Annika Lindberg
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On methods

Appendix: on methods

Rather than being the outcome of a consistent research plan, the research project underpinning this book evolved with the rapidly shifting developments in migration policy that we have seen in Denmark and Sweden in the past decade. As discussed in the introductory chapter, the research was conditioned by access to securitised and locked institutions and took place at a time of intensified politicisation of matters of borders, migration, and deportation. The conditions of access therefore lent insights into the politics and power relations of the migration control field, and of the institutions I studied. While politically and ethically fraught, formal access negotiations can tell us a great deal about ‘the field’ and our position in relation to it (Kalir et al., 2019). Therefore, our research trajectories are in themselves important empirical material, and in the best case, sharing my own failures and dilemmas can help others with theirs, or at least, make them feel less alone. In this Appendix, I therefore offer a more detailed account of the research process, my access negotiations to the key sites of research, and the ethical dilemmas that came with the choice of these sites. I also enumerate the additional actors who were interviewed for the research project.

In order to gain access to detention and deportation camps, police, and migration offices, I sent out numerous formal requests to the central directorates or to individual units of different state authorities, including the Danish Prison and Probation Service, the Danish Police, the Immigration Service, the Red Cross, and the Danish Return Agency; and for Sweden, various branches of the Swedish Migration Agency, the Prison and Probation Service, social services, and the police. I also approached individual frontline workers and asked those who agreed to be interviewed to recommend other research participants. Many of my formal requests remained unanswered; others were quickly discarded, with reference to either time constraints, practical obstacles, or safety and security issues (see Lindberg and Borrelli, 2019). Some requests were initially met with enthusiasm, usually from individual frontline workers, only to be declined by their superiors or by central coordination offices. However, the numerous organisations involved in deportation enforcement enabled me to try several different entry points. The eventual success I had in securing access cannot be attributed to my negotiation skills, or to a consistent plan. Instead, it is the result of a mix of timing and luck (see Kalir, Achermann, and Rosset, 2019), white privilege (see Introduction), the harmlessness I was ascribed as a young woman, and my middle-class background, which meant that I shared a language in particular with the mid-level managers in state institutions, who were often the ones calling the final decisions.

The first answer that came back positive was from the Danish Prison and Probation Service operating Ellebæk deportation prison and the deportation camps. The directorate forwarded my request to Sjælsmark deportation camp, and Niels, the director, took interest in my focus on prison officers’ role in the camp, and agreed to meet me. Migration control was a neglected part of the Prison Service, which had rarely been evaluated, and Niels told me that an external observer could be useful, as I might be able to learn something about how staff were dealing with their unclear mandate in the deportation field. I was granted access to conduct participant observation and interviews with staff in Sjælsmark deportation camp for a time period up to two months, and subsequently, after an additional round of negotiations with the directorate and the local director of the Prison and Probation Service, I was granted access to Ellebæk. In Sweden, I sent out requests for interviews to all the by-then five Swedish deportation prisons and visited four of them. In one of them, I was granted access to conduct fieldwork. The reason, I believe, was the interest that the director, herself a former prison officer, took in my prior research on the Danish camps. The other interviews were negotiated individually with frontline workers who agreed to participate in the research and/or by their managers.

Most of the research took place between 2016 and 2018, with additional follow-up interviews in 2020–2021. In Denmark, I conducted one month of fieldwork in Ellebæk detention camp, and two months’ part-time fieldwork in Sjælsmark deportation camp. I also visited Kærshovedgård and Avnstrup on several different occasions. The fieldwork in Sweden encompassed one full month of ethnographic observation in a Swedish detention camp and visits to three additional detention camps, visits to four departure housing units run by the Swedish Migration Agency, and interviews in a further three return units. In addition to ethnographic observations, I conducted interviews with other state agencies involved in the deportation process. In Sweden, these included interviews with two migration officials working for the central organisation of the Swedish Migration Agency, seven border police officers, three social workers, two legal advisors, and eight representatives of NGOs working to support non-deported people. In Denmark, I interviewed three officials at the Danish Immigration Service, five officers at the Foreign Police, and seven legal advisors and human rights advocates, and conducted two interviews with representatives from NGOs supporting non-deported people. All interview and observation studies were conducted in Swedish and Danish, respectively, and were subsequently translated into English.

