The Funambulist Correspondents 32 /// Invisibilized Pushbacks as Sites of Danish State Racism


Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

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Cover Illustration

The fantasy of Denmark as a liberal welfare haven of rights, equality, and comfort is a delusion that has stuck both to national and global minds. In recent years, headlines on Danish migration politics have made some cracks in this global image: the 2016 “jewellery law” stripping refugees of their assets, and more recently, Denmark’s mission of denying up to 900 Syrians their right to protection by claiming that the Damascus region is safe. These policies are not incidental ruptures from the pleasant state of affairs. They are violent and racist legislation strategically implemented to keep racialized bodies out of Danish territory. 

This article highlights various forces of power operationalized by the Danish state against people who have received a rejection on their asylum application. The objective, as stated publicly by  the then Minister for Immigration and Integration Inger Støjberg, is to “make their lives intolerable” so that certain bodies feel compelled to leave Denmark. This logic of dehumanization is only intensifying and targets an increasing number of people in and out of the Danish asylum system. Simultaneously, the state has announced a goal of zero asylum seekers, launched a “paradigm shift” in which anyone who is granted refugee status only receives temporary protection for a maximum of two years no matter the case, and has made Danish citizenship one of the hardest in the world to obtain.

To make sense of these forces of power, an understanding of illegal pushbacks as the forced expulsion of certain bodies from national territory must be extended to the actions of the Danish state. Pushbacks are typically considered state measures by which people on the move are physically forced back over a border in order to prevent them from claiming their right to asylum. Images and stories of violent pushbacks on the European frontier continue to cause outrage in the media and amongst civil rights organizations. However, pushbacks are  never used to describe state practices in Northern European countries. When the Danish state operationalizes hostility to make life intolerable for people in the asylum system, including de-facto incarceration, deportations, and attempts to outsource asylum processing to unknown third countries without care for the individuals’ claim to asylum, these state (and third sector/quasi state) practices should be deemed illegal as well.

This piece humbly builds on and is made possible by the chorus of voices in and outside the camps who are fighting to interrupt the imagination of Denmark as a welfare state of humanistic values and equal rights.

Pushbacks and the logic of dehumanization

In 1997, the word “motivational measures” (herein referred to as punitive actions) entered the terminology of the Danish “Law for Foreigners” as a set of legal frameworks. This created a new reality in which different punishments were enforced on people with a rejection on their asylum application to ensure that they leave Denmark. Intended to target a small number of people for a restricted period (maximum 2 weeks), they have become a permanent living condition forced on an increasing number of asylum seekers. The neutral framing of the policies as “motivating” people to leave Denmark is a flimsy guise to conceal an inherently violent logic. The policies identify everyday life as a target, attacking the necessities of existence and entering into the most intimate of spaces. Whereas the Danish state deliberately makes some of its repressive actions very visible for both national and international publics, a lot of the punitive actions in the policies take place outside public view and legal scrutiny to create a much less spectacular “border spectacle,” but no less devastating.

Food has, for years, been weaponized by the government under this logic of making life intolerable, taking a central role in both state predatory asylum politics and resistance from the camps. In 2004, a new punitive action was implemented to deprive people in the camps their right to cook, making the only access to food through the camp’s cafeteria at three fixed times a day. This dehumanization was largely invisibilized for anyone but the people in the camps until 2018, when a photo of a child in the camp Sjælsmark holding a plate of rotten broccoli was shared online. The image circulated widely across social and news media and through it, the public became aware that people and children were living for years without access to any kitchen facilities, their eating reduced to the unhealthy, insufficient — and sometimes rotten — canteen meals. The state’s reinforcement of this long-lasting deprivation of autonomy over food has been so severe that guards have continuously confiscated mobile stoves and groceries provided by activist group Together We Push. To this day, people in the prison camps continue to struggle for their autonomy over cooking.

Invisible incarceration and Danish prison camps

Central to upholding intolerable living conditions has been the establishment of the so-called “departure camps,” herein referred to as prison camps. In 2013, a broad coalition of politicians decided that asylum seekers with a rejected application must live separately from other asylum seekers with an ongoing case. They quickly organized the military barrack Sjælsmark north of Copenhagen by fencing the area, adding CCTV systems and a guard room to house people and families awaiting deportation or stuck in the system. Sjælsmark is located in an active military training area with regular shootings and explosions. On the architectural plan for the reconstruction, it is quoted “no one in Sjælsmark is detained.” Below is an illustration of the camp that, contrary to the narrative of an “open camp,” depicts its carcerality: fenced columned housing structures, one 24-hour guarded entry point, and extensive CCTV cameras (as well as thermal cameras). A second prison camp, Kærshovedgård, opened in a remote former open prison building to house individuals with rejected asylum-cases, on tolerated stay, or with a criminal conviction awaiting deportation. Both camps were operated by prison guards with no training in working with detained migrants or children until it got too expensive and were exchanged for civilian staff.

