Zachary Whyte, Post-Doc, University of Copenhagen

New neighbours: Local outcomes of asylum centres in rural communities in Denmark

Asylum centres in rural areas are an increasingly common mode of managing asylum seekers in Denmark. However, the meaning and consequence of this kind of migration to rural settings has not been much studied in the literature, which has tended to focus on cosmopolitan and urban cases. The rural placement of the asylum centers are of course significant for asylum seekers, but they also can have important consequences for the local communities in which they are placed. This in turn fundamentally shapes the possibilities for interaction between asylum seekers and local communities.

In a context of increased urban migration and general demographic shifts in the Danish countryside, the arrival of asylum seekers and the various jobs deriving from their presence become profoundly significant for local communities, both financially and socially. Asylum centers in rural Denmark are commonly placed in buildings that formerly housed key welfare institutions, like schools and retirement homes. For local communities, the arrival of asylum seekers in these buildings thus underscores the way in which they see the state retreating from them, but also presents new possibilities.

Based on an ethnographic study at three separate rural sites, this paper examines the meanings and consequences of asylum centres for local Danish communities. Focusing on moral and economic exchanges, we argue that local community and neighbourliness are profoundly affected by the presence of asylum centres, just as asylum seekers’ possibilities for taking up alternate social positions (e.g. customer, football player, pupil) may be expanded. This ties in with a markedly pragmatic local approach to neighboring asylum centers, which contrasts with the significantly ideological cast of national debates on asylum. In general, the local communities we have studied looked for pragmatic, rather than ideological, ways forward from their situation of demographic and economic crisis. However, while civil society mobilisation and volunteerism may foster increased contact between locals and asylum seekers, local reactions may equally be shaped by practices of rejection or isolation. While co-existence in the harmonious sense between local Danes and asylum seekers is thus not necessarily given, the physical presence of asylum centres may nevertheless shape and reshape the social lives of locals and thus condition the possibilities for asylum seekers’ everyday lives.

Zachary Whyte is an anthropologist working with asylum seekers and refugees in Denmark and Europe. He is interested in the intersections of transnationality, state practices, uncertainty and everyday life. He wrote his DPhil (University of Oxford) drawing on a year’s ethnographic fieldwork at a Danish asylum centre, and completed a post.doc. (University of Copenhagen) examining refugees’ experiences at Danish language schools. He has since pursued numerous academic and advisory projects working with asylum seekers and refugees, local communities, as well as state, municipal, private and civil society actors. He will be starting a collaborative research project on mobility in and of asylum centers in Denmark at Advanced Migration Studies, University of Copenhagen this fall.

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