Annika Lindberg
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Deportation fantasies

The chapter introduces the significant gap between government fantasies of effective and ‘humane’ deportation enforcement, and the violent, and seemingly counterproductive, realities that deportation policies create – not least during an ongoing pandemic. The chapter situates the research within the growing field of deportation studies, on the one hand, and sociological and anthropological research on bureaucracy and ‘the state’, on the other. It proposes the concept ‘deportation limbo’ as a starting point of analysis as well as the conceptual framework of a continuum of state violence. It introduces the empirical material and discusses the ethics and politics of ‘studying up’ the institutions and organisations responsible for enforcing state violence at the border

If deportation is irrational, then perhaps explanations need to examine the fantasies that are made possible through deportation.

(Coutin, 2015: 667)

Deportation is the forced physical removal of people from a given territory. A contemporary method of expulsion, it constitutes an extreme form of exclusion, yet has become a normalised part of the operation of states’ mobility control regimes. States across the so-called Global North, including Denmark and Sweden, which are the focus of this book, are steadily increasing their investments in deportations and expanding the detention centres, deportation camps, and other control techniques set up to facilitate their enforcement. These investments are made despite the significant empirical evidence that such measures systematically fail to address the ‘deportation gap’, denoting the mismatch between the number of deportation orders issued and those enforced (Gibney, 2008). They expose non-deported people to a range of coercive and injurious conditions, such as incarceration, destitution, continuous displacement, and protracted uncertainty. Instead of making them leave, these measures circumscribe their freedoms, wear them down, and sometimes, take their lives. Deportation, therefore, is not a rational response to unruly mobility, but a form of state violence, which suspends lives and traps people in indefinite limbo.

If deportations regularly fail to fulfil their declared purpose, they are, as Susan Coutin (2015) argues, productive failures. They are productive of state violence, as manifested in the steady expansion of state-run and private security apparatuses designed to contain and regulate the mobility of primarily poor, racialised travellers in accordance with the interests of wealthy states in the Global North. Deportations create novel global connections, through international agreements and bilateral deals that trade human lives for visas, development aid, and border guard vehicles (Cassarino, 2020). They also create relationships between people who, displaced not only from the place they once came from but also from where they tried to build a new life, make up the global ‘deportspora’ (Khosravi, 2017a). Deportations are also crucial for politicians to maintain their fantasies that they can control immigration, as illustrated by the Swedish Minister of Immigration’s promise to reclaim control over the country’s borders by deporting 80,000 people within three years after the 2015 summer of migration. The fantasies materialise in expanding archipelagos of ‘mysterious’ enforcement sites, such as detention centres and deportation camps, where puzzled, demobilised prison officers like Niels eat their potatoes, and where non-deported people like Abolfazl Salehian are held under liminal, intolerable conditions that render them vulnerable to premature death (Gilmore, 2007).

Deportation limbo is the systemic, violent, yet normalised consequence of states’ deportation fantasies and the starting point for this book. The purpose of the book is to critically examine and to comprehend the significant violence mobilised to address the deportation limbo, the functions this violence serves, how it has come to be accepted, and its consequences for the people exposed to it, and for the individuals, institutions, and societies that enforce it. A rich body of literature has documented how violent state measures, which encompass incarceration, formal abandonment, and deportability, are experienced and challenged by those affected by them across a range of contexts (see Boochani, 2018; Coutin, 2010; Djampour, 2018; Khosravi, 2009; Sager, 2011; Wyss, 2019). Building on their insights, this book adds to the comparatively limited body of literature on the institutions and frontline workers, encompassing police officers, migration officials and social workers, humanitarian organisations, and prison officers, who are tasked with enforcing detention and deportations (Bosworth, 2014; Borrelli, 2021; Walters, 2019). Using political ethnography as a method of inquiry, the book draws on fieldwork and interviews with key actors and organisations involved in deportation enforcement. In doing so, the book traces how deportation regimes, and the dehumanisation they are premised on, impact and reconfigure the states, societies, and subjectivities of all those involved in their enforcement and contestation. It demonstrates why these practices must end.

The research has been conducted in a time when deportation emerged as a key focus of the politics of migration in the two countries examined in the book, Denmark and Sweden, as well as in Europe as a whole. The intensification of hostile and criminalising political rhetoric targeting ‘undesired’ non-citizens, and the subsequent reification of border controls, expansion of detention facilities, and withdrawal of essential welfare for those positioned as rejected, illegalised, and negatively racialised, demarcate the limit and, indeed, constitutive negative of Nordic egalitarianism, liberalism, and welfarism. The deportation limbo renders visible the racial borders of the welfare state and the struggles and contestations they give rise to. It is my hope that this book will add to existing knowledge – derived from research, from lived experiences, and from the struggles against deportations – of how deportation regimes operate, how the violence they rely on has come to be normalised, and what this violence does to the individuals, states, and societies that enact it.

Deportation as the locus and limit of state control

Deportation is the ‘compulsory removal of “aliens” from the physical, juridical, and social space of the state’ (Peutz and De Genova, 2010: 1). A form of forced displacement, it belongs to a longer history of expulsions, where people have been forcibly displaced as part of colonial conquests and genocides, for the purpose of land appropriations and resource extraction, and as collective or individual punishment (Walters, 2002). Within the growing field of deportation studies, researchers have analysed the driving forces, daily operation, and lived experiences of this now ‘standardized instrument of statecraft’ (Peutz and De Genova, 2010: 3; see Borrelli, 2021; Coutin, 2015; Drotbohm and Hasselberg, 2015; Khosravi, 2017a, 2019; Peutz, 2006; Walters, 2016). To explain the steady expansion of deportation regimes, especially in the Global North, researchers have analysed how deportations expand and reconfigure state powers in a time when states are presumed to have ‘lost control’ over cross-border mobility of humans, goods, and capital (Sassen, 1996: 5). Deportation has also been analysed as a nation-building device: as a ‘technology of citizenship’ (Walters, 2002: 282), it is used to delineate the boundaries of membership in the national community. As such, deportation also forms part of an ‘infrastructure of racism’ (Khosravi, 2019: 114) that serves to confine or expel people to ‘their’ assigned place in a hierarchical, racialised global order. Deportation has also become a global industry, which provides employment and profits to punitive and military branches of the state apparatus, private security and technology companies, humanitarian and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and technocratic experts (Golash-Boza, 2015; Hiemstra, 2020).