Illustration 2
Architectural plan of prison camp Sjælsmark.

All the people inside the prison camps are under the duty of residing, which means they are legally forced to live in the camps. A majority are also under the duty of information, meaning that they further must inform the authority if they are not home at night, and the duty of registration that forces people to register at the camp up to three times a day. Breaching these duties can be fatal with punishments including detention for up to 10 months, a criminal mark on the person’s record, and, not rarely, a deportation order based on this alleged “crime”.  Attending to the spatial geography of these remote camps alongside the temporal dimensions of daily or weekly registrations, the state implements de-facto incarceration. The map below shows the isolation of the camps in the countryside with small villages and extremely limited access to public transport to reach migrant solidarity centers, socialize, or have a daily life that engages in any way with the rest of the society. This is worsened by the prison camps’ lack of activities for both adults and children, and, in turn, the administration of bare life. 

Illustration 1
A map marking the locations of Denmark’s prison camps.

The brutality of how de-facto incarceration happens through spatial design becomes ever more apparent when looking at Avnstrup, Denmark’s third prison camp. In the last electoral campaign, the Social Democrat party claimed humanitarianism by staging the move of families from Sjælsmark to Avnstrup, a facility praised, once again, as an open center in a beautiful forest with no fencing or guards, where residents can come and go as they please. Yet Avnstrup is even more isolated, the closest village is 15 km away, with an almost complete lack of public transportation and bad phone connection. As many families are still required to register up to twice a day in the camp, carcerality is extended in the visible as well as invisible architecture of the prison camp that makes the so-called freedom of movement far from reality.  Several of the camps are run by the Red Cross, who actively support the state’s architecture of violence. Their role in managing the camps legitimizes the punitive measures while simultaneously rewarding the state with the appearance of abiding by its obligations under international law. The reality is that the Red Cross is complicit in administering punishment on behalf of the state: as an example, their parallel health system denies children their right to basic treatment.

There is a fourth prison camp in Denmark: Ellebæk. Ellebæk is formally a prison, unlike the other three camps, but those detained within its walls are under administrative law rather than a penal code. Rejected asylum seekers in Ellebæk are without the legal safeguards afforded to those incarcerated in other Danish prisons. People are transferred to Ellebæk to be deported or as a punishment for failing to meet punitive actions such as registering daily as part of the state project of criminalizing asylum. In 2018, more than 1,100 people were placed in Ellebæk. The average is 32 days, but detention for several months is common. Ellebæk has been operating for many years under harsh critique for denying human rights, and has only continued to expand in capacity during this time. Spatially, it’s a fenced prison facility operated by prison guards with barred windows and gate partitions between the units. It is located in a former military base inside an active military area. In 2020, The European Commitee for the Prevention of Torture concluded that Ellebæk is “one of the worst prisons in Europe.” Their report shows how the spatial conditions are not suited for living due to unhygienic, mouldy, and broken facilities and documenting inhumane treatment such as 15 days solitary confinement if someone is found in possession of a phone, and detained individuals at risk of suicide not rarely placed naked in observation rooms for up to two weeks, without any psychological consultation. The Social Democrat Minister in charge of Ellebæk, Nick Hækkerup, commented publicly on the report: “It is our position that not leaving when you have been told that you cannot stay in Denmark, we think that it is okay to offer people conditions, such as those which are at Ellebæk.”

Asylum politics in the light of Danish exceptionalism 

The “voluntary return” legislation proliferating in Denmark and many other EU countries as part of a larger EU “assisted voluntary returns” program is another state practice to be considered as the implementation of illegal pushbacks.  The focus on voluntary should not divert attention from the intensely funded state project to develop targeted strategies to ensure certain people leave Denmark. In 2020, the Danish state opened the “Home Travel Board,” a new administrative body with hundreds of employees working every day to, as they define it, “make more people without legal stay in Denmark travel home.” What is behind the soft words of “home,” “travel,” and “voluntary” is a state body that “counsels” people whose asylum case has been rejected on leaving Denmark and simultaneously has sole authority to enforce punitive actions on the same person by claiming that they are not cooperating with their “voluntary return.” The board can impose punishments from the pool of punitive actions (including incarceration and deportation) and decide how long they are administered. The central point here is that the claimed “counseling” is deeply integral in the same state body that orders punitive actions and deportations to make people without legal stay leave the country.  If illegal pushbacks are defined by the forcing of certain bodies away from national territory without care for the individual’s right to claim asylum, how can this care be said to exist in Denmark where the asylum system is undermined and the state has a clear goal of zero asylum seekers regardless? 

