Solidarity First.

Solidarity first. Really? How COVID-19 affects detention and deportation regimes across Europe

The corona pandemic is plunging countries around the globe into an economic crisis and a crisis of public health – the virus is affecting the whole world. Despite its global scale, states and their governments are seeking national responses. In Europe, the pandemic has pushed on the one hand solidarity and prioritization of public health, but on the other hand the restrictions on social life, freedom of movements and public liberties. In many countries the right to gather and to protest has been infringed by these new policies and we can observe authoritarian tendencies in the implementation of the measures taken. Often it is pointed out that the corona pandemic affects all of us. However, the corona crisis as well as the consequences of the reactions towards it are socially differentiated and thereby often catalyze pre-existing discriminations and exclusions. This pandemic not only sheds light on the degrading conditions in prisons and detention centers even in normal times, but also makes evident the ugliest face of EU states’ containment, detention and expulsion policies. States have made a choice over which bodies are worth protection and healing and which are excluded from prevention, let alone care. 

We are activists from Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy who are engaged in anti-deportation and anti-detention struggles. We joined to collect information from our contexts, to provide a broader overview of the impact of COVID-19 on different countries and to foster a transnational understanding of the reactions of the border regime in times of corona.

The system of camps and deportations differs between European countries, which makes a comparison often difficult. In some countries, administrative detention is carried out in semi-open camps. In others, people can be held in closed deportation custody for up to 18 months. The system of asylum camps differs between the countries. Therefore, we will not explain the exact characteristics of the respective camp system in detail. In the report, we have only distinguished between deportation custody and the camp system as such. Further information on the asylum system of the individual countries can be found here.

Covid-19 related Consequences on Deportations

Looking at the current situation of deportations across Europe, some commonalities emerge: As it seems to us, deportations to Dublin States (so called Dublin-deportations under the Dublin regulation) have temporarily been halted somewhen during March. However, there is still lack of clarity around charter flights and deportations towards countries of origin. In Germany for example, the authorities still tried to deport to countries of origin in the end of March, which failed twice due to sharp critique from the public. Further, a charter deportation flight to Islamabad, Pakistan for mid-April was cancelled and deportations to Afghanistan are temporarily halted due to Corona. However, it seems that authorities in Germany continue their efforts to deport people at all costs. In Denmark, the government is not transparent regarding the deportations being carried out to countries of origin. Meanwhile, it underlines the importance of catching up with all the missed flights once the crisis is over[1]. Furthermore, despite this nominal halt on deportations to Dublin States, at least one case is known of the Danish police attempting to get permission for a deportation to Romania. As far as we know in France, deportations to countries of origin have been stopped as the country closed all its external borders and it is is not clear when borders will be opened again. Deportations of european people however were not completely interrupted: On Wednesday, April 29, various prefectures implemented the deportation of 50 people locked up in 3 different prisons at least to Romania and Albania in special charter flights, only few among them succeeded to avoid the flight. In Switzerland, deportations to countries of origin are still possible, but sharply restricted.

Covid-19 related Consequences on Detention

In several European countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and France some detainees have been released from pre-deportation detention, especially in the beginning of the crisis[2]

However, most countries refuse to release people in detention camps. They have implemented further restrictions, making the conditions of administrative detention centers barely distinguishable from those of prison. In either case, people’s right to health, and perhaps to life, are being severely violated. All five countries have in common that visits to detention camps and prisons are currently prohibited and prisoners are even more cut off from their relatives and the rest of the world than before.

In Switzerland, according to official accounts, authorities in Geneva have released everyone in custody and completely emptied the centres for administrative detention of Favra and Framboise. However, this decision is not held up in other areas of the country; in Basel and Zurich, for example, there are still more than sixty people in deportation custody at the moment, and new people are currently getting imprisoned. In both cantons, the authorities argue that the legal ground for deportations did not change and underline that in general deportations are still possible and executed whenever they can be realized. 

In Germany, authorities have not come up with a comprehensive approach on how to protect and release people in deportation custody[3]. A few detention centres closed and released all detainees and several people awaiting Dublin transfers to i.e. Italy were released in quite a timely manner after Dublin transfers were put on halt. However, many people remain detained even though it is completely unclear when deportation flights could happen again. In one detention centre in Darmstadt, people protested against their ongoing incarceration. They report that the uncertain situation and the knowledge about other people’s releases means enormous psychological stress for them. Some were released and the centre was closed as of 24 April 2020, but the remaining people were transferred to another detention centre in Germany as the network “Community for All” reports.

In Denmark the government refuses to release people in deportation detention but continues to arrest and detain new people – although ‘normal’ prisons are closed for new convicts. People are continuously being transferred between centers. All the people who are being transferred into Ellebæk, the closed deportation prison from which people are coercively deported, are being subjected to forced isolation in a state prison for two weeks before transfer.