The intensity of fieldwork and the methods used have varied between field sites, partly due to access restrictions, and partly due to the nature of each field site. My observations have been triangulated with information retrieved through interviews, document analyses, and secondary sources, including policy and legal documents, and NGO and media reports. The empirical material informing this work thus encompasses fieldnotes from participant observations, interview transcriptions, and supporting artefacts and documents, including images, legal texts, news reports, and policy documents. The process of data analysis, interpretation, and theorising has been iterative, and as previously stressed in this book, always collaborative. It has emerged through a constant moving back and forth between fieldwork; conversations with colleagues, some of whom have read and commented on my work; and conversations with people living the deportation limbo.

A peculiar part of the research entailed disseminating the findings to state authorities. The Danish Prison and Probation Service evidently saw a possibility that my research could be instrumental for them, and I was asked to write summary reports to them upon the completion of my fieldwork. As discussed in the concluding chapter, on such occasions, researchers may be summoned as ‘experts’ to give advice on reforms, whereby we risk lending normative coverage to border practices. Our research might also be used in unanticipated ways (see Bosworth and Kellezi, 2016; Mutsaers, 2015). My reports to the Danish Prison and Probation Service focused on officers’ reflections on their working conditions. I tried to formulate my critique of the institution, and the violence I had observed there, as something structural and endemic, rather than a matter of individual staff attitudes (and I am quite certain I did not succeed). I was invited to share my research findings from Ellebæk and Sjælsmark with the Danish Prison and Probation Service, and the presentations were received with moderate enthusiasm. While officers seemed to appreciate the acknowledgement from an external actor that they worked under harmful conditions, a critique of their practices and of institutional deficiencies presented without solutions was deemed useless. I learnt that to be considered relevant or to achieve ‘policy impact’, academic critique needs to be formulated in the language of reform and repair. I am quite certain that my reports ended up collecting dust on some shelf in the director’s office.

Next to my research on the perspectives of state officials and non-state actors involved in governing the deportation limbo, I have worked with and learnt from non-deported people who are also struggling to criticise and challenge the deportation system, and to provide alternative support structures for those who are exposed to it. The material in this book draws on previous and ongoing engagements with these movements, which in the Danish context have included collaborative research and writing projects (see Freedom of Movements Research Collective, 2018; Stokholm et al., 2021). In the Swedish context, I have worked together with the Asylum Commission to document the conditions for detained and non-deported people during the COVID-19 pandemic (see Häythiö et al., 2020). The knowledge that emerged through these projects comes from non-deported people, and had the explicit aim to support their struggles, by summarising and disseminating it to audiences primarily consisting of non-deported people and solidarity groups, practitioners, and the general public.

Notwithstanding these engagements and the ways in which they have enriched the book, the main bulk of the research has been on the agents of detention and deportation enforcement. The choice of studying state actors raises ethical issues and dilemmas, which I wish to develop here. ‘Studying up’ seemed, at first, to be an easier way to navigate the complex ethics of the deportation field. Formal ethical requirements were ensured through bureaucratic formalities, including formal access permissions, confidentiality agreements, anonymisation of research sites and participants, and informed and ongoing consent – all of which I did for the research presented in this book.1 However, studying up also means that we become dependent on and, we may rightly say, complicit with the structures of power we seek to criticise. This was, for instance, manifested in how I was positioned ‘on the side of the state’ inside the detention camps, where I held similar mobility privileges to those working there – privileges which I did not challenge, for instance by helping someone escape. In these sites of confinement, I was asked to carry the same communication radio and alarm as staff members as a safety measure, and I was not allowed to be left alone with detained people. The keys and alarm radios were material manifestations of how, as a researcher ‘of’ the state, I became implicated and ordered into its hierarchisation of (im)mobility (see Turnbull, 2015). During fieldwork, I came to witness direct, indirect, and ordinary forms of violence, most of which was legally sanctioned and unproblematised by officials, but also acts, discourses, and practices that were outright abusive and degrading, if not illegal. There were times when my presence during turbulent events made officials uncomfortable, and others where they found it amusing to ‘test’ and observe my reactions (see Lindberg and Eule, 2020). Sometimes, I reacted to and questioned their practices. At other times, I remained silent. The violence operated on me too and variably manifested itself in discomfort, in anger and frustration, which I found hard to shake off, and periods of exhaustion during and after fieldwork periods. These emotions have been central to my analytical understanding of the field, and of my own positioning within it (see Bosworth and Kellezi, 2016; Wajsberg, 2021). Sitting with those feelings has been important for how I have engaged with issues of participation, representation, and my ‘epistemic complicity’ (Rozakou, 2019) in the violent processes I was researching. To a great extent, these reflexive exercises have taken place through conversations with friends and colleagues. I would like to share some of them, exchanged between Lisa Borrelli and myself in April 2021.