These driving forces help explain why we have seen a steady growth in budgets, infrastructures, and sites of detention and deportation in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, in particular in states across the Global North (Besteman, 2020). In the European1 context, which this book focuses on, the gradual expansion of states’ deportation regimes as well as efforts by the European Commission to harmonise deportations among EU member states have been driven by the strategic linking together of notions of ‘uncontrolled’ migration and issues of crime, terrorism, and threats to the welfare and labour rights of citizens. The development of the European deportation regime is illustrative of how political deportation fantasies (Coutin, 2015) extend and expand coercive regulatory powers at the expense of migrants’ freedoms, rights, and lives.

The expansion, harmonisation, and codification of the deportation capacity of states, in addition to the numerical increase in enforced deportations during the 2000s, prompted scholars to declare a ‘deportation turn’ (Gibney, 2008: 146) in European migration control regimes. The Directive 2008/115/EC on common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals, or the 2008 Returns Directive, provided a first comprehensive legal framework for the deportation of people lacking legal authorisation to remain in the EU, and set out common standards for the state-sanctioned violence permitted to ensure its enforcement.2 A renewed deportation turn has arguably taken place since the 2015 long summer of migration. In its proposal for a New Pact on Asylum and Migration, the European Commission (2020) placed ‘returns’ as ‘the main driving force for reform’ (Moraru, 2021), and presented measures for strengthening and harmonising member states’ capacity to identify, arrest, and deport ‘illegally staying third-country nationals’. The proposal contains nothing ‘new’ but suggests more of the same measures: more coercive measures such as detention and surveillance with reduced legal safeguards, renewed investments in militarised border agencies such as the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), and more neo­colonial readmission agreements with countries of deportation (El Qadim, 2014), in which deportable people are traded in return for development aid, trade concessions, and visa facilitation (Cassarino, 2020). As demonstrated in numerous reports by migrant activist networks and research publications, these measures ‘fail’ to fulfil their ostensible purpose, while causing detrimental harm to deportable people’s lives, rights, and freedoms (Freedom of Movements Research Collective, 2018; Statewatch, 2020). Indeed, throughout the 2010s, at the same time as European states have stepped up their deportation capacity, European states have deported around 200,000 people annually (Eurostat, 2019). The numbers encompass deportations from EU member states to so-called third countries as well as ‘transfers’ between European states in accordance with the Dublin Regulation, which permits signatory states to deport people back to the state where they first entered or sought asylum in Europe.3 Still, the over two million people deported in the past decade constitute less than half of the close to five million people who received an order to leave EU member states in the same time period (Eurostat, 2020). For deportations to countries outside the EU, the share of ‘effective returns’ drops below 30 per cent. Those who remain continue to haunt European governments, and the reasons hereto are several.

The people who make up the European ‘deportation gap’ have ended up with a deportation order for various reasons, ranging from an unauthorised entry, a rejected asylum application or a denied prolongation of protection status, an overstayed visa, or a criminal conviction. Some were illegalised immediately upon entry into Europe; others have switched several times between different legal statuses during their stay. Some are pushed back or deported only after a couple of hours, days, or weeks, while others have defied their deportation orders and remained in Europe for years or decades. Yet others have lived their entire lives without residence permit or citizenship, under threat of forced displacement from the country where they were born. I refer to all of those who have received a deportation order but who cannot or refuse to comply the non-deported. They have vastly different trajectories, life histories, and reasons for remaining in Europe, yet share the condition of living under threat of deportation, although their de facto deportability is unevenly distributed along the lines of race, class, gender, and national origin (De Genova, 2016). Many have invested significant time and money and risked their lives to reach Europe. Many have also built lives, families, friendships, and communities in the country they risk being deported from, and many fear what would await them post deportation. These people, and the situation they find themselves in, challenge states’ deportation efforts in a number of ways.

First, and most importantly, the majority of those who are ordered to leave contest and resist deportations. They may refuse to disclose their identity, destroying or forging documents and signifiers (Keshavarz, 2018); go underground; or move on to another state (Wyss, 2019). They also deploy visible resistance strategies ‘in the courts or on the street’ (Gibney, 2008: 147), appealing deportation orders and mobilising protests or sit-ins, or physically blocking deportations (Ataç, Rygiel, and Stierl, 2016; Nyers, 2019). A second reason why deportations cannot be enforced is found in international politics: deportations might be halted due to human rights constraints, notably the principle of non-refoulement; or, a country may refuse to accept back their citizens or stateless persons (SOU (Statens Offentliga Utredningar) 2017:84). A third set of factors include practical or bureaucratic hurdles to enforcement, such as missing travel documents; slow, protracted bureaucratic processes (Eule et al., 2019); or logistical reasons, such as a lack of travel routes and closed borders – or an ongoing pandemic. Hence, the continued presence of the non-deported challenges the exclusionary efforts of states.

Non-deported people are ‘physically present but legally ambiguous’ (Coutin, 2010: 201); in legal terms, they ‘should not exist’ (Heegaard Bausager et al., 2013: 4). Their presence disrupts political fantasies of a linear deportation process and of a world where bodies neatly belong within state borders and are kept in ‘their’ place within the national order of things (Malkki, 1995). Even as states have an interest in tacitly tolerating their existence – non-deported people often serve as a highly precarious and exploitable labour force (De Genova, 2002) – their ‘haunting’ presence serves as a reminder of the limits of state control over mobility. This condition exposes them to a range of violent state practices mobilised to enforce their physical, political, and legal disappearance from the territory, including forced expulsion, incarceration, and criminalisation, and indefinite encampment and destitution. To capture the condition that enables and activates these different forms of state violence, I develop the term deportation limbo, which encompasses a condition of liminal legality, temporal uncertainty, and physical and social marginalisation. Rather than a mere ‘implementation gap’, I argue that limbo emerges as a systemic, if not consciously orchestrated, effect of states’ deportation fantasies.