In France general lockdown was declared on the 16th of March. As a consequence, most of the prisons for undocumented people are currently closed, as there was a massive release of prisoners during the first ten days of lockdown. However, other centers still continue to function despite the pandemic. By now, many centers are quickly filling up again as authorities have resumed arrests in the streets. As it was expected, the lockdown and state of emergency strengthened the identity checks and arbitrary arrests – even of undocumented workers who have no other financial support during the crisis than keep on working. Also, many people undocumented are transferred directly from prisons (when they had a penal sentence) to pre-deportation centers : this ‘double penalty’ exists for a long time in France and was intensified during the crisis. 

In Italy, detention centers (CPRs) are still open. The centers’ functionality depends on local authorities, and news on that is shared by the local police headquarters (questure). Even if some judges, in Potenza and Trieste for example, are not validating custody extensions, in many cases the CPRs continue to have new prisoners coming in and local judges extending or validating the detention as if nothing has changed. The main difference is that instead of a deportation there will be only the expulsion order to leave the country.

Moreover, as deportations cannot be carried out, the legal grounds for deportation detention also fall apart. Even though we reject this absurd premise, as much as we reject the detention and deportation regime across Europe as a whole, we want to point out that this leaves authorities with absolutely no legal or institutionally accepted justification for keeping these centers open, especially during the pandemic.

Conditions in Camps

Regardless of camp systems being different across Europe, there is one stable element for all of them. During the pandemic, conditions have deteriorated. To be clear: health standards that are set for most of society are not valid in these spaces. 

Until today there has been no evacuation of any camp in Germany. The opposite is true: several camps have been locked down in quarantine as soon as one inhabitant was tested positive. In Suhl, in Thuringia 533 people have been collectively detained in prison-like conditions after one inhabitant of the reception facility tested positive for Covid-19. Instead of isolating the single person, authorities shut down the whole camp and police surrounded it. In another collective accommodation camp in Bremen, residents report on the lack of information regarding the virus and protective measures in the camp. Another shocking example is the first reception camp in Ellwangen where every second person of the 500 people has now been tested positive. The whole camp is under lockdown, protests have broken out as inhabitants criticize the slow information flow, the lack of an effective strategy to protect people (the quarantinearea within the camp has been closed so that people who are tested positive and negative have no chance of keeping distance from each other) and the lack of Wifi in the isolated sections of the camp. Their demand is the closure of camps, as Refugees4Refugees reports.

In Denmark, the government is offering to test homeless migrants for the virus, but the moment they request assistance they can face deportation and detention – if they are undocumented. The Government has taken measures to try to contain the spread of the virus in the camps, which include postponing all leisure and schooling activities, training and work, leaving residents with no activity except for smoking breaks. However, in centers such as Kærshovedgård and Ellebæk social distancing measures still cannot be respected, with multiple people sharing each room. In fact, newspapers and workers in Kærshovedgård report that at least two residents and one volunteer have been tested positive for the virus. The infected residents were transferred to a separate facility that allows for isolation.  It appears that one person who displayed symptoms for Coronavirus has been transferred to Sjælsmark detention center and isolated in a room, with a sign on the door “Indication of infection with Covid-19”.

In France’s Administrative Detention Centers (CRAs) no sanitary measures were taken and the social distancing is impossible to respect. The State deliberately exposes prisoners to the risk of dying by continuing to lock up new people from outside, with several people sharing the cells, and by accepting the risk that the police and guards can contaminate them as they go in and out everyday. Hygienic conditions are disastrous : food and access to health care have become even more difficult and ineffective, cells and common rooms are even dirtier than before, as the cleaners do not come anymore. In at least three CRAs, people were declared positive to the virus and isolated from the other residents very late (and never transferred to the hospital). 

In Italy, the prohibition for residents to have their mobile phones with them has been extended to all the detention centers (CPRs); this measure gives a legal form for a practice already used in the CPR of Turin, from which authorities are unlikely to turn back after this crisis. 

A similar image occurs in Switzerland. Photos and video footage from overcrowded bedrooms and dirty kitchens used by over 80 people have been published. Inhabitants of the camps who were tested positive have been quarantined within the camp and not in a medical facility. In Basel, several dozens of asylum seekers were transferred from the Bässlergut Camp into an underground bunker. In Zurich, at least two camps have cut financial emergency aid. This is horrific, as this is the amount of money defined by law to survive. Both camps are administered by the privately owned and profit-oriented ORS firm, which profits by incarcerating people in different European countries.

