«Sovereign is He who makes the exception», begins Political Theology, the classical work of the later German Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt.
And so at 05:00 in the morning of Saturday June 15 this year, police officers burst into the home of an Afghan Hazara family in the inner-city area of Møllendal in Trondheim, Norway. The Trondheim police was implementing a forced deportation order issued by the Norwegian police’s specialized unit for forced deportations, the Politiets Utlendingsenhet (PU) against the Abbasi family. Having lived as refugees in Iran since 1999, the Abbasi family had first arrived in Norway via Turkey and Greece in 2012. The Abbasi family appears to have chosen Norway as their destination due to the fact that the eldest son in the family, Reza, had arrived separately in Norway in 2008 and been granted asylum here. In Iran, it had been impossible for the children in the Abbasi family to gain access to state education: the court records in their case testifies to their having been schooled privately. Of the three siblings living with their mother at the Abbasi family home in Møllendal, only the eldest son Yasin (22) had ever been to Afghanistan. The rest of the family had been granted asylum in Norway in 2012, but the decision was rescinded the same year after their father, a shoemaker, had suddenly turned up in Norway in 2012, some months after his wife and children had been granted asylum. His asylum application was turned down in 2014. A verdict from the Oslo Magistrate’s Court in 2016 was issued against the Immigration Appeals Board (UNE)’s decision of rescinding the asylum granted to the Abbasi family on the grounds that UNE had not taken the best interests of the Abbasi children into account. The verdict reiterates that Atefa Rezaie and her children were victims of domestic abuse by her husband, who disappeared in 2014 from the small town of Ulsteinvik in Norway where the family was settled since 2012. Rezaie intended to divorce from him. UNE still maintained that the Abbasis could and should seek to re-unite with theirfather in Afghanistan. The Oslo Magistrate’s Court’s finding against UNE and in favor of the Abbasi family was however overturned by a verdict from Borgarting Court of Appeals in 2017. Unlike the lower court verdict, the verdict from the Borgarting Court of Appeals is noteworthy for its explicit lack of attention to the question of the best interests of the child: the verdict simply takes UNE’s claim in court to have taken that into consideration at face value, and rubberstamps UNE’s decision.
Yasin, who used to reside with the family at Møllendal in Trondheim, had already been arrested and detained at his place of work a few days before. There were even allegations to the effect that a work colleague of Yasin’s in a likely breach of Norwegian laws detained and held without access to a legal representative and incommunicado for five hours in order to prevent him from sounding the alarm about the impending police action to the Abbasi family or their legal representatives.
The Abbasi family’s neighbours at Møllendal awoke to loud screams and pleas for help in the street as the Abassis – the mother Atefa (54), her daughter Taibeh (20) and her son Ehsan (16) were forcibly taken into the awaiting police cars.
According to the PU’s own reports, Atefa (54) has a medical condition, which led her to lose consciousness at the very moment that police burst into the family’s home. The arrest, detention and forced deportation of the Abbasi family also vividly illustrated the stark distance between Norwegian police’s flowery rhetoric and actual practice. PU guidelines has it that children in families facing forced deportation should as a general rule not be arrested and detained before 06:00 AM in the morning.
Trandum and a doctor working the dark side
Trondheim police soon transferred responsibility for the Abbasi family to PU. PU had for the purpose of this forced deportation flown in a medical doctor, Gunnar Fæhn, whose private medical corporation Legetjenester AS in Trandum, near Oslo Airport Gardermoen, has since 2005 had a contract with PU to service PU’s detention unit for detainees destined for forced deportation to their countries of origin.
Conditions at PU’s detention facility at Trandum have repeatedly come in for strong criticism from the Norwegian Ombudsperson for Civil Affairs. In its 2017 inspection report on Trandum, the Ombudsperson noted strong concerns relating to the use of force against detainees at risk of suicide and self-harm, and the extensive use of security cells against such detainees, which included their use in the case of legal minors. In a 2019 report, the European Council’s Committee on Torture also criticized conditions at Trandum, especially as these relate to the extensive use of bodily searches and handcuffs, which the committee described as “clearly disproportional and unacceptable”.
Save The Children Norway and the Norwegian Lawyers’ Association have declared that the detention facility at Trandum, where children are reported to have been held for up to twenty-four days in a row, is unfit for children.