Locating the deportation limbo

This is not heaven, it is not hell. It’s torture to keep people here for long when they cannot deport you. People shouldn’t stay in a situation like this.

This is how Aya, an activist and resident of Avnstrup deportation camp in Denmark, describes the torturous condition of being stuck in non-deportability, in a state of in-betweenness, of being in limbo. Etymologically, ‘limbo’ stems from Latin and means ‘edge’ or ‘border’. Limbo is also the first circle of hell in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy. Dante’s hell encompasses nine circles, each with its own horrors. As the threshold of hell, limbo is inhabited by those who are without guilt but are condemned to live in a lesser form of heaven. Limbo is a condition that does not result from choice but from the lack thereof.

‘Limbo’ was a term frequently used by people holding different positions in the deportation regime. Some people who, like Aya, lived in a state of non-deportability used limbo to describe the feeling of being physically and existentially stuck, of torturous and meaningless waiting. Somewhat ironically, I also heard frustrated state officials claim to be ‘in limbo’ when confronted with the non-deportability of people who either resisted deportation, or whose presumed countries of origin refused to accept them. As one migration official told me, ‘there are cases where we can’t do shit. What politicians and the media don’t seem to understand, is that we cannot just simply put people on a plane.’ Meanwhile, activists and migrants’ rights advocates have used ‘limbo’ to draw attention to the absurd and adverse consequences of the restrictive interpretations of immigration law that render non-deported people stuck in a condition where they are denied the right to remain but cannot be forced to leave (see Lundberg, 2017). What these different experiences of ‘limbo’ have in common is a sense of what Ghassan Hage (2009: 97) has termed ‘stuckedness’, the deprivation of choice or direction, frustration and resignation before ‘the system’, and experiences of neglect and abandonment. In academic research and reports, limbo has been a term used to capture the ‘legal in-betweenness’ (Cabot, 2012: 17) characterising the situation for people who are waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, or the lived experience of those who are indefinitely trapped in camps and border zones (Boochani, 2018; Mountz, 2011). Others have used it to describe the condition of protracted (non-)deportability (Clante Bendixen, 2011; De Coulon, 2015). Finally, in legal terms, limbo has been referred to as the particular situation where a person can neither be forcibly deported nor qualify for residence permit (SOU 2017:84). Building on these different yet interconnected captions, I propose a definition that accounts for the torturous and injurious effects of being in limbo, but also for its internal contradictions and contestations.

The conceptualisation of deportation limbo that I propose entails, first, a condition of liminal legality, where people lacking fixed status are ‘at once no longer classified and not yet classified’ (Turner, 1967: 96, cited in Menjívar, 2006: 1007). Legal limbo is systemically produced through restrictive interpretations of immigration and asylum law, but also through contradictions within the legal system. Rather than simply being excluded by law, the condition of liminal legality renders people ‘simultaneously accountable to the law but also excludes them from legal protections or rights’ (Menjívar and Abrego, 2012: 1385). As this book will demonstrate, liminal legality is not constructed through exceptionality, but through an intricate web of laws that render people’s entire lives into objects of regulation, discipline, and criminalisation. Hence, limbo is a condition that marginalises: non-deported people generally have limited or no access to jobs, housing, education, and healthcare. It is a condition that disciplines, as it keeps people vulnerable to the unpredictable violence of detention, destitution, and deportation. It is economically and politically generative, since non-deported people can be used to fuel the border industrial complex and as exploitable labour (De Genova, 2002), or be instrumentalised as scapegoats in racist political discourse (Elsrud, 2020). Second, the deportation limbo materialises in certain spatial configurations: as a bordering process, deportation not only delineates an inside and outside of a territory but also produces liminal spaces in between. Geographer Alison Mountz (2020: 23) has suggested that the border ‘as a site of crossing has been replaced by “revolving door” and legal limbo’. This shift is manifested in the expanding archipelago of detention camps and other confinement-like sites (see Bosworth, 2014; Gill, 2016; Turner et al., 2022), but the ‘revolving doors’ can also be found in the waiting halls of bureaucratic offices, police stations, and homelessness shelters (Schmid-Scott, 2018). These sites are interconnected as non-deported people are pushed back and forth between them as a ‘floating population of exiles’ (Sanchez Boe, forthcoming). This brings us to the third dimension of the deportation limbo, which is its temporal indeterminacy. Non-deportability implies a state of suspended, even permanent impermanence (Bendixsen and Eriksen, 2018; Brun, 2015), which might last for a few days or go on for decades. In this process, people’s time is stolen (Khosravi, 2019) and weaponised to wear them down into compliance by trapping them in a protracted state of waiting, or by pushing them into incessant circulation through repeated cycles of deportation and re-migration (Canning and Bhatia, 2021). Nevertheless, law, space, and time can also be appropriated as sites and means of struggle, as non-deported people contest deportation orders, keep on living their lives, and ‘wait out’ the state (Hage, 2009). Deportation limbo is therefore a site where we can observe the violent efforts by state authorities to retain control over unruly mobility, and to produce and enforce distinctions between those whose lives are valuable, and which ones are disposable. Yet these are also sites where we encounter the limits of these control efforts, and the fissures and gaps between state fantasies of effective enforcement, and the messy, violent realities they generate.

