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  • May Soe Min

Kærshovedgård: The Open-Prison of the Innocent

Outside the walls of Kærshovedgård, where fortified points of entry are visible, marked by fences and biometric gates.

The contributor is currently studying International Refugee Law and International Relations in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

The melody of songbirds harmonizing with the rings of bike bells perpetually lulls the city of Copenhagen into a calm. Minimal cars are present on its narrow, colorful streets; instead, its young and old pedal their bicycles down its preserved cobblestone pavements. There is a natural liveliness and contentment amongst the Danes; after all, what more can one ask for? Their trust in the government is founded on an attentive welfare system, accessible public transportation, free education, and paid vacation time off. However, this romanticized Scandinavian dream is far from accessible. Hidden behind updated infrastructure lies a sinister side. Denmark, often celebrated for protecting and uplifting its citizens, is leading Europe’s campaign against refugees and undermining the historic 1951 refugee convention. The small Scandinavian country proudly promulgates harmful policies aimed at limiting migration movements in order to uphold white supremacist values of “purity” and maintain its continuous homogeneous White nation.

On the outskirts of Denmark, hidden in the tundras of Jutland, sits Kærshovedgård—one of the two deportation centers in Denmark. Once a former prison, the joint asylum assessment and deportation center houses refugees under brutal conditions to discourage them from pursuing their asylum process. They face inhumane treatments ranging from long-term solitary confinement for minor infractions to inedible food. To avoid hunger, they resort to picking whatever fruit is available during the spring and summertime. Mobility is severely restricted, with the nearest transportation requiring a 5-mile walk in the numbing, sharp cold, and the closest town of Ikast demanding an 8-mile trek. Furthermore, due to its ingeniously cruel placement, any individual able to leave the open prison must return by 6 am for their mandatory check-in. Missing their daily check-ins could lead to a court appearance, where defendants are inadequately prepared for their hearings and lack understanding of Danish legal procedures, rendering the court little more than a formality. Beyond the excessive punitive measures, the conditions of the camps are far from sanitary. Each room comprises around 6 adult men living in bunk beds (originally meant for two people), and the asylees have no privacy or space to themselves. Mental health conditions worsen the more time they are forced to reside in  Kærshovedgård as loneliness and lack of humane treatment persist. The former prison once lacked fences, but now it has steel enclosures surrounding it, signaling the notion that these people did something wrong when they simply sought protection from persecution. These conditions sound remarkably like a prison. And yet, the people living here are mere innocent civilians, escaping danger-torn countries and seeking a safer life. 

As part of my international refugee law class, we visited the detention center in the freezing mid-February, experiencing firsthand the cruelty of nature that exacerbates the already abhorrent living conditions there. Interacting with some of its residents, two questions emerged from every asylum seeker or refugee: “Are we not humans too?” “Why are we treated like criminals when all we want is access to human rights like everyone else here?” The Danish government has turned Kærshovedgård into an asylum purgatory where humanity no longer matters, and individuals are punished for seeking a peaceful and safe life.

Some of its residents have been confined in Kærshovedgård for over a decade; forced to let go of their dreams, and hopes, and forced to live the same day on repeat. I met an architect who fled Syria, whose eyes still glisten when speaking about Scandinavian architecture and how he wishes to continue his craft here. Another man from Iran loves the Premier League and spoke to a peer of mine about his desire to watch a Chelsea match if he is ever free from this asylum limbo. Another spoke of how much he misses his wife, whom he can only see once a month as the facility’s location is far removed and remote. These control centers serve as a means to push refugees into leaving the country or going "underground," thereby forfeiting their asylum status by departing from the facilities and no longer adhering to the legal procedure. As a result, they no longer rely on the state but instead find their own way, undocumented. This allows Denmark to evade accountability for any harm suffered by these individuals, along with no longer needing to spend money on them.

Many of Kærshovedgård’s residents are wrongfully punished for their “illegal” migration and the site itself has become a space for state-sanctioned violence. This highlights an insidious and ironic error in the policy: how can one be illegal if there are limited legal pathways to begin with? No one wants to break the rules and be deemed a criminal for seeking passage, and if there were accessible legal pathways, they would undoubtedly choose them. However, that simply is not the case. Instead, Denmark forces asylum seekers to seek out hazardous alternatives such as dangerous crossings across the Mediterranean. The criminalization of those deemed "illegal" as they migrate through these channels is absurd, as there is no accessible legal pathway to begin with. This paradoxical situation underscores how open prisons such as Kærshovedgård thrive and overflow, as any asylum seeker arrested for their “illegal” crossing and awaiting a decision on their asylum status, is trapped in the center. Unable to return to their countries of origin yet unable to call Denmark their new home, asylum seekers are trapped in this greyzone, accompanied only by the relentless passage of time.

Kærshovedgård serves as a tool for the Danish government to discard what they perceive as "impurities," relegating them to exile from the rest of society. Situated in a remote location where the nearest town is inaccessible by any mode of public transport, many of Denmark's citizens remain blissfully unaware of the atrocities committed by their government. Concealed beneath the "hygge" lifestyle, Denmark is far from idyllic, with its persistent efforts to restrict movement and uphold European nativist sentiment. Restricting movement is tantamount to stunting humanity's development, as migration is inherent to human nature. Kærshovedgård acts as a weapon for the Danish government to uphold and preserve a homogeneous Nordic nation while disregarding the legacies of colonialism that contribute to the very violence these asylum seekers are fleeing from.


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