In Ellebæk innocent asylum seekers are incarcerated as "motivation"

Human rights violations are yet again documented in one of Denmark's worst prisons, Ellebæk Immigration Center, in a new letter to the Danish Parliament's Justice Committee.

Read the letter from Ellebæk Contact Network as well as annex A: documentation, and annex B: note from researchers at AMIS (all in Danish).

Also read our extensive Facts page about Ellebæk.

The Ellebæk Contact Network is a voluntary association that since 2019 has visited detained rejected asylum seekers in Ellebæk Immigration Center and systematically documented the conditions in the prison.

Conditions are unbearable for detained rejected asylum seekers in Ellebæk Immigration Center. This is documented in attachments to a new letter received by the Danish Parliament's Justice Committee in June from the civil society group, Ellebæk Contact Network. Refugees Welcome co-signs the letter alongside various lawyers, doctors, researchers, activists, and organizations, all of whom possess expertise in the field and extensive knowledge on Ellebæk:

"We distance ourselves from the conditions for the detained in Ellebæk and strongly question the use of so-called 'motivational measures.' We find that the conditions in Ellebæk risk having a deteriorating effect on the physical and mental health of the detained in the long term and demand a critical examination of the legitimacy and operation of the Immigration Center."

The letter is accompanied by extensive documentation collected by the Ellebæk Contact Network since 2019, which among other things documents the lack of assessment of torture survivors and victims of human trafficking; serious worsening of physical and mental illnesses and inadequate treatment; poor conditions for case handling and lack of information about rights; inadequate use of interpreters; and finally, unacceptable and degrading conditions meant to "motivate" the inmates to cooperate in their departure. The systematic documentation of the conditions at the center paints a grim picture:

"05.07.2020: A told the guards that she had suicidal thoughts because she couldn't talk to her family. The guards told her that she would be placed in an isolation cell if she insisted on being suicidal. This frightened A a lot, so she didn't say anything afterwards. She is still suicidal."

"28.08.2021: JS was told by the judge that he might be detained for 2 1/2 years. He perceives it as a method to break him psychologically. He doesn't understand how the rules are constructed. I also thought it sounded strange. In January, he will have been detained for 18 months plus the six months during which his asylum case was processed."

"18.01.2022: AR raised several concerns about his lawyer, who showed no real interest in his case and is not specialized in this kind of law. There was clearly a language barrier, and the lawyer didn’t show up in Ellebæk while AR was detained there. It was AR’s wish to get a visit by his lawyer, but in the end they only had phone calls in broken German. This in turn led to AR’s absence at one of the hearings, since AR was informed too late about this hearing taking place."

"04.06.2020: X was attacked by a guard on May 18th, who broke his wrist. The background for the attack was that X asked a guard to speak English to him instead of Danish. As the guard continued to speak Danish, X began to speak Persian to him, after which the guard subdued him. There were about 4 guards nearby who witnessed it, one of them helped hold him down. (...) The next day X woke up with pain in his wrist and went to the hospital. Before that, the police called him and asked - as they do - if he was 'ready' to travel to Iran. When he declined, the officer on the phone said they had heard that he had broken his wrist and whether it might not be better for him to go to Iran."

In Ellebæk, prison officers, isolation cells, payphones, work for 11 DKK per hour, prison food, surveillance, dismal facilities, and limited visiting opportunities form the framework for the inmates, making life barely tolerable. And the inmates in the prison are not serving a sentence and are not in pretrial detention. So why are they even in prison?

Deportation center or prison?

The vast majority of the inmates are ordinary rejected asylum seekers who have never been involved in any criminal activity; their only offence is having their asylum application rejected. As described on the Danish Prison and Probation Service's website, "the detainees in the immigration center are not generally deprived of their liberty due to criminal activity, but due to matters related to immigration law."

When rejected asylum seekers are placed in prison, it's often because the Danish Return Agency has assessed that there's a risk they might go underground before their deportation. Therefore, they are incarcerated and deprived of their freedom until they can be deported – or to exert pressure on them to cooperate in a "voluntary" departure. However, for many of the detainees, deportation might never be possible. Additionally, there are at least two serious flaws in such logic:

Firstly, Denmark observes a rule of law, and a fundamental principle of the rule of law is that individuals are only punished for actions they have verifiably committed. When rejected asylum seekers are placed in Ellebæk because they might go underground, it's equivalent to if the state detained a poor person on suspicion of potentially stealing. For the inmates in Ellebæk, the situation is this: no crime has been committed, no sentence has been passed, no trial is pending. Seeking asylum is never a crime, even if it ends in rejection - on the contrary, it's a human right. And imprisonment is the harshest punishment our society has access to.