Deportation and the COVID-19 pandemic

At the time of writing, in 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing. It has drastically affected the conditions of mobility within and across state borders worldwide. At the onset of the pandemic, containing human mobility was among the first, almost automated, reactions by governments trying to address the uncontrolled spread of the virus (Anderson, 2020). In European countries, the virus was framed as an exterior threat, as were cross-border travellers (as well as minoritised citizens, who were politically stigmatised and blamed for their disproportionate exposure to illness), leading to increases in the use of pushbacks and confinement directly at state borders under the pretext of protecting public health (see Ghezelbash and Tan, 2021). Next to border closures, the pandemic sparked a proliferation of confinement practices such as mandatory quarantines, ostensibly for the protection of citizens and border crossers alike, although confinement often turned out to be ‘anything but protective’ (Tazzioli and Stierl, 2021: 78), instead exposing people to heightened risks of contagion and other harms to their health.

The health hazard resulting from migration-related confinement led the European Commissioner for Human Rights (2020) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2020) to call on states to release incarcerated migrants from facilities where it was impossible to maintain physical distancing. For a brief period, some European governments, such as Spain, followed the recommendations, and released people from detention; and in Portugal, non-deported people were formally granted access to welfare services (although access remained limited in practice). Several countries temporarily suspended deportations within Europe, as air traffic nearly came to a halt. Yet, they soon resumed. Overall, the very limited regard that governments paid to the health of non-deported people and others with precarious legal status has led researchers to suggest that the pandemic has supplemented the ‘global mobility apartheid’ (Balibar, 2004: 9) with a ‘sanitary apartheid’ (Heller, 2021: 113), in which mobility control regimes are used as measures to differentiate between people whose lives are worth safeguarding from the virus, COVID-19, and lives that can be put at risk. Sanitary mobility apartheid does not only endanger the health of the people who are contained, confined, or deported, but also captures the disregard for how deportations spread the virus to their countries of presumed origin (ECRE, 2020). The Afghan government pleaded to European countries to halt all deportations during the pandemic, as the country was already struggling to provide care for citizens returning from neighbouring countries. Their demands went unheard.

The Nordic countries are cases in point here. During the pandemic, I have been engaged in efforts initiated by migrants’ advocacy groups to investigate conditions of detained and deportable people in Denmark and Sweden (see Ellebæk contact network, 2020; Häythiö et al., 2020). In Denmark, we initially saw the number of detained people drop between March and June 2020. Denmark also suspended Dublin deportations to prevent further transmission within Europe. However, Danish authorities continued trying to carry out deportations to countries outside Europe, and no initiative was taken to release detained people who, due to international travel restrictions, were non-deportable. Meanwhile, in Denmark’s crammed detention and deportation camps, authorities introduced further restrictions to people’s freedoms, adding to the lack of safety and sense of uncertainty already experienced by many detained people (Stokholm et al., 2021).

In Sweden, authorities declared at the onset of the pandemic that they would continue detaining and deporting people as usual. In April 2020, the Swedish Network of Asylum and Refugee Support (FARR) conducted a survey among detained people to investigate how far authorities had followed their own regulations for how to protect detained people from the virus. I partook in the analysis of the survey, which demonstrated significant shortcomings in authorities’ implementation of rules and guidelines for how to prevent the virus from spreading inside detention facilities (Häythiö et al., 2020). We found that no measures were taken to facilitate access to healthcare, shelter, food, or sanitary facilities for homeless migrants at risk of deportation (Lindberg et al., 2020). Hence, the pandemic has, if anything, exposed states’ continuous prioritisation of migration enforcement over non-deported people’s health. The fact that deportations have continued to operate with ‘tick-tock regularity’ (Mountz, 2020: 13) during this time demonstrates that the global health ‘crisis’ has only reified the uneven distribution of vulnerability and access to mobility along the lines of race and class on a global scale. If anything, it makes the study of the state violence that maintains these structures even more pertinent.

A continuum of state violence: defining the stakes and the state

Annika: Could you tell me what a deportation process looks like?

Henrik: The best-case scenario is when a deportation proceeds without us having to pacify the deportee; that is, when we don’t need to use force. I also have to say, that if we have a layover in a country, I try to have a look around as it will usually be a country that I would not have visited privately. I can get some insights into the local conditions there.

Annika: And what kind of scenarios do you find particularly challenging?

Henrik: The most challenging cases are when there are children around, and when they have to watch as we pacify their mother, their father or both, because they are making trouble and try to resist the deportation. And more generally, it can be incredibly challenging if the deportee resists all the way, if they make a number two into the diaper that we put on them. If we suspect that a deportee might shit themselves during the deportation, we put a diaper on them before we get them in the car from the detention centre to the airport. This way, we prevent such accidents from happening.

Henrik is a Danish border police officer whose primary job is to enforce deportations. Our conversation took place in 2017 at the border police headquarters, which used to be the site – until the so-called Danish Return Agency (Hjemrejsestyrelsen) took over in 2020 – where deportations from Denmark were scheduled, identity documents checked, flight tickets booked, and the act of deportation meticulously planned by the police. Henrik describes a successful deportation as a smooth operation entailing minimal use of ‘pacification’ measures, which he uses as a code word for physical force. His ideal scenario is that the person in question ‘voluntarily’ cooperates in the deportation process – and Henrik gets the opportunity to explore a novel travel destination. In Henrik’s account, we can discern two parallel realities: one in which deportation is a professionalised procedure of calculated, routinised, and ‘strangely technical choreography of “non-lethal” force’ (Makaremi, 2018), and where the deportation itself is an event, and an opportunity for an explorative journey. In the parallel reality, the ‘event’ of corporal removal is but one stage in a protracted deportation process, which might already have plagued and disrupted the deportable person’s life and social relations for years (Drotbohm and Hasselberg, 2016). For the person who is deported, the ‘event’ of deportation, as Henrik readily admits, is likely to be experienced as turbulent, traumatising, violent, and degrading.

