On the culture of deportation – common sense politics?

Finland has announced plans to deport 15,000 to 20,000 asylum seekers this year back to crisis countries, while the number in Sweden is as high as 80,000. European leaders’ refugee policy discourse has become harsher. In their speeches, they are echoing racist extreme-right slogans calling for the borders to be closed, as did Sauli Niinistö, the President of Finland, when he urged the acceleration of deportations (in his speech at the Opening of the Parliament in 2016).

Back in the autumn of 2015, many still believed in Chancellor Merkel’s policy of open doors and in the so-called culture of welcome (Willkommenskultur). In Finland, this was manifested in Prime Minister Sipilä’s gesture of offering his home to refugees, and more broadly in the citizens’ initiatives gathered under the slogan Refugees Welcome. Those with a longer engagement in refugee issues were however wary. The European asylum system is based on dividing people into “good” and “bad” refugees, to a large extent arbitrarily. The latter are harshly sent back to their countries of origin, to the midst of unbearable conditions and conflicts. A wave of refugees is always followed by a wave of deportations.

In addition to a culture of welcome, we should thus also talk about a culture of deportation. Why isn’t there wider resistance to plans to violently remove 20,000 people from Finland and send them to miserable conditions in the countries of origin or transit?

Why are many even willing to believe that the problems Finland faced in 2015, such as the growing income gap, social exclusion, increase in racist violence, and the scrapping of public services, could be caused by a small number of asylum seekers arriving in the country?

The Voice Refugee Forum, a network established by African refugees in Germany, has for more than twenty years carried out grass-root campaigns against German deportation practices and the European deportation policy in general. With the concept of culture of deportation, the network refers to the idea of deportation being something “natural”. The assumption that the nation state has this right is not exclusive to right-wing populism but sits deep in European everyday thinking and political culture. It is entwined with a notion of supremacy, dating back to the days of formal colonialism. As in those days, white Europeans can today freely move practically anywhere in the world. On the other hand, the nation state’s “self-evident” right to deport targets particularly racialized people seeking entry to Europe from former colonies. Today, Finland is a member of this “moral community”.

The German refugee movement has by countless campaigns and protests demanded a considerably broader freedom of movement than that permitted by the arbitrary rule of immigration authorities, populist control policies and the police. Civil disobedience against deportations has been important in opposing state violence – deaths during deportation are not rare, and, in general deportation is an extremely traumatising experience for the targeted people. The movement’s demand to stop all deportations has gained significant support among German citizens.

The refugee movement has also raised the question of the circumstances that people flee from: why is Europe not addressing the causes of flight and migration?

Instead, with humanistic and empty words, Europe is trying to cover up its complicity in crises and unjust international relations. In the last few years, there has been a significant increase in weapons exports from Europe to dictatorships and conflict countries, and financial support to dictatorships has continued. Other examples of neo-colonial policies include the so-called free trade agreements with third countries, which favour the EU economy, and return agreement negotiations between the EU and African countries, in which the EU is threatening to cut development aid if the African nations will not readmit their citizens deported from Europe. At the November summit in Malta, the EU went as far as proposing to grant itself the right to issue travel documents to any African citizen for deportation purposes.

In our project, we are exploring these issues using media activism and politically engaged research. We bring to Finland knowledge generated by German refugee activists at a time when deportations have become a more urgent question than ever. In September, we will participate in the urban event Karkotettujen olohuone (Living room of the deported) in Helsinki with workshops, a series of short videos, and a full-length documentary on the questionable deportation collaboration between German and West African embassies, against which The Voice has been campaigning since 2007. Throughout the year, we will travel in Finland and other European countries organising discussions, workshops and video screenings.


Aino Korvensyrjä

Aino Korvensyrjä is a historian, activist, art worker and writer. She is currently writing her doctoral thesis on the history of deportation practices and the control of mobility in Germany and its colonies.