Fæhn, whose firm has since 2010 earned 16 million Norwegian kroner (NOK) from a contract with PU renewed without any competition in 2009 and 2015 and which expires in 2019, was in 2016 revealed to have published extensive racist and xenophobic commentaries on assorted far-right and racist websites in Norway, Sweden and Germany.
Fæhn’s racist and xenophobic online comments were not one-offs, but amounted to well over a hundred comments in the period 2012 to 2018. Courtesy of long-standing media editorial practice in Norway – a country where media editors are still overwhelmingly white and male – racist and xenophobic comments are not referred to as such, but rather euphemized as comments that are simply “critical of immigration”. And so Fæhn’s comments have been received as merely representing views that are “critical of immigration” too. There are also allegations against Fæhn relating to inadequate medical care for detainees and unethical behavior at Trandum. These include testimonies from a married female Palestinian asylum seeker to Norway, Mithel Ghaneem of Jenin in the West Bank, who had spontaneously aborted two days before her detention at Trandum in 2012. Ghaneem, who after her abortion had obtained a medical declaration from her local GP at Sandnes in Norway stating that she need to rest and recover for two weeks was still bleeding profusely when she was strip searched at Trandum, and forced onto a plane. Back in Jenin, Ghaneem was sick and bedridden for two months.
There had been no competition for the bid to provide medical services to detainees at Trandum when Fæhn got the contract back in 2004. After a medical check-up, Fæhn according to his statements to the Norwegian press signed off a “fit-to-fly”-declaration for the unconscious Atefa Rezaie on the grounds that “she had a pulse”.
In a demonstration of exactly how legitimate and mainstream far-right dehumanization has become in Norway in the past decades, the leading national lib-con newspaper Aftenposten’s syndicated columnist, the sociologist Kjetil Rolness, implied that Rezaie, whose unconsciousness was caused by a medical condition well-documented by the court records in the Abbasi case had somehow “faked unconsciousness” in order to avoid deportation. It goes without saying, of course, that Rolness has no medical expertise whatsoever.
The government-aligned and conservative media editor Nils August Andresen chimed in from his observation tower in Oslo, and declared that “the forced deportation of the Abbasi family was well-founded”.
Since ordinary Norwegian airlines with reference to their own standards on ethics refused to be part of the forced deportation of an unconscious person, PU had by then chartered a private business flight from the Finnish company Jetflite at the cost of Norwegian kroner (NOK) 900 000 (equivalent to EUR 98 000) to transport the Abbasi family to Istanbul, where the plan was to transport them onwards to Kabul on a regular flight.
PU would later estimate the total cost of the forced deportation of the Abbasi family at close to 3 million Norwegian kroner. The chartered flight took off from the small town of Røros near Trondheim at 11:00 that morning, and first landed at Oslo Gardermoen Airport. After a second medical check-up of Atefa Rezaie at PU’s detention facility at Trandum conducted by Fæhn’s medical colleague in Legetjenester AS, another “fit-for-flight”-declaration was issued for a still unconscious Atefa Rezaie, and the chartered flight with Rezaie and her children took off from Oslo Airport Gardermoen destined for Istanbul Airport. By then, Norwegian online news media, having first been alerted to the case by the Abbasi’s neighbours at Møllendal in Trondheim, had started publishing the first news items about their forced deportation online.
By the time of the Abbasi family’s arrival at Istanbul Airport on Saturday evening, Atefa Rezaie had been unconscious for many hours, and the accompanying medical team consisting of a nurse and a medical doctor had failed to bring her to consciousness.
Clearly panicking, with the Abbasi family stuck in Istanbul and Atefa Rezaie still unconscious, by Sunday afternoon, PU in Oslo made the decision that Atefa Rezaie would be returned to Norway, but that the forced deportation of her children to Kabul and Afghanistan would proceed apace.
This decision was in clear and unequivocal contradiction with statements from the Immigration Appeals Board (UNE) in Oslo from March 15, which asserted that “the family will return together”. It was UNE’s final rescinding of its granting of asylum to Atefa Rezaie and her children back in 2012 in this statement from March that had paved the way for PU’s forced deportation order. In the rescinding order it is also alleged that due to the fact that Atefa’s son, Yasin, is “an adult”, his younger sister Taibeh (20) “will have a necessary and sufficient male network upon their return” to Afghanistan – in spite of the patently obvious fact that Yasin has never been in the country of his birth as an adult.
