Posted on January 22, 2019

‘Social Death’ in Denmark

Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Nation, January 20, 2019

Think of Denmark and you probably conjure up a mix of mid-century design, hygge, and people riding bikes. But as viewers of the noir TV series The Bridge know, it’s also a country marred by institutional xenophobia. Denmark has a network of camps and detention centers for asylum seekers. It has legally defined ghettoes, meaning urban areas with populations of “non-Western immigrants.”

But while something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark, it’s far from an exception in Western politics. What’s happening in this former bastion of liberalism is the normalizing of white hostility to immigration. Denmark is building on Australian and Israeli tactics to form a new strategy: to disappear the refugee from society.

The Danish immigration minister Inger Støjberg has said that she intends to make conditions for people in the asylum system unbearable. {snip}

Sjælsmark contains people whose applications for asylum have been rejected but cannot be returned to their country of origin (technically “non-deportable rejected asylum seekers,” according to EU law). The upscale suburb has no shops or other amenities for the detainees. It is suitably remote from the city, nearly two hours by two buses and a train. By car, it’s just 30 minutes, but no one has a car.


Rejected asylum seekers are in legal limbo. Some of them are stateless and deprived of what Hannah Arendt called “the right to have rights.” They are denied as citizens by their “home” countries and the EU refuses to recognize them as refugees, so they have no legal status anywhere. {snip} Under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, the first country where an asylum seeker is fingerprinted must process them for asylum.

If the Danish settler colony once wanted to extract labor from its colonial subjects in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, all it wants now from their descendants is that they go away. {snip}


Like many prisoners, the residents are above all concerned about food. The Prison and Probation Service provides food that is prepared off-site and reheated. It was described to me by everyone as inedible. Conditions in the cafeteria are so bad that all visitors are banned. No food is brought to people who are sick or pregnant and so cannot walk to the cafeteria. No allowance is made for dietary preference. In the Danish prison system, and the reception camps where asylum seekers are first sent, cooking is allowed. Not here.

The Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson coined the term “social death” to refer to enslavement. It equally applies to what the Danish state is trying to do to asylum seekers. {snip}


From within this social death, the refugees have nonetheless organized. They are holding weekly demonstrations against their conditions, including a hunger strike. At a rally in Copenhagen on December 5, Lily spoke out: “We have a right to seek asylum in Denmark and we also have the right to live a normal life until solutions are found for our cases.” Denmark seeks to deny those rights. More exactly, it denies that they exist.


{snip} Adopting the Australian strategy of intercepting and offshoring refugees on Nauru, it now intends to house failed asylum seekers on the remote island of Lindholm. Denmark, then, is refining its psychological torture by subjecting asylum-seekers to isolation and exclusion.