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Cage of steel: an asylum seeker at the Woomera detention centre expresses agony during the 2002 Easter Weekend protests

The Swedish Model of Detention

A more human approach to detention leads to less animosity and problems in a detention centre

A more human approach to detention leads to less animosity and problems in a detention centre and a safer working environment. It also helps those granted refugee status and residency to integrate more quickly into society. The link between immigration and settlement is taken seriously in Sweden, with the way individuals are treated during the immigration process directly related to how they adjust and settle into the new country.

The Swedish practice of detention should be seen as a model for other countries, not only in its ability to quell unrest and create a safer working environment, but also in how to treat and respect those detained.

The Swedish Model of Detention

by Grant Mitchell
28 November 2000

Grant Mitchell
Project Coordinator
Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project


7 December 2002: Justice for Asylum Seekers Alliance: Reception and Transitional Processing System - Speaking at the Mudgee Rural Australians for Refugees Conference, Grant Mitchell presents an alternative approach to dealing with the processing of asylum seekers for Australia: The Reception and Transitional Processing System provides a realistic, detailed and soon to be costed reform of the immigration detention system which resolves many of the serious problems...

The decision by a state

to detain individuals without valid visas, adequate identification or immigration clearance raises numerous arguments. Human rights activists and critics claim that it is an unjust, demoralising and unnecessary procedure towards individuals who have a legitimate right to seek asylum, while others site the state's sovereign right in the name of national security. But it often is the means by which people are detained which reflects the true intentions of the state.

From the period of January 1999-January 2000, I worked as an Asylum Seeker Case Worker at the Carlslund Detention Centre, Sweden's largest detention centre. Having only permanent residency in Sweden and not citizenship I was only permitted to have a one-year contract at the Centre, with access to all aspects of the detention centre, but excluding certain restricted department computer files.

Having completed an internship at the Swedish Immigration Department's Gimo Refugee Centre in 1994, I was aware of problems related to detention centres in Sweden, with much discussion within the department and press coverage of breakout attempts, hunger strikes and rioting. One hostage incident in particular which received coverage was of detainees about to be deported, who held a guard captive with a knife before escaping.

During the period I studied at the Centre for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Stockholm University (1995-98) the Centre was involved in discussions in improving the running of the 4 detention centres in Sweden; Flen, Carlslund, Göteborg and Malmö. Major changes were introduced during this period, which has seen a vast improvement in both the effectiveness and in the humane approach to detention in Sweden.

Prior to 1997 the Swedish National Police were primarily responsible for all Detention and a number of immigration issues in Sweden. The Police managed the centres, but hired private security contractors to ensure the daily operation of the centre. There was much media attention prior to that time given to the hard nature of the detention centres, the number of suicide attempts and hunger strikes. Human rights watchdogs criticised the lack of knowledge and experience of contractors in their work with asylum seekers and also of the lack of transparency in management of the centres. The Police were criticised for incidents of forced and occasional violent deportations.[1]

On October 1st, 1997 the Swedish Parliament's new policy on detention came into effect, handing all authority of running the detention centres over to the Immigration Department, who's role it was to create a more civil, culturally sensitive and open detention policy. The Government made clear however that the aim was still one of enforcement of policy and that detention centres were a necessity in order to verify aliens' identities before releasing them into society and in order to realise deportations effectively. At the time there was also an inquiry into detention and deportation procedures, with the government wanting to investigate the relinquishment of authority to the Immigration Department and the possible role of humanitarian NGOs. Researchers and experts from various disciplines were asked to contribute to the inquiry.[2] A considerable amount of money was invested by the Swedish government at that time into external research in immigration and refugee policy.

During the change from the Police to the Immigration Department, NGOs were asked to contribute to discussions of the new procedures of the detention centres and to have an active presence at the detention centers with a number of Forums being organised. FARR - the Refugee Group and Asylum Committee's National Council - was active in its involvement in policy restructuring.

Britta Flodin on the board of FARR says the Immigration Department's intentions seemed very good and has seen a marked improvement in the conditions at the detention centre and in the treatment of detainees since the Immigration Department took over, creating a more functional and supportive environment.[3]

Swedish Detention Law

All asylum seekers who arrive in Sweden without documentation are mandatorily detained until their identification has been investigated, taking usually from 2 weeks to 2 months. There are three categories of detainees. Firstly ID or identification detention, allowing for aliens to be detained if their identity is unclear. This category can be held in detention for 2 weeks while their identification is being ascertained. This can be extended to a maximum of 2 months.[4]

The second category is investigation detention, where the right of the detainee to be released into the community is being investigated. This is generally when there are questionable aspects to the alien's identity and further investigation is needed, particularly if there is a possibility of national security being at risk if they are released. This category can be held in detention for 2 months and extended to a maximum of 4 months. It can happen that a detainee will move from an ID to an Investigation category, meaning they can be held in detention up to 6 months. Identity investigations are undertaken by the Immigration Department's Asylum Bureau with aid from the Foreign Affairs Department and the Police.

