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Danes confront deportations with lockdowns and refugee support

Welcome to Denmark activists gathered at airports on Tuesday in an attempt to block the deportation of 25 Afghan refugees. (WNV / Welcome to Denmark)

On Tuesday morning, members of the Danish refugee support movement Welcome to Denmark converged to block the deportation of 25 Afghan refugees. Up against authorities with plenty of resources to thwart their movements, they knew this would be no simple task.

Since the refugee crisis in Europe exploded in 2015, Denmark has tried to position itself as an unfavorable destination for migrants, investing in marketing campaigns to make the nation appear unattractive to those fleeing catastrophes in their homelands.

“Denmark had deported two Afghan brothers [in June 2015],” said Welcome to Denmark spokesperson Søren Warburg. “One brother has since been found dead and the other is still missing. This a matter of life or death for people under threat of deportation.”

As a result, Welcome to Denmark opened a hotline last summer for refugees to call when facing deportation.  According to activist Erik Storund, the group doesn’t take action to stop deportations “unless we have strong reason to believe that the deportees actually want us to try to stop them.”

Some of the 25 Afghan asylum seekers deported on Tuesday were able to use the hotline to connect with the movement, but not with much advance notice of their forthcoming repatriation. With only a day and a half to mobilize, Welcome to Denmark resolved to station three scouts at Ellebæk Asylum Prison. While there, they were ID-checked six times and searched twice. About 40 others waited for their marching orders to physically intervene.

The movement’s scouts had initially assumed the deportation would take place from a private airport, Roskilde, with a military carrier, as was the case in previous deportations. Before the police caravan evaded them, however, the scouts were able to rule out Roskilde. (By this time, activists had already blocked Roskilde’s entrance.)

“The police outran them on the freeway, since they can break the speed limit and we can’t,” Storud said. “When we realized they weren’t going to Roskilde Airport, we decided to go to Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen and hold an unpermitted protest.”

The police motorcade circumvented the activists and made haste for Odense airport. At this point, Welcome to Denmark turned to a backup plan at Kastrup, carrying out a half-hour demonstration against refugee deportations — much to the annoyance of Turkish Airlines, which often aids in forced repatriations.

Although their primary mission of blocking the deportations was not fulfilled, Welcome to Denmark members were glad to have increased visibility for their ongoing efforts.

“Our demands and messages received wide exposure through the media at Kastrup,” Warburg said. “We have been in touch with many families of asylum seekers who have been very appreciative of our attempts to block the deportations. We are waiting to hear from insiders in Afghanistan about [the deportees’] arrival, and we are planning to do deeper organizing that makes us more ready for future deportations.”

In the meantime, Storud said the action should be viewed as a success because Welcome to Denmark made it “more expensive and impractical for authorities to facilitate deportations.”

This certainly doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made. Welcome to Denmark is determined to build on the momentum, and the insights gained from this week’s action should be helpful for similar movements across Europe and North America.

“We need to do twice as many lockdowns on deportations, and we need to be much more aware of authorities’ moves,” Warburg said. “We also need to extend our networks with asylum seekers and build cross-country alliances.”

Obtaining intelligence may not be totally impossible in Denmark. At the peak of the refugee crisis, many police had willingly ignored members of the movement who illegally transported migrants. While the Danish right wing consolidates itself, not all security personnel share the same allegiances.

Doubling deportation lockdowns and allying with regional movements and victims are surely not out of the question either, though not easy in an increasingly repressive Europe. These goals are ambitious, but achievable for movements wanting to take their work to the next level — not that failing to do so is even an option for Welcome to Denmark.

According to Warburg, even though Denmark has been rougher on refugees than many of its neighbors, the European member states are guilty of politically strangling Afghanistan, putting asylum seekers in potentially deadly situations.

“Last year, European member states made an under-the-radar agreement with Afghan authorities that they must accept forcefully deported asylum seekers,” he explained. “We know from Afghan authority sources that they have more or less been forced to accept this deal if they want to continue receiving development aid.”

These closed-door negotiations are reason enough to suspect a surge in Afghan repatriation, especially among those residing in Denmark. But Storud remains optimistic.

“We’re chipping away at the support for deportation policies,” he said, pointing to the group’s ability to highlight the human side of the issue. “The right wing has no response to the Danes who suddenly lost friends and good colleagues [on Tuesday].”

UPDATE: Reports have surfaced that at least one of the repatriated Afghans has already been wounded by a bombing in Kabul. Another, Nasir Hussaini, has tried without success to find the proper drugs for his heart condition in Afghanistan and does not know how long he has to survive. Three of the deportees were rejected by Afghanistan authorities upon arrival and returned to Denmark, according to Warburg.