Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Enforcing Migration Control on Mountains


Deike Janssen


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Deike Janssen. Deike is a recent political science graduate from the University of Innsbruck and active in anti-deportation and migrant rights struggles. This blog post is based on a study in which she conducted interviews with NGO staff who worked at a return center before NGOs were excluded from the facility, as well as with activists who regularly visited the center.

Bürglkopf mountain
Bürglkopf mountain

In 2018, the Danish government proposed a plan to house “unwanted” migrants on the remote island Lindholm. The plan was called a Danish “Guantanamo" or "Alcatraz" as the peripheral-remote location of the island functions as a form of spatial control. While Denmark proposed islands for the extra-territorial incarceration of migrants, a landlocked country turned to other geographical margins of the state to create invisibility and control.

In the Alps, at an altitude of 1300 meters, the Austrian government forcibly houses migrants at the mountain Bürglkopf. According to the authorities, the 'Return Counselling Center’ aims to “motivate” migrants and refugees to return "voluntarily" to their origin countries. However, the geographical location of the center functions as a site of exclusion, isolation, and coercion - analogous to an island - where no one can decide “voluntarily” to return, but where people are brought to despair to leave Austria. Such centers use isolated locations to control migration and extraterritorialize migrants by placing them on the geographical margins of the state. Similar to offshore detention on islands, the center in Bürglkopf creates sites of distance and invisibility.

The facility in Fieberbrunn, a 2.5-hour hike from the nearest village, hosts 80 people on average, most of them with a negative asylum decision and a deadline to leave the country “voluntarily”. There is no legal maximum duration of the forced residence, and the Interior Ministry reported that several people lived on the mountain for years. The center gained national attention during a hunger strike by residents in 2019, which entailed an investigation of the UNHCR and resulted in several adjustments. For example, children were no longer accommodated on the mountain, and a shuttle service to the nearest village was introduced on a regular basis. Since 2021, the administration, legal counselling, and human rights monitoring of the center are no longer carried out in cooperation with NGOs, but exclusively by a state-initiated agency.

“A place of despair”

According to the Austrian government, the forced accommodation on the mountain aims to "optimize and increase the readiness" of a voluntary return. However, the ”voluntariness” in such centers is manufactured by reducing the quality of life of rejected asylum seekers, for example “by denying health care and other social services” forcing the rejected to reside in poorhouse-like institutions, with provisions below the minimum level of financial assistance for citizens, limited access to work and the prospect of having to spend months or years in detention. Return is offered as a “less painful alternative to continued destitution”. By making staying as unbearable as possible, 'voluntary' return centers function as a form of “soft deportation”. Those policies bypass the bureaucratic, legal, and humanitarian constraints that “traditional” deportations entail and even widen the target group of return policies. Residents are forced to move to the mountain facility trough a residence obligation (Wohnsitzauflage), which requires them to reside in accommodation appointed by the state until they leave the country. The obligation is an administrative order and thus not legally challengeable. This represents a major legal loophole that contributes to the general system of disenfranchisement and enables the state to monitor, control, und repress migrants. Forced accommodation in return centers primarily serves as a means to expand return policy - without police escort and bureaucratic or human rights hurdles. The forced accommodation in residences of the state is often regarded as “milder” than detention. Residents feel like living in a “mountain-prison” and a “place of despair”, but centers like at Bürglkopf are subjected to far fewer regulations and controls than prisons and detention - residents have fewer rights to claim, for example, the ability to practice religion, visitation rights, access to education, the possibility of proportionality review, or the right to know the length of detention.

Enforcing borders at all (psychological) hazards

The remote accommodation has a heavy impact on the mental, physical, and social state of the residents, primarily caused by the isolation. Even though residents are legally permitted to move freely in the district, they can barely leave the mountain. The shuttle service to the nearest village carries a few persons, runs twice a day and not on weekends. If residents are not physically able to hike for 2.5 hours, they are stuck on the mountain, just as they would be stuck on an island. Under Covid-19, the possibility to visit the nearest village and visitations was restricted and often residents were put under collective quarantine with limited health care provisions. The geographical location is not the only factor contributing to the isolation - the authorities also enforced visitation bans. Several religious representatives, activist groups, and journalists are banned from entering the site, some residents even reported that negative consequences were announced if they speak to journalists. The bans contribute to the invisibility of the center, restrict help, fair procedures, and critical reports. Residents reported that the center is traumatizing, and that they hear people cry at night. Many residents are traumatized by their prior experiences, and the life in the center becomes an additional source of depression and sleeping disorders. The stressful residence in a remote mass shelter, without an end date, has a heavy impact the mental state of the residents while the psychological support is not adequate nor sufficient. A lot of residents are also housed in the center without any financial provisions, while some get a grant of 40€/month. The residents are prohibited from working but “allowed” to do exploitative “support work” for a maximum of 1,60€/hour, e.g., doing the center’s laundry or cleaning the streets of the nearest village. Even though they are subjected to penalties and substitute detention in case they cannot pay the fee, for example, after they spend a night outside of the center.

Investigating the location of the center demonstrates the importance of studying and documenting individual cases to uncover broader border regime strategies and allows us to expand the scholarship of islands as sites of isolation and migration control to other geographical margins of the state.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

D. Janssen. (2023) Enforcing Migration Control on Mountains. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/12/enforcing-migration-control-mountains. Accessed on: 27/05/2024

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