From: Annika Lindberg <>

Sent: 2021–04–29 20:18 PM

Subject: Street level bureaucrats

Hej Lisa, thanks again for talking through this with me. I attach two vignettes that I think I have shared with you before. I would like to talk to you about what makes the different forms of state violence … different. And what difference it makes how we describe it and what difference the street level bureaucrats make. If any of this makes any sense. When you have time, let’s talk about it.

/ A

From: Lisa Marie Borrelli  <>

Sent: Friday, April 30, 2021 3:36 PM

Subject: Re: Street level bureaucrats

Hej! Thanks, I have read it. Some notes from my side …

Both vignettes make me angry. I would describe it as hot and cold anger. On the one hand, the direct violence the prison officers use against the man, the humiliation, and degradation, which makes you furious. On the other hand, we have a Weberian cold bureaucratic apparatus, where violence is made to sound so reasonable, so rational. It gives you a numb feeling reading it, or a kind of cold anger. You can’t make up your emotions. You are sort of lured into believing it sounds reasonable, and you are waiting for the twist … in a way, it’s more difficult to contest. In both cases, it’s the same machine that produces precarious lives; it’s the same violence. I have more things to say, but let’s talk about it.


The reader will find the two vignettes that Lisa reacted to in Chapter 3 (‘hot’ anger) and Chapter 4 (‘cold’ anger), respectively. Lisa first reacts to a scene of abuse with what she calls ‘hot anger’, an ‘ugly feeling’ (Ngai, 2005: 3) evoked in response to a matter of urgency, a ‘spectacularly’ violent aesthetic (Rozakou, 2019: 76). These feelings mirror my own, and they were, and still are, deeply disturbing. But as Lisa also notes, the anger we feel in such confrontations with violence and abuse is also strangely relieving in its immediacy and clarity. Lisa captures it well in her description of a ‘numb’ reaction to the second vignette, where the violence is implicit and might ‘lure’ us to accept its logic. Lisa’s and my conversation continued the next day.

Annika: I recognise what you say. That description the numbing, the pacifying, the confused emotions. And that there is relief in anger but also shame. Complicity, I guess.

Lisa: Why do we need this anger? And what would happen to it, if we expect to find violence but find kind of nice people? Do we then lose the urge to write about it?

Annika: True. But are we allowed to be ‘shocked’? There was something I read the other day, by Ann Stoler, on how exposing shock or moral outrage is a way to assert innocence, whereas in fact, this ignorance is chosen.

Lisa: I think we cannot deny anyone their feelings of being ‘shocked’. It’s also important to remain startled, to allow for surprise. But we must ask ourselves what that shock means. Are we shocked because we were not aware? Or because the system was designed to shock us? On the one hand, there is a risk that we normalise the exceptional. How many times will you stand up when you see racial profiling on the train? How much violence do you normalise? On the other, the mundane practices, the not-so-shocking moments, the less obvious violence, which includes that of normalisation. Those are the ones we must try to write about.

Lisa underlines the importance of contextualising our shock, anger, shame – in other words, our ‘hot’ emotions. We need these emotions to respond and react to injustices, to identify and call out violence perpetrated by states, organisations, or individuals, while also ensuring that we stay attuned to the more hidden, systemic forms of violence. If we only focus on the moments of ‘shocking’, explicit violence, we risk reproducing crisis-pornographic accounts of violence and suffering (see Rozakou, 2019), which add to the dehumanisation of those exposed to it, as well as the viewer. Such a gaze also risks reproducing the notion that violence is exceptional rather than endemic to the border regime. Therefore, we must go beyond our ‘numb feelings’ to capture the continuum of violence – legal and extra-legal, overt, and indirect, interpersonal, and systemic. Finally, we must consider how our knowledge practices maintain or challenge epistemic violence when we consider and (re)present certain voices, while silencing others. In this book, I have sought to describe different forms of violence along this continuum. I can only hope that the reader finishes it feeling – not shocked – but engagingly enraged.


1 Research participants and sites have been anonymised to the extent possible. Excepted are people who have asked not to be anonymous, whose names are generally known, or who are public figures within their communities and fields. These are Niels, Aya, and Steve. In Denmark, there is only one deportation prison and three very differently configured deportation camps, which is why I have chosen to name them. In Sweden, it was possible to anonymise the field sites, and I have therefore not named the sites and lent research participants the option of plausible deniability.
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Deportation limbo

State violence and contestations in the Nordics


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