“Ellebæk has been used by the police to racially humiliate, isolate and profile those who have come to seek asylum. We who were locked up in Ellebæk were not criminals for your information, even though the police treat us as if we were criminals.
These are the words of Andrew, who was imprisoned twice for eleven months and one month respectively in the Danish immigration detention center Ellebæk, which the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture called among the worst of its kind in Europe. . Andrew’s testimony about discrimination and degradation resonates with the criticisms voiced by people held in migrant detention camps in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. As visitors to detention and detainee rights advocates, researchers and those who have experienced the incarceration firsthand, we believe it is imperative that this criticism be taken seriously and that the systemic harms of detention be addressed. discussed.
Migration detention has become a standardized instrument used by states to regulate unwanted mobility. It involves incarcerating people who have committed no crime but who, as Andrew points out, are racially profiled and criminalized for who they are.
In addition to being discriminatory, detention exposes migrants to mental and physical abuse, arbitrary violence and violations of their rights. Detained migrants have limited access to legal guarantees and external monitoring mechanisms are extremely limited. Compared to the deadly violence deployed against migrants at Europe’s external borders, the violence that affects migrants detained at these obscured sites rarely makes headlines.
The hidden violence of immigration detention centers in Europe has been compounded by the ongoing pandemic. Our collective observations of the Ellebæk detention center in Denmark illustrate just a few.
Ellebæk is managed by the Danish Prison and Probation Service and is located in former military installations. In its 2019 report, the European Committee against Torture (CPT) called Ellebæk “unacceptable” and criticized her poor material conditions, insufficient access to health care, arbitrary use of solitary confinement and treatment. degrading on the part of the staff.
The majority of those detained in Ellebæk remain there for a few weeks, but some remain for up to 18 months awaiting a possible violent deportation. Many, however, cannot be forcibly removed because of their de facto statelessness or because the state to which Denmark wants to deport them does not accept forcibly returned nationals. In these cases, incarceration of several months is used to get people to “collaborate” to return “freely”. Still others “collaborate” and express a wish to return, but could still remain detained for months.
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, those held in Ellebæk said they suffered from chronic anxiety, fear and anger. Many of them received medication for depression or sleep deprivation. Andrew describes Ellebæk as a “death zone” and several inmates said they were haunted by traumatic memories of the center long after being released.
Since the start of the pandemic, the anxiety of inmates has worsened. Measures taken by authorities to reduce the risk of infection, including limiting the number of visitors allowed, canceling religious activities and services, which provided a connection with the outside world, as well as the risk of being forcibly tested for COVID-19 and quarantined in solitary confinement worsened their isolation and reduced opportunities for outside actors to monitor inmate conditions.
Bingzhi Zhu, who was arrested and deported during the pandemic, remembers being repeatedly pushed by guards and when she reported these incidents to other guards, no action was taken. We have heard several similar accounts of ill-treatment, which suggest that this is not an aberration but a common institutional practice that goes unrecorded and unpunished.
Due to travel restrictions associated with COVID-19 and the health risks to which detained migrants are exposed, the European Commissioner for Human Rights has, alongside other human rights organizations, called on states to release detained migrants who cannot be deported in the foreseeable future.
However, Danish authorities continued to enforce detention and deportation orders during the pandemic. Several people we spoke to in 2020 and 2021 had their detention orders extended on several occasions and remained in Ellebæk for an extended period, without being properly informed of the legality or proportionality of their continued incarceration.
Many detainees see the monthly review of their detention in court as a superficial execution of a trial, which serves to punish them rather than to safeguard their rights. The repeated extension of their detention orders during the pandemic, despite the failure of the Danish authorities to enforce their deportation, has left the detainees in a Kafkaesque situation where they are being unduly punished for circumstances beyond their control.
The pandemic has further exacerbated the detrimental health effects of detention and the injustice suffered by many detained migrants. It not only exposed the contempt of government authorities for their lives, but also the ineffectiveness of detention as a tool to “motivate” those who, for various reasons, cannot be forcibly expelled to accept voluntary return.
For a brief moment, the pandemic seemed to open up to a debate that problematized states prioritizing migration enforcement over migrant health and rights. However, that moment now seems to have passed and the fate of those detained in the archipelago of detention camps in Europe has been forgotten.
In his reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic, the philosopher Achille Mbembe underlined the need to fight not only against the virus but against any form of systemic oppression which “condemns the majority of humanity to a premature stop of breathing” . COVID-19 cannot be viewed in isolation from these other pandemics – of systemic racism, border violence and global injustice – which expose some communities to premature death.
The immigration detention centers are symptomatic of these pandemics. They serve and maintain a violent border regime that jeopardizes the health, dignity and rights of migrants – including their fundamental right to breathe freely. To restore this basic human right, we must question the public neglect of detained migrants.
The least we can do is provide external oversight of detention centers and hold state authorities accountable for the mistreatment of detained migrants. In the long term, however, and in the interest of the universal right to breathe freely, immigration detention centers must be completely abolished.
Andrew, who asked not to be identified with his full name, also contributed to this article.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.