An unexpected turn of events
But PU had another unexpected surprise in waiting. When they contacted Afghan authorities about the imminent arrival of the Abbasi siblings, Afghan authorities made it clear that given the absence of the mother in the family among the returnees, they would refuse to accept the Abbasi siblings upon their arrival in Kabul and Afghanistan. It so happens that Mrs Shukria Barakzai, the Afghan Ambassador to Norway, have together with the UNHCR, Save The Children Norway, and various Norwegian experts on Afghanistan been critical of Norwegian authorities’ practice of returning unaccompanied minors to Afghanistan. Afghanistan has long been rated as the most dangerous country in the world.
People present at a Norwegian government-initiated conference organized to put further pressure on “third-world countries” to co-operate with a Norwegian government extremely keen to increase the number of deportations in 2016 had there witnessed Mrs Barakzai making it perfectly clear to Norway’s most far-right cabinet minister, Mrs Sylvi Listhaug of the populist right-wing Progress Party in government in Norway since 2013, that she stood for human rights and was not willing to accept the Norwegian government’s extortion tactics on the matter.
To be lectured on human rights and international refugee law by the Afghan Ambassador to Norway predictably proved too much for a governing populist right-wing Progress Party which since its breakthrough election in 1987 has instrumentalized Islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiment in Norway.
In response to Afghan authorities’ refusal to accept the Abbasi siblings back, Progress Party’s MP and Spokesperson on immigration and integration Mr Jon Hegheim promptly issued threats to cut all Norwegian development aid to Afghanistan as a form of revenge from the Norwegian right-wing government.
It is not as if Norwegian authorities are unaware of the fact that Afghanistan is an extremely dangerous country: official travel advice available from the Conservative Party-controlled Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time of the forced deportation of the Abbasi family still had it that “any travel or stay in Afghanistan is inadvisable”.
Norway has, in spite of its international reputation as a beacon of human rights, peace and prosperity, under a right-wing coalition government now in power since 2013 become something of a world leader in forced deportations of minor unaccompanied children to Afghanistan. It is also well documented by now that a number of Afghans who have under the present government been forcibly deported to Afghanistan have in fact been killed after their return to an Afghanistan, which UNE and Norwegian authorities have declared to be sufficiently safe to return people to. Such was the case of an Afghan father of three who applied for asylum in Norway in November 2015 but was deported in August 2016 after his asylum application was rejected. Faiz was found killed in Afghanistan in February 2017, leaving behind a widow and three children.
The far-right drift of Norwegian politics
There is of course an intrinsic and state-generated logic to all of this. Under the present right-wing government, the Ministry of Justice and Preparedness, a cabinet ministry under the control of the populist right-wing Progress Party since 2013, assumed powers of instruction over the hitherto nominally independent UNE under then Justice Minister Sylvi Listhaug in response to the global refugee crisis in 2015. In the Abbasi case, as in an increasing number of asylum cases, so-called “immigration-regulating concerns” now trump all humanitarian concerns, including the best interests and rights of children. The Norwegian right-wing government is very proud of the forced deportation quotas that it sets for PU, and Progress Party cabinet ministers are regularly seen posing for willing Norwegian media cameras outside the Trandum detention facility near Oslo Airport Gardermoen, especially ahead of Norwegian elections.
Through the Abbasi case, and in spite of a spiraling number of civilian casualties from political violence and terror, and recommendations from the UNHCR, UNE and its research unit Landinfo, which is generally staffed by generalist academics with no actual experience from Afghanistan let alone command of Afghan languages, have maintained that Kabul is a sufficiently safe area to return Afghan asylum seekers to. The often violent persecution and discrimination of Shia Muslim Hazaras like the Abbasi in Afghanistan, is hardly ever taken into account by UNE. In its final rescinding of the Abassi family’s right to remain in Norway, a female legal official tasked with deciding the case even contradicts standard textbook definitions of terrorism by arguing that “none of the main actors in the conflict in Afghanistan direct their attacks primarily against civilians” [sic]. The court records in the Abbasi case provides a long and sustained archive of refugee children being brutalized, and severely scarred mentally and physically by a Norwegian state hellbent on closing its borders to them and people like them. Courtesy of Norway having had anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant populist right-wingers in government power since 2013 and effectively in control of Norwegian immigration and integration policies since then, the Immigration Appeals Board (UNE) has also been stuffed with members nominated by far-right civil society organizations with close links to the Progress Party, such as the state and government-funded far-right and Islamophobic Human Rights Service (HRS).