Henrik’s account of deportation enforcement only captures a fraction of the deportation process and represents only one extreme end of a continuum of state violence mobilised to govern the deportation limbo. My understanding of this violent continuum, and of the context-specific politics of naming it as ‘violence’, emerged through conversations with people holding very different positions in the deportation regime. From state officials like Henrik, I learnt about the various discursive and material techniques – from codified language to manuals and the technification of force – they used to obscure the violent nature of deportation, and how this violence run through them. Meanwhile, resident activists in the Danish deportation camps taught me about the other end of the continuum: namely, the ‘slow’ violence of imposed isolation, and the structural violence of poverty and formal abandonment.

The violence of the deportation limbo comes in multiple forms and mobilises a range of state and non-state actors. Studying the operation of this violence offers a lens for understanding the actors, processes, and practices that constitute ‘the state’ at the border. Following Trouillot (2001: 127), I understand ‘the state’ not as a unitary apparatus but as a ‘set of processes’ and practices, which constantly produce new spaces for the deployment of power. This book builds on anthropological and sociological scholarship looking at how ‘the state’ materialises through the enactment of violence, which can be direct and coercive (Fassin, 2014; Sutton and Vigneswaran, 2011), indirect and structural (Gupta, 2012; Povinelli, 2011), symbolic and stupefying (Graeber, 2012), magical (Taussig, 1997), and always, affective (Aretxaga, 2000; Laszczkowski and Reeves, 2017; Stoler, 2004). More specifically, the book traces the expansion and reconfiguration of state powers taking place through the deployment of a continuum of violence, mobilised to govern the non-deported. I borrow the notion of a violent continuum from Scheper-Hughes and Bourgeois (2003:1), who include in this concept direct acts of physical violence; structural violence, including exposure to ‘poverty, hunger, social exclusion and humiliation’; and symbolic violence, which reconfigures the subjectivities of those affected, as continuous and complementary forms of violence. Translated into the context of deportation regimes, we can identify direct forms of violence in the forced deportation proceeding described by Henrik, and in the violent pushbacks taking place at the EU’s external borders (Border Violence Monitoring Network, 2020). We also find it in the routine incarceration of non-deported people in prison-like detention camps, where they are routinely exposed to degrading treatment, physical and verbal abuse, and arbitrary deprivations of rights and liberties (Arbogast, 2016). The use of direct, corporal violence, and the significant efforts made to mask, redress, and legitimise it and its harmful effects, are discussed in Chapters 2 and 3.

Of equal importance to understanding how states govern the deportation limbo are the structural forms of violence (Galtung, 1969), which include protracted exposure to impoverishment, degradation and isolation, absence of healthcare, and everyday exclusion. In contrast to the spectacularised violence of coercive control, structural violence is enforced through the removal of possibilities to sustain a liveable life; through encampment (Davies, Isakjee, and Dhesi, 2017), impoverishment (Mayblin, Wake, and Kazemi, 2019), and formal abandonment (Kalir and van Schendel, 2017). These forms of violence often go unrecognised, since the harms they inflict are not immediately visible: they are expressions of ‘slow’ violence, which kills by ‘letting die’ (Povinelli, 2011) or, in the words of activists in the Danish deportation camps, which ‘kills you, slowly’ (Castaway Souls, 2016). The notion of ‘slow’ violence also highlights how time is weaponised as a technique of control and discipline (Khosravi, 2019), and how it causes protracted harms that may last longer than the violence itself. Slow violence helps us to capture the haunting relation between the lasting violence of the deportation limbo and the premature death of Abolfazl Salehian. This connection is explored in Chapters 4 and 5.

Understanding state violence as a continuum challenges the notion that violence is exceptional, manifested only in instances of (extra-legal) abuse or rights violations. The prevalence of extra-legal violence in deportation processes has been extensively documented in research reports by human rights organisations, and migrants’ advocacy groups (Asylum Commission, n.d.; Danish Institute for Human Rights, 2016; Freedom of Movements Research Collective, 2018; Arbogast, 2016; Statewatch, 2020). There are also examples of such violations here. However, the systemic forms of violence detailed here – from the routine, administrative incarceration of people for ‘motivational’ purposes and forced testing for COVID-19 for the purpose of deportation enforcement, to the denial of access to food, shelter, and medical treatment – are all, as Menjívar and Abrego (2012, 1387) argue, ‘embedded in legal practices, sanctioned, actively implemented through formal procedures, and legitimated – and consequently seen as “normal” and natural because it “is the law”’. Re-politicising these practices as violence is a step towards denaturalising them and calling into question the artificial distinctions between ‘violence’ and ‘force’, and between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forced’ deportations. Indeed, tracing the continuum of state violence mobilised to govern non-deported people not only enables a comprehensive documentation of the human costs at stake in the increasingly restrictive, deportation-oriented European politics of migration. It also enables an exploration of the systemic, and, indeed, constitutive function of this specific form of border violence for ‘the state’ as such.

Borders produce categories of citizens and non-citizens, and assign them hierarchies of value, rights, and freedoms. Borders are ‘infrastructures’ of racism (Khosravi, 2019: 421), which generate group-specific vulnerabilities, including physical, social, and psychological injuries, and cause deaths (Gilmore, 2007) that are either intentional or foreseeable. Postcolonial and abolitionist scholars have underscored the colonial roots of border regimes (Davis and Dent, 2000; Mongia, 2018; Samaddar, 2020), and how the racially hierarchical worldviews that emerged during this era continue to characterise borders in the present (Mayblin et al., 2019; Sharma, 2021). Borders rely on a hierarchical division of humanity, which devalues a large proportion of the world’s population to the status of non-human (Grosfoguel et al., 2015), denying them access to mobility freedom, resources, and a liveable life. Borders’ inherently racial logic and the coloniality of the mechanisms used for their enforcement have led scholars to describe the global mobility regime as a system of apartheid (Balibar, 2004; Besteman, 2020). Indeed, even as racial categorisations have vanished from the official vocabulary of border and immigration law, this legal regime perpetuates a hierarchical conception of humanity founded on racial matrices. We see ‘race’ re-appear in the political discourses that portray racialised4 travellers as a threat to the culture, values, and security of their nations; and in the uneven exposure to border violence, including policing, detention, and deportation. Racism, then, is what normalises the state-sanctioned production and exploitation of racialised border crossers’ vulnerability to premature death (Gilmore, 2007: 28).

