The invisible men

There they are. At the margins of public consciousness and at the outer limits of Danish society. The African migrants, the modern 'hunter-gathereres' that collect bottles to survive and sleep in the streets of the capital of the world's happiest nation. There they are - and yet most of the time it seems they are invisible.

It is evening in the early autumn 2013 in Copenhagen. Tipico, a betting café in the inner part of the neighborhood Nørrebro, is full of West African migrants. They are currently unemployed. And they are homeless.

Danish police officers enter the café. They lock the door behind them and begin a thorough examination of the men. First, the migrants are ordered to put their hands on the tables. Then they are being handcuffed, to later be examined. No documents are checked before this examination, no questions are asked, and no announcement is made about what the police is searching for.

The pants of the men are pulled down by the police officers and their bodies, including their private parts, are checked with torch lights. This continues for an hour. Then a couple of migrants are arrested and taken to the police station. They are locked up in detention for hours, without knowing the reasons for their arrest.

A few months before, a similar event has taken place at a public schoolyard in the same neighborhood.

Early in the morning, as a group of migrants are waking up, they are surprised by five police officers. This time ten to twelve migrants are arrested, taken to detention of the police station and having their wallets taken from them.

No questions asked, no reasons given until hours later. Finger prints and pictures are taken. The individuals have now become criminals. Their crime: sleeping in the street.

“Why are you doing this to me?” one of the migrants asks.

“You are a criminal”, one of the police officers responds.

They are forced to sign some documents in Danish – a language foreign to them. By signing they agree to their new imposed criminal identity.

The modern hunter-gatherers
Although these two stories might appear to be unique, they are not. Police harassment is central to the lives of Copenhagen’s homeless migrants.

I encountered this group while conducting a research project on the way the Danish state ‘manages’ its ‘immigrant’ populations. While the original objective was to investigate so-called ‘second generation immigrants’, I soon realised that very little academic effort had been given to homeless migrants.

My motivation in this group developed as I encountered them while walking around Folkets Park (The People’s Park), located in inner Nørrebro.

I found it intriguing to see how in a country like Denmark, where fundamental democracy, equality and social justice are (in discourse) portrayed as intrinsic Danish values, one could find individuals living in the streets during a Nordic winter and collecting bottles like modern ‘hunter-gatherers’.

Their presence raised several questions that, I thought, necessitated research: Who are they? Where are they coming from and why? What are their migratory experiences? When did they arrive? What is their role in society? And most importantly, what does this say about Danish society?

My friend Esé
I was able to answer some of these questions, as I met Esé while he was sitting down by one of the benches at Folkets Park, right next to Stengade – a shelter for homeless people in the street of the same name, run by Kirkens Korshær.

He is 37 years old, tall and strong and speaks about nine languages. A true cosmopolitan. For many years he has been on the move. He was born in Guinea, Conakry and grew up in Ivory Coast in West Africa.

In his twenties he decided to migrate to Europe. During this journey he lived in different countries, including Liberia, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

His journey was shaped by police brutalities, poverty, human traffickers, deportations, homelessness and other forms of abjection and violence.

Eventually, after a few years he arrived to Spain, where he lived and worked for 13 years. He later migrated to France, Germany and Italy and travelled to Finland and Sweden, before coming to Copenhagen, where he has lived for over a year in homelessness.

He defines himself as ‘Pan-African’ in some occasions, and as ‘Afro-European’ in others.

We became friends quite fast, maybe because of our shared love for Salsa music and Latin American culture.

At the outer limits of society
Although his story might appear to be unique – and it is – it is also similar to many of the stories of other migrants I met while doing research.

Most of them migrated to Europe in their youth, and established themselves in Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal, where they lived for many years.

They worked on a more or less permanent basis in construction, transportation, the informal sector, manufacturing and so on. Right until 2008, when the financial crisis hit.

Immigrant populations were the first to be affected, and many of them started moving up North, where the effects of the crisis were not as devastating as in the South.

Many of them have come to Copenhagen where access to housing and stable employment becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Migrants therefore find themselves in the streets, wandering the urban spaces of the city, sleeping in the local park and surviving through a mix of private charity, unregulated employment and ‘informal’ economical practices, such as collecting bottles for a few Danish kroner.

Standing at the margins of public consciousness and at the outer limits of Danish society, the migrant’s everyday lives are characterised by instability and uncertainty, poverty and marginality, lack of social influence and politicized public spaces, as well stigmatization and vulnerability.

This essay is based on two academic reports written by Jose Arce and his fellow students at Roskilde University. You can read the reports by cklicking the titles below:

Vida parado, vida stagnado, vida di merda. An ethnography of the everyday life of homeless African migrants in Copenhagen

How does it feel to be a problem? A phenomenological study of homeless West African migrants in Copenhagen