about it] and in the next election would vote differently. I just do whatever I can to let people know about this place. They don’t have to react…even if the people hate the refugees, when they see the place and hear about it, they might have a little sympathy for them.”
The conditions we saw and heard about in Sjælsmark appear to be at odds with the state’s duty to uphold human rights. Denmark has ratified both European and International treaties that support rights to liberty, security, family life, and the highest attainable standard of health. With new proposals by the immigration minister to isolate migrants on a deserted island and questions over whether politicians would attend the meeting for the Global Compact on Migration in Morocco, Denmark is undermining its international reputation as an equal, democratic nation. At the heart of these issues is the question of who the Danish state considers to be “human” and therefore deserving of rights. The message is increasingly clear: people with racialised bodies must be forcibly integrated via so-called “ghetto laws”, or isolated from Danish society. In a time when migrant health is increasingly important to ensuring universal health coverage, Denmark is turning its back on strong evidence, and continues to base its policies on racist values. It remains to be seen whether the Sjælsmark residents’ protests will help stem the tide of populist anti-migrant rhetoric in Denmark.