The work of keeping certain bodies out of national territory is further intensified with the Social Democrat governments’ plan to externalize asylum processing away from Danish territory. The proposal is that asylum seekers who arrive on Danish territory are immediately transferred to a third country where their claims will be assessed. Translating into an intensification of incarceration of asylum seekers as early as possible during case processing in the name of efficiency. As an extension of the so-called “motivational measures policies,” this aims at inducing a strong incentive for asylum seekers to stay far away from Danish territory and to give up on claiming asylum at all in Denmark. This externalized biopolitics circumvents a state obligation to ensure a right to claim asylum. While the colonial logic of paying countries in the global south to do the “dirty work” as well as using detention to secure the “transferability” of asylum seekers is explicit.

There are other punitive actions that this article has not expanded on: A parallel health care system that is the only access to medical treatment for asylum seekers that is proven both discriminatory and severely insufficient; the stripping of people’s right to work and access to meaningful activities such as education, sports or any other pastime activity (although children can now access schools); a constant risk of detention or deportation as the state regularly arrests or takes people away with no warning and often in the middle of the night; and no legal assistance during the asylum procedure (only if a person’s case is rejected are the individuals granted a lawyer). All intersecting in the state’s vicious strategy of making everyday life intolerable. There is a delicateness to the sound of “motivational measures” and “voluntary departure” but it is a mistake to be subdued by the soft wording of the legislation. 

The terminology is not arbitrary if read in consideration of Danish exceptionalism. Researcher Elizabeth Löwe Hunter in conversation with Farhiya Khaled explains Danish or Nordic exceptionalism as a collective forgetfulness and selective memory constantly activated to solidify a self-narrative of moral superiority characterized by democracy, welfare, equality, and happiness. This surfaces in Denmark’s concealment of its colonial history and slave trade, except when portraying Denmark as the freer of slaves and nursing mother to Greenland, and in the dominant tale of Danish resistance and neutrality in World War II. In current asylum matters, this logic of exceptionalism is present in the brutality hidden behind a soft terminology and incarceration that makes invisibile the debilitating effects of the punitive actions policies. However, the Danish state can be very loud at times about the same brutality as part of its deterrence strategy to keep potential asylum seekers away and encourage those already there to leave. The spectacle of punishment requires the violence to have an audience. One can doubt if the Danish state has started to lose interest in upholding its image of equality in the quest to keep the territorial borders closed. While it boasts of its harsh policies against people seeking asylum, we are left to wonder when the critique from an international body of organizations and actors will unfold? The strategy of “motivational measures” and the historical myth of Danish exceptionalism seem to be working in deflecting critique and allowing Denmark to come up with increasingly vicious practices. 

What is also hidden behind the myth of Danish exceptionalism is an understanding of citizenship grounded in a specific understanding of whiteness, as the state makes clear repeatedly (also in non-asylum politics), the notion of citizen excludes people who are racialized. Extending an understanding of illegal pushbacks to the tactics of the Danish state is our intervention to emphasize the centrality of territory (and its control). The ongoing tightening of policies, the externalization of asylum responsibility, the pressing-in of hostility into intimate lives to push people out of Denmark: these are matters of border control, of drawing a boundary between citizens who are deserving of rights, and non-citizens who are not. The border is in motion: extending out of Danish territory to prevent the arrival of the migrant, a figure that, as De Genova has pointed out, is always already racialized, while simultaneously creeping into the everyday life of those currently in the asylum system. To imagine the border only as a fixed frontier at the edge of the nation is to contradict a reality where the border is everywhere  — in Denmark’s prison camps it never ceases to be felt. 


This article was written before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Since then in Denmark we have witnessed how the illusion of the border is fabricated against those who are racialized. While we support the free passage of Ukrainians to safety and the warm welcome they have received, the border takes a different shape on bodies perceived as white by the Danish state. There is a contradiction when Ukrainian refugees receive the right to reside and work, while the state deprives war refugees from countries such as Syria and Somalia of residence permits and detains them indefinitely in deportation prisons; when Ukrainians are granted access to public healthcare and those in the deportation prisons are excluded from the same healthcare; when people who have lived in Sjælsmark for two years were moved with only a few days’ warning to various centers around the country to make space for Ukrainians; when they witnessed extensive cleaning of the prison unlike any they have experienced in the time they had been there; when women in Avnstrup arrived one morning to a note on the kindergarten door announcing that it was closed until further notice to later learning that it was because all staff had been moved to another center to take care of the Ukrainian children. Clearly, political will can make the bureaucracy of borders vanish. We address the contradiction because it shows us that the implementation of racist violence is a choice the state makes. Yet, we do not write this to fight for more humane migration policies; we write this to cry out for an absolute annihilation of borders, nation-states, and the violence they make necessary on our bodies.