Addressing the foundational role of racism in states’ border-making projects is important to understand how the state-sanctioned violence detailed in this book, including incarceration, deportation, destitution, and dehumanisation of non-deported people, becomes publicly accepted as part of the normal operation of ‘migration enforcement’. It also enables us to deconstruct and move beyond the often-cited ‘paradox’ that the Nordic states, which proclaim their commitment to values such as humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and universal welfare, simultaneously engage in violent exclusion of those conceived as others (cf. Barker, 2013; Franko, 2020). Approaching race as a systemic and structuring feature of border and deportation regimes also takes discussions on racism beyond individual or group attitudes circulating among those propagating and enforcing deportations, including frontline officials and the broader public. It permits us to see how the violence that deportation mobilises comes to be perceived as acceptable, even necessary, and possible to enforce with ‘the best intentions’.

A political ethnography of deportation enforcement

This book centres on the institutions and actors enforcing violence at the border. They are at once involved in the dehumanisation of non-deported people and, as I will argue, dehumanised and brutalised through this very same process. My interest in ‘studying up’ (Nader, 1972) the structures and actors of deportation enforcement departed from my personal experience of working as an asylum caseworker at the Swedish Migration Agency between 2012 and 2013. My role was to process asylum applications, conduct asylum interviews, and write decisions on residence permits, but also detention and deportation orders. I was unsettled by the speed at which we were expected to conduct asylum interviews, by the default suspicion inscribed in the procedure, by the abrupt silencing – of grief, of anger, and of the messiness of lived realities – that characterised the formulaic re-ordering of people’s asylum narratives as they were recorded and routinely copy-pasted into asylum decisions. I learnt that ‘refugeeness’ was a label that was granted or rejected depending on which decision maker I consulted, on the universalising and inferiorising stereotypes they held about certain national groups, on their mood of the day – or on what they had for lunch. I felt how the bureaucratic stupidity described by David Graeber (2012), and the social indifference outlined by Michael Herzfeld (1992), dehumanised the people behind the case files, and reduced me as a caseworker to a function of red tape and an almost fictional role in a performance of due process. I also noticed how we as asylum caseworkers were remarkably disconnected from the implications of the decisions we made: as a fellow caseworker once noted, we had never been asked whether we knew or told what a detention or deportation order implied before we started issuing them.

None of these observations would surprise the people who have been through an asylum procedure, or the lawyers and advocates who support them – or the bureaucratic officials working within the system of migration control. Yet the experiences informed the questions I asked in this research, and the people I asked them to. Accordingly, this research has focused on how state violence translates into everyday practice, and how the actors tasked with enforcing it interpret, perform, justify, or refute their role in these violent arrangements. As anthropologist Laura Nader (1972: 284) argued, ‘studying up’ permits us to critically examine the ‘processes whereby power and responsibility are exercised’, and, I would add, how power and (ir)responsibility operates on those who are enacting it. In taking a political ethnographic approach as a method for studying these processes, this book adds to the work of critical migration and border scholars who have used political ethnography to analyse external and internal bordering practices (Eule et al., 2019; Hiemstra, 2020; Kapoor and Narkowicz, 2019), decision making in visa procedures (Infantino, 2021), asylum decision making (Cabot, 2012; Johannesson, 2017), migration-related detention (Bosworth, 2014; Gill, 2016; Hall, 2010), and deportation processes (Borrelli, 2021; Sutton and Vigneswaran, 2011). This body of research has demonstrated how ‘street-level bureaucrats’ (Lipsky, 1980), who interact directly with border crossers in their everyday work and make decisions that impact their lives, play an important role in making and reconfiguring border regimes ‘on the ground’. In this book, I use a similar approach, while also expanding the common definition of street-level officials to encompass professionals working for NGOs in close collaboration with state authorities or even on state contracts. As previous research has discussed, their role as gatekeepers of rights and benefits, and their position vis-à-vis non-deported people, is often similar to that of state officials (see Kalir and Wissink, 2016; Lindberg, 2020b). I therefore understand all these actors as frontline workers (see Borrelli and Trasciani, 2019) who are ‘petty empowered … the dominated segment of the dominant’ (Marcus, 2000: 3); at once complicit in and subjected to the control and discipline they are enacting.

Here, the crucial questions must be asked of whether centring state agents does not entail a risk that the voices and perspectives of the dominant are amplified at the expense of those oppressed in the deportation regime. While the ethics and politics of this research are discussed in further length in the Appendix, I want to reflect on the ethical-political question posed by Tuck and Yang (2014: 223): ‘How do we develop an ethics for research that differentiates between power – which deserves a denuding, indeed petrifying scrutiny – and people?’. In their article on ethnographic refusals, Tuck and Yang (2014; see also Simpson, 2008) take issue with the common assumption that research is always the intervention that is required, and necessarily an act of good. They criticise the routine extraction and commodification of oppressed people’s stories of pain and suffering and highlight the symbolic and epistemic violence that characterise much of academic practice. Border and migration research is not spared from such criticism but has been problematised as a research industry that with its obsession with border crossers, naturalises and reifies the state-centric order it should be calling into question (Cabot, 2019). Moreover, the field has been called out for extracting and profiting from the stories of and about ‘others’ without ever acknowledging these others as knowledgeable subjects (Khosravi, 2020; for a discussion on the uneven distribution of power and labour and coloniality of knowledge in ‘migration studies’, see Cabot, 2019; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2020). The border and migration research field as practised in the European context also tends to reproduce hegemonic, Northern- and state-centric, sedentary perspectives (Bejarano et al., 2019), where border crossers are produced as anomalies to the national order of things, and ahistorically posited as ‘outsiders’ of nation states (Malkki, 1995). Meanwhile, what is obscured in such accounts are the historical and ongoing global processes of colonialism, violent dispossession, and exploitation that have shaped ‘the state’ and produced the figure of ‘the migrant’ in the first place.