Secondly, if a rejected asylum seeker goes underground, it's because the alternative – deportation – is so frightening and dangerous that even a life underground is preferable. A life underground means living in the country illegally, without rights, protection, access to the healthcare system, the right to work, permanent housing etc. All in all, it's not a pleasant existence. Yet, for some, it's better than being deported to the countries they left. These are people who are scared and in need of protection from what they fled.

Perhaps, as the Ellebæk Contact Network itself assesses, the reason the rejected asylum seekers are in prison is simply that they are being punished for being unwanted in the national community?

"Unfit for human habitation"

In November of this year, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) will visit Denmark, and one of their areas of focus are places of detention and incarceration. Another committee, namely the The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited Ellebæk in late 2019, which led to very sharp criticism: the chairman described it as one of the worst places he had seen anywhere in Europe and declared Ellebæk "unfit for human habitation." The Committee gave Danish authorities three months to improve conditions in the center or close it altogether. That was in 2020. Today, three years later, Ellebæk is still open, and very little has changed.

The report from 2020 included accounts of suicidal individuals left naked in punishment cells; women who only had access to fresh air for 30 minutes a day; physical conditions that made sick people even sicker. The then-government dismissed most of the criticism but assured that the buildings would be renovated. The then-Minister of Justice's response on TV was that the place "shouldn't be pleasant".

When the Ellebæk Contact Network and co-signers now try to raise the Danish Parliament's Justice Committee's attention again, it is with demands for concrete and substantial action that the Parliament should have initiated three years ago. And as thye government has promised that "Danish immigration policy will again be reasonable", what could be more reasonable than to stop depriving innocent people of their freedom?

At Refugees Welcome, we recommend completely removing the possibilities of imprisoning people from the immigration law. Imprisonment belongs only under the criminal law.

Recommendations to rectify conditions

In the wake of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture's visit in 2019, the Ellebæk Contact Network and co-signers submitted 21 specific recommendations to rectify the prison's highly criticized and disproportionately poor conditions. Since then, parts of the prison's physical conditions have been renovated, but as is evident in the new documentation from 2023, this has both restricted the inmates' access to outdoor areas and provided a reason to install even more surveillance. Thus, the original 21 recommendations from the Network and co-signers remain relevant if a minimum of dignity is to be ensured in Ellebæk. The government should ensure:

1. Thorough medical examination of physical and mental health upon arrival at Ellebæk.

2. Systematic assessment of torture victims and identification of human trafficking victims. Medical staff in Ellebæk often experience that recommendations for torture assessment never take place.

3. Detailed health records with sufficient medical follow-up. Medical treatment should be monitored to ensure proper care, and the detained individual and their lawyer should have access to medical records, just like everyone else in Denmark does.

4. Thorough information about legal rights. Detained individuals should, at a minimum, be aware of their legal rights, including the right to meet with their lawyer, the right to change lawyers, and access to other independent legal assistance.

5. Prevention of suicide and suicide attempts by implementing the National Board of Health's recommendations in this area.

6. No solitary confinement.

7. Due to the dilapidated and unsanitary physical conditions, the Danish Patient Safety Authority should inspect the institution regularly.

8. The right to freedom of assembly and the right to free organization.

9. Important communication should occur in a language the detained individual understands, or with the help of an interpreter.

10. Dignified and proper physical conditions, such as common areas, library, activity rooms.

11. Free access to outdoor areas. 5 km2 is not sufficient.

12. Free visiting program.

13. Access to their own phone.

14. Free and unrestricted internet access.

15. Access to religious leaders, including priests and imams.

16. Consideration for religious needs, such as during Ramadan.

17. The possibility to prepare their own food or heat food.

18. If canteen food continues to be served, it should be on plates rather than plastic trays.

19. Female inmates should have better access to activities and recreational opportunities, as well as better physical conditions.

20. The staff at Ellebæk should consist of professionals, including social workers, teachers, nurses, and social workers. All staff who have daily contact with the detainees should undergo professional training in basic crisis management, conflict resolution, psychology, cultural understanding, immigration law, and should have access to supervision.

21. The planned expansion of Ellebæk and more inmates should be abandoned.