The third category is when the alien is in all probability to be deported shortly or that they will go into hiding if released. This is also for a maximum of 2 months, usually for the duration of the preparation of travel documents. I knew of one case of an Indian national held in detention for almost 8 months as he arrived without documentation and was held on each of the categories and was to be deported. Since the Indian government was unwilling to provide travel documents for the client he was finally released into the Swedish community awaiting travel documents, as he could no longer be held in detention under Swedish law. He complied with all requirements of being placed in the community.[5]

It is important to note that all detainees are aware of their rights in detention and the length of time they can be held in detention. All detainees have a right under Swedish law to appeal their being held in detention. They can appeal each category that they are held on, firstly to the Local Court and then to the Alien Appeals Board (the equivalent of the Refugee Review Tribunal). Asylum Seekers are kept in detention only for the period of time it takes to ascertain their identities, not for the duration of their asylum procedure. On average this takes between two weeks to two months.

Once released they are placed in Refugee Reception Housing and can then choose to either stay at a Refugee Centre or move in with friends or family in the community while they await a decision.

The authority, which decides if a person will be detained, depends on where their case is at the time. Deciding authorities are the Police, the Alien Appeals Board and the Immigration Department. The Government can overrule any detention decisions, and did so in one case of a much-publicised Kosovar female held in detention about to be deported. The deciding authority needs to be informed of any decisions pertaining to the client or if they are to be transported.

The Immigration Department also has the right to negotiate with the deciding authority if the person shall remain detained or not. In cases of detention longer than four or five months the Immigration Department will often interview the client and assess the feasibility of releasing them under compliance. This information will be used in negotiations with the deciding authorities, which in some cases can be taken to the local court.

In cases where the supervisor deems a detainee a possible threat to other detainees or staff or in cases of violence, the police will be called and the detainee will be placed in a holding cell or prison. While solitary confinement was never used at the Carlslund detention centre, it is allowed under Swedish law in extreme cases of violence. It is also required by law that a doctor examines anybody placed in solitary confinement as soon a possible.[6] In most cases however the police are called and they deal with the matter. A detainee may also be held in a holding cell if the detention centre is full. The deciding authority needs to make that decision and it can only be until a room if available at one of the four detention centres.

Under Swedish law, no child under 18 years shall be held in detention for more than 3 days. In extreme circumstances this can be extended to 6 days.[7] During my stay at the detention centre there were approximately 20 children held in the detention centre, most of whom were released after 2 days, none were held in the detention more than 4 days.

If an unaccompanied minor arrives in Sweden they are taken directly to a supervised group home run by the Immigration Department and Child Social Services. If a family arrives without documentation or if the family is about to be deported, in many cases they are released into family accommodation at the Carlslund Refugee Reception Centre under compliance, reporting daily to the Department.

However in cases where the threat to national security is unknown, where their identity cannot be ascertained or where authorities are unwilling for their release, the husbands are held in detention, while women and children are released into group homes outside of the detention centre, with the possibility to visit their husbands and fathers during the day.

The Group Home Model

The use of Group Homes is quite common in Sweden, being used for the disabled, drug rehabilitation, juvenile justice and for children and mothers released from detention. The family is first signed into the detention centre and discussions are made with the parents, first outlining their rights (including the right to appeal) and then explaining the detention procedure in relation to children and the family. It is explained that until the father's identity can be confirmed, or if they win an appeal, the father will be held in detention while the mother and children will be released into a group home. The Immigration Department assures the parents that their case will be of utmost priority and that they will be regularly informed of the state of their case. It is important that the mother is reassured that she will have visitation rights and regular telephone access. While it may be a distressing time for the family, in most cases the parents would rather the family split than their child be held detention for an extended period.

In cases where there is only a father and child, and for extreme reasons the father will not be released on compliance, the child will normally be released into a group home for unaccompanied children with regular access to the father. This never occurred during my time at the centre.