This research is embedded in and part of these problematic structures of academic knowledge production. Yet it is my hope that, by turning the lens towards the structures and actors that generate and perpetrate the conditions that cause suffering, illegalisation, and dehumanisation, rather than towards the people targeted by these practices, the book will contribute to the ‘denuding’ (Tuck and Yang, 2014) of power. Relatedly, if research on state actors runs the risk of reifying ideas of ‘the state’ as a unitary, bounded, and fixed object of analysis (Abrams, 1988), I maintain that the risk of essentialising and naturalising ‘the state’ as a container of political and social analysis is even greater if we do not critically scrutinise the ideas and violent practices through which it materialises. The potential of political ethnography to challenge the bordered order that deportation fantasies are meant to perform lies in its ability not only to uncover but to contextualise and re-politicise the often messy, violent, and contested processes that seek to naturalise the national order as the natural order of things.

The research: patchworks of ethnographic observations and engagements

State control of non-deported people is carried out in migration offices and police stations, in migration-related detention and deportation camps, in social welfare offices – and on the streets. Many of these sites are remote, securitised, and inaccessible places, obscured from public view (Mountz, 2020). To some extent, this invisibility is orchestrated and serves distinctive political ends, with implications for how far, and under what conditions, they can be researched (Bosworth and Kellezi, 2016; Kalir et al., 2019). The detention and deportation camps where non-deported people are held in Denmark are embedded in the security branch of the state apparatus; in Sweden, they form part of a highly politicised bureaucratic field. In both contexts, ‘the field’ of deportation enforcement is messy and ever-changing, the sites of enforcement constantly reconfigured through political and legislative amendments and bureaucratic re-organisation. As a result, the trajectory of my research was messy, too. It was contingent upon uneven and partial access to detention and deportation camps, which I was granted through a piecemeal process: partly because of luck, and partly due to gendered prejudice and white privilege.

Research access is one of the processes where the racialised, gendered, and classed division of labour within academic research is manifested (see Vanyoro, Hadj-Abdou, and Dempster, 2019). In this case, whiteness, understood a structural position of social privilege, led research participants to ascribe me a position of shared belonging with the ‘state’ and ‘nations’ they worked for vis-à-vis the deportable ‘others’. As such, I was perceived as harmless, which enabled my access to securitised state institutions. The formal access that I was eventually granted remained partial and time limited. The research project is therefore better described as a ‘patchwork ethnography’, which Günel, Varma, and Watanabe (2020) describe as a method combining ‘short-term field visits, using fragmentary yet rigorous data’, with ‘long-term commitments, and contextual knowledge’, yet which also acknowledges the changing nature both of the field and of the living and working conditions that structure how and under what conditions we conduct our research. My research consisted of several shorter stints of fieldwork combined with long-term relational engagements, and therefore differs from ‘traditional’ ethnographic research projects (the standard against which my research, and the research of other precariously employed junior scholars, is regularly measured). The research encompassed several month-long periods of fieldwork, including observation studies inside locked migration detention centres in both Denmark and Sweden, in a Danish deportation camp, and in migration offices and departure housing units in Sweden. These observations were complemented by interviews with police officers, lawyers, social workers, and representatives of NGOs and migrants’ advocacy groups in both countries; a full list of sites of observation and interviews is provided in the Appendix.

The fieldwork in detention and deportation camps focused on the frontline workers involved in enforcing deportations and included participant observation and interviews. My fieldwork schedule usually followed the shifts of officers, and I followed frontline workers in their everyday work, observing their interactions with each other and with detained or deportable people. As I spent time with staff while they were undertaking their daily tasks (which, among other things, included monitoring surveillance cameras, escorting detained people around the premises, or registering information in their case files), and had endless cups of coffee on the couches or armchairs in staff offices, I became familiar with what officials did, and what they did not do; what they saw, and what they chose not to see; what they said, and what they did not bother to talk about. During research inside detention – arguably among the most ethically and politically fraught among the research sites – being a white woman of relatively young age fixed my position in the racial, gendered, sexual, and classed order of the detention regimes. I stopped counting the times I was told, ‘we don’t mind some additional female company’ and ‘you don’t look so dangerous to me’. As a woman and junior researcher, I was also variably sexualised by research participants (in particular by white men) or ascribed the position of a vulnerable object of care and protection, especially in the hypermasculinised Danish deportation prison. It also allowed me to benefit from what Zachary Whyte has suggested we call ‘mansplaining as method’, as officials regularly sought to re-educate me and challenge my ‘leftist and politically correct’ opinion on matters of migration, crime, and state violence. Through our conversations, then, I learnt of their perceptions of their roles, how they practised them, and the consequences of the policies they were enforcing. The interviews with police officers, lawyers, social workers, and representatives of NGOs and migrants’ support groups provided complementary perspectives on the ways in which deportations are enforced and contested, on the positioning of the different ‘arms’ of the state in relation to one another. They enabled me to trace how authorities sought to control, regulate, and make disappear non-deported people beyond the sites of confinement, and how they balanced the intertwined logics of care and repression in their everyday work.

Next to my research on the agents of enforcement of states’ deportation regimes, the book is informed by the ongoing struggles against deportations organised by and in support of non-deported people in Denmark and Sweden. The testimonies from non-deported people cited in this book come mostly from people involved in these struggles. Their analyses of deportation regimes, stemming from their lived and situated knowledge of state violence, have informed this book to a great extent: from how Castaway Souls named the ‘slow violence’ of the Danish deportation camps, to the insights about the ambivalent positioning of humanitarian actors within the deportation regime. The extracts from conversations with people living the deportation limbo have taken place in Danish deportation camps, at demonstrations and sit-in protests in Stockholm and Copenhagen, and on walks through Paris. Together, these different perspectives make up a patchwork of observations of the mundane enforcement and ‘asymmetrical negotiations’ (Eule et al., 2019: 5) in the deportation regime.