Acts of Resistance

EU states’ responses to COVID-19 clearly expose their oppressive structures, and the asylum system is the perfect example. The unacceptable conditions provoke resistance inside and outside camps and detention centers all over Europe. 

In Germany, detainees demonstrated against their deteriorating situation: in one reception camp in Halberstadt, residents started a hunger strike. In many places in Germany  demands for immediate release from the prisons, decentralized accommodations and the right to access to health care for all are raised. Activist groups outside support the protests in prisons and camps and work on carrying their voices to a wider public. Some residents in a first reception center successfully sued the state of Saxony for their failure to enable people to socially distance themselves and to guarantee sufficient protective and hygienic measures in the camp. In the above mentioned collective accommodation centre in Bremen, Germany, residents and activists started the campaign #ShutDownLindenstraße (video of the protest as of 17th Marchvideo of the Protests as of 2nd April). Protestors criticised the insufficient health care, severe lack of precautions to spread Covid-19 infection, no privacy, no fresh air in the rooms as well as emotional/mental stress. In the joint appeal by We’ll Come United, state refugee councils and nationwide medical offices and medical networks the different groups and networks demanded an immediate end to mass accommodation in collective centres, initial reception facilities and anchorage centres.

Also in Denmark there is a close cooperation between inmates and parts of the civil society. Activists use radio and social media to spread inmates’ demands for release to the public and draw attention to unrest within the camps. The use of these channels is also widespread in Switzerland, where campaigns have been launched to draw attention to the circumstances in the camps and to make concrete demands on civil society. These concrete demands are shared across Europe. In addition, the civil society is called upon to open private and economically profitable spaces such as hotels and airbnbs for accommodating people who are locked up in camps. For this purpose, six houses have been squatted in Zurich. 

Also in France, protests within the camps are intensifying. There is daily resistance against cops, inmates go on hunger strikes and some prisoners set fire to their cells and mattresses to protest: On April 12, in 2 of the biggest centers closed to Paris revolts broke out and fires were set. In another Prison (Vincennes) detainees demanded that one of their co-detainees with severe symptoms, would be taken to the hospital. After their demands were not met they started to revolt and the infected person was brought to a hospital. In another center (Mesnil-Amelot), fires were set also in solidarity with a prisoner in a particular situation of vulnerability and chronic heart problems. In two centers (Mesnil-Amelot & Lille), people who revolted were transferred to other centers, sometimes very far from their house and relatives, as a punishment and as a way to break solidarities and resistances. All the different forms of resistance denounce the miserable sanitary conditions and bring up similar demands as in other countries: the immediate release of all inmates. Analogous conditions in Italy lead to protests and revolts in detention centers. In Gradisca, a part of a detention center was destroyed by fire. 

Everything suggests that these protests will not stop. The repression inherent in the asylum system will continue to generate resistance.

Concluding Remarks

These situations reveal the underlying violence and coercive nature of the EU’s detention and deportation regime. In an EU that purports to prioritize the health of the people, the detention centers/prisons can be identified as “an exception to the state of exception”.

Detention centers are finally revealing their true role, having lost the institutional facade that rhetorically justified their necessity. What the pandemic makes more evident than ever is that these centers’ true function is to contain a small group as a warning to all the others. Detention centers are not only tools to exercise control over racialized populations, but also adeterrent measure to instil fear in all those who do not have regular stay in the EU. Deportation was the only reason that could be used by European governments to justify the Centers, and it is disappearing. The EU’s governments are making clear that to them not everyone deserves to be safeguarded against the pandemic.

This text was written by the „Transnational Collective against Deportations“. The collective consists of People from Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy. You can contact us via mail: 

An earlier version of the text was published on the Corona Monitor.





Germany :

Italy :

  • General overview about the current situation in the CPR and revolts happening on

Belgium : 

  • General overview about the current situation in the CPR and revolts happening by gettingthevoiceout

International :

Footnotes :

[1]To this effect, the Danish government is instituting an office in the ministry of Immigration and Integration for ‘home-travel administration’ of 250 employees who will work exclusively on deportations from 1 of August. More info here.

[2]ECRE: Information Sheet 8 April 2020: COVID-19 Measures Related to Asylum and Migration across Europe

[3]In Germany, as a federal republic, the 16 different states reacted differently to the crisis.

[4]In France, it is really hard to renew your documents when your are incarcerated in jail for a penal sentence and some people find themselves undocumented in prison. Most of the time the penal administration from the jail cooperates with the border police : as soon as people are released from prisons they are transferred to detention to be deported to their origin country, what we call a “double penalty”. 

[5]Ellebaek prison has been defined as the worst administrative detention center in Europe by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). The committee expected a response by the Danish government by April, but all meetings have been postponed due to COVID19, leaving the situation unaddressed. Committee’s report here.

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