Among the members of UNE appointed by the HRS, we find the Progress Party politician and writer on Document.no Trond Ellingsen, who in the context of Steve Bannon’s recent visit to Norway and appearance at an event organized by the Norwegian right-wing extremist and terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s former favourite far-right website Document.no introduced himself as a “close friend of Fjordman”.
“Fjordman”, aka Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen, is also known as the Norwegian far-right counter-jihadist blogger whose online writings provided the main inspiration for Behring Breivik.
So where are Norwegian anthropologists in all of this? A few exceptions apart, they have for the most part maintained a studied silence in the face of the Abbasi case, as they have in the ongoing far-right drift and mainstreaming of far-right ideas and sentiments in Norwegian politics since 2009. The anthropologists involved in migration studies in Norway are relatively few, far between and politically marginal under the current right-wing hegemonic constellation. There are however exceptions. At a government-funded integration conference initiated by the then Minister of Justice and Preparedness Sylvi Listhaug, Prof Emerita Unni Wikan from the University of Oslo, who has in recent years in several interviews and essays quite incorrectly alleged that she was in the context of integration debates in Norway described as a “Nazi” even appeared as a keynote speaker, and was duly photographed sitting alongside Sylvi Listhaug and Kjetil Rolness, whilst being described by the far-right Listhaug as “my favourite academic”.
In the Abbasi case, both the governing parties and the main opposition party, the social democratic Labour Party have been conspicuously silent about the brutal practical effect of political measures they have for the most part all long supported. The two minor left-wing parties (SV and Rødt) and the Green Party MDG apart, there is no reason to think that dominant political parties in Norway will cease competing over which party can market itself as having the strictest immigration and integration policy of all in Norway. At Trandum, Gunnar Fæhn has now been reported to the Norwegian Medical Association’s Board on Ethics. They may of course choose to censure him over his conduct in the Abbasi case, but as long as he has the support of PU and the Norwegian right-wing government, there is no reason to think that he will face any professional consequences. Since implementing the EU’s directive on the return of asylum seekers, the Norwegian state has pledged to establish an independent body tasked with oversight over Norway’s forced deportation machinery. In spite of Norway having being repeatedly rebuked by the EU for its failure to act on this, such an oversight body is still not in place, and the current Norwegian right-wing government has now instead suggested a body located at Trandum and under the direct control of Norwegian authorities.
The forced deportation machine and the myth of Norwegian exceptionalism
Norway formed part of the NATO-led ISAF Forces, which have been present in Afghanistan since the invasion of Afghanistan in response to al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on the USA in September 11 2001, and the Afghan Taliban government’s refusal to expel al-Qaida from Afghanistan in the wake of these terrorist attacks. As part of the ISAF Forces, Norway controlled the Faryab Province in Afghanistan, and before Norway’s withdrawal from the province in 2012 in the period 2005 to 2012 committed a total of 20 billion Norwegian kroner and 9000 Norwegian soldiers to the ISAF Forces in Afghanistan. Several Norwegian soldiers were killed in Faryab Province and there were also instances in which Norwegian soldiers killed Afghan civilians. The Norwegian ISAF Forces were gradually forced into a tactical alliance with the Faryab Afghan warlord Nizamuddin Qaisari, allied to the Uzbek warlord and war criminal Abdulrashid Dostum. In developments documented by the Norwegian war reporter and documentary filmmaker Anders Sømme Hammer (1977 -) large parts of Faryab Province has since fallen under the control of Taliban.
The Shia Muslim Hazara Abbasi family was originally from the central Afghan Uruzgan province, and had prior to their flight from Afghanistan to Iran in 1999 reportedly also lived in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
In the current context, in which a number of countries, and not the least the USA, have introduced measures to forcibly detain, surveil and deport immigrants and refugees,
which routinizes what Hannah Arendt memorably (if incorrectly in the actual case of Adolf Eichmann) characterized as the “banality of evil” in the name of the interests of Schmittian logics, the case of the forced deportation of the Abbasi family from Norway once more demonstrates that Norway and Norwegians are by no means as “exceptional” when it comes to the intertwined legacies of racism and colonialism as many both nationally and internationally like to think that Norway and Norwegians are. Democracy and human rights die slowly and from within – in Norway as in any other country.