When we enumerate our research participants, I believe that we do not emphasise often enough the conversations and engagements with colleagues and friends and how they help us articulate and refine our analyses. This book has come about through such collaborations and ongoing dialogues. Some friends have been present throughout the research process, while others have been with me as imaginative conversation partners also in the lonely moments of writing. As a way of acknowledging the inherently collaborative – and ongoing – nature of the thought processes behind this book, I have included extracts from conversations and exchanges with four people who have been immensely important for this research as well as for my learning process: Lisa Borrelli, Shahram Khosravi, Steve Nwaogu Stanley, and Julia Suárez-Krabbe. While writing this manuscript, I asked each of them to reflect on selected quotations or ethnographic vignettes that appear in the book and which illustrate experiences we share, or issues that I have come to understand better through our dialogues. With their consent, I have included extracts of our conversations in different parts of the book.

Chapter guidance

In the prologue, the reader was introduced to Sjælsmark deportation camp, and to Niels and Abolfazl. The purpose of this book is to investigate the state violence mobilised to enforce deportations, the role and positioning of Niels and his colleagues who are tasked with enacting it, and how it produces the premature death of Abolfazl and others stuck in the deportation limbo. The point is not to identify and point out individual perpetrators of this violence, but to analyse its systemic nature, and how it comes to be perceived as a normal and, indeed, necessary part of border and migration politics. It is my hope that the book will contribute to challenging the normalisation of the conditions that permit non-deported people like Abolfazl to live and end their life ‘intolerably’.

Chapter 1 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, instead I highlight the 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 imaginations of social, cultural, and racial homogeneity. Second are the bureaucratised welfare state apparatuses, ostensibly designed to foster and protect the lives of the population, but which are also mobilised to render the lives of those excluded from the welfare state, including non-deported people, unliveable. The chapter sets the scene for the empirical investigations that follow.

The empirical chapters are structured in accordance with the violent continuum that I argue organises deportation regimes. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on direct violence and coercive control and consist of ethnographic investigations of migration-related detention in Denmark and Sweden, respectively. Here, the protagonists are people like Henrik, whose job is to incarcerate and enforce deportation orders, variably using criminalisation and symbolic punishment (in Denmark) and discourses of benevolence and care (in Sweden) as techniques of discipline and control. The next two chapters discuss the indirect forms of violence mobilised to pressure non-deported people to leave by making their lives unliveable. Chapter 4 returns to Sjælsmark deportation camp, the site of Niels and Abolfazl’s interaction, and describes the ‘mysterious’ conditions of semi-confinement that Niels and his colleagues were supposed to enforce, and the ‘slow violence’ experienced by those confined in the deportation camps. Chapter 5 traces the technique of formal abandonment and derecording of non-deported people in Sweden. It details the narratives of responsibilisation that migration officials draw on to enforce so-called voluntary deportations, while withdrawing the latter’s access to minimum welfare provisions. Whereas the first three chapters focus on the structures and agents of deportation enforcement, Chapters 4 and 5 also consider how non-deported people navigate and struggle against the deportation regime, by staying put, refusing to disappear, or moving on.

Together, these policies form the framework within which the asymmetric struggles over the deportation limbo take place. The concluding chapter revisits the main empirical and analytical arguments of the book, and discusses how deportation regimes, and the continuum of state violence they mobilise, extend transnationally as part of the global apartheid regime, and internally, as one of the mechanisms through which racialised state borders are produced and maintained within societies. It also considers how state violence colonises the identity not only of those who are exposed to it, but also those who partake in enforcing it. Finally, I turn the lens to academic research and discuss what kind of knowledge is or can be useful for documenting and challenging border and deportation regimes, and the violence which sustains them.


1 By ‘Europe’ and the ‘European’ deportation regime, I am here referring to the states that have signed the Schengen and Dublin Agreements. These states also form part of the historical and political project of ‘Europe’. The continuous assertion of the geographical, discursive, and judicial boundaries of ‘European’ space is instrumentalised in order to reify an image of a peaceful, coherent Europe in relation to ‘third countries’ and ‘their’ crises, problems, and conflicts (see Casas-Cortes et al., 2015).
2 The Directive establishes that it is the duty of member states to issue deportation orders to all persons remaining unauthorised in a member state, while also emphasising that deportees must be treated ‘with full respect for their fundamental rights and dignity’ (Directive 2008/115/EC, Article 2–6), which includes respecting the prohibition against refoulement (in accordance with Article 33 of the 1951 Geneva Convention, and the protection against torture and inhuman treatment safeguarded by the Convention against Torture and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)). In addition, the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges signatory states to consider the best interest of the child in immigration cases, including in deportation procedures. This does not preclude the deportation of children but can influence decisions on residence permit/deportation. Article 8 of the ECHR, which outlines the right to respect for private and family life, can also be actualised in deportation processes.
3 According to the European Commission, ‘third-country national’ refers to ‘any person who is not a citizen of the European Union within the meaning of Article 17(1) of the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC) and who is not a person enjoying the Community right of free movement, as defined in Article 2(5) of the Schengen Borders Code’ (Heegaard Bausager et al., 2013: 7). The Dublin Regulation, which provides different criteria for determining which signatory state is competent for processing an asylum claim or unauthorised entry, also establishes states’ right to transfer (i.e. deport) asylum seekers to the member state responsible for processing or enforcing their asylum case (Kasparek, 2016).
4 The term ‘racialisation’ refers to the marking of bodies according to racial logics, which posits some as superior, and others as inferior. Hierarchies of racial superiority/inferiority can be marked by skin colour or be constructed by ethnic, cultural, or religious markers – or nationality. These delineations are neither static nor universal, but produced through ongoing processes that are embedded in specific relations of power (Grosfoguel et al., 2015).
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Deportation limbo

State violence and contestations in the Nordics


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