Group homes are normally supervised with access to information, legal advice, counselling and recreation. All who live in the homes are involved in food preparation. There are also regular group meetings with consensus deciding all issues. Telephone translators are available whenever required.

Swedish Detention Practices

Carlslund detention centre can hold a maximum of 50 detainees at one time but totalling in hundreds per year with its high turnover of detainees and its close proximity to Arlanda International Airport on the outskirts of Stockholm. There are no barbed wire fences surrounding the detention centre. It is a building similar to those around it; a refugee centre, a group home, a medical centre. It is however fitted with special locks and alarms, with the detainees only being given access to the inner part of the building.

In the centre of the building is a small yard used for soccer and volleyball. Detainees share their rooms and have their own keys to their room. Each room consists of a number of beds, a chest of drawers, a window and a tape player and radio. Rooms for women and families also included a bathroom. The communal areas of the building include a games room, mess hall, computer and TV rooms, bathrooms, laundry and library. The kitchen is generally locked up but access is given to clients wanting to use the kitchen. All knives are locked up to reduce the incidence of suicide attempts. In the basement are interview rooms, the nurses room and a gym, which can only be used under supervision. The reception is open to both clients and visitors, but the offices are in another inaccessible area. There are 2 visitors rooms and a waiting room, with visitors welcome from 9am until 4pm, normally at a maximum of one hour per visit, however longer for visiting children or if the person is to be deported.

After the Immigration Department took over the running of the detention centres people with a range of cultural backgrounds and skills were employed, ranging from social work, social anthropologists, counsellors, mental health professionals, as well as people with experience working in closed institutions. Employees of the centre have different roles, some focusing more on safety and security aspects, others administration, others casework. There was also a person employed to organise recreational activities for the detainees.

Security measures include no cigarette lighters and metal objects being allowed and the use of a metal detector after every visit. Only disposable razors are allowed. In some cases a body search is used, in which case a consent form needs to be filled in. Periodically room searches are undertaken. All staff have both an alarm and a walkie talkie on them at all times.

All detainees are given a caseworker, whose primary role it is to inform them of their rights and to ensure their rights are upheld while in detention. This includes ensuring they have access to a lawyer, that family members are informed that they are being held in detention. We were also required to inform clients on the workings of the department and the detention centre and the asylum, visa or deportation procedures pertaining to their situation, including appeal possibilities. The next duties are the granting of financial support if permitted in their case, initial mediation between lawyer and client, informing the client of all decisions in their case and preparing their asylum application. The duties also included preparing the client for eventual deportation, which involved motivational counselling, as well as practical aspects in supporting the client, such as arranging visits and ensuring the practical working of the detention centre. The work also included training in conflict and violence prevention, occupational health and safety, as well as in motivational counselling.

Staff were regularly involved in departmental training programs and workshops and trained on changes to refugee law. The Government had recently included persecution due to gender or homosexuality into refugee law in Sweden, so staff were trained on dealing with these issues. Also as the detention centre holds both men and women, gender based issues were also covered, such as that a male caseworker may not conduct a body search of a female detainee. On one occasion a female detainee accused a male detainee of attempting to rape her. The police were immediately called and the man was transferred to another detention centre while the charges were being investigated. The female was given immediate counselling. Cultural considerations included never tolerating discrimination or racist remarks between clients, as it is against the law in Sweden.

If a client was being racist towards another client they were spoken to by their caseworker and given a warning. If it happened again they could be charged and in most cases are transferred to another detention centre. This was a common practice between centres, that if someone was not fitting in well at one centre they would be transferred.

I found the multidisciplinary approach to casework very successful, with a great deal of scope allowed for dealing with the needs of clients properly. The department encouraged ensuring the client was coping well while in detention. Thus much of the work of CaseWorkers was to placate distressed and anxious detainees. This was done using a number of alternatives:

Caseworkers also worked in shifts 24 hours a day with regular access to clients, so we got to know the clients extremely well. There was an informal atmosphere in the centre, which meant that at times we would arrange for celebrations such as Idil Fitri or a Swedish holiday with special food or arrange weekend sporting competitions in the yard with prizes of cigarettes and chocolates.

That is not to say the centre was not without its dramas. The very nature of a detention centre gives rise to uncertain and often dramatic behaviour, regardless of how it is run. In the period that I was working at the centre, we had one fire and five breakout attempts. These were perpetrated by individuals detained after living illegally in the community for long periods who were about to be deported, not by asylum seekers waiting for their identity to be confirmed. There were at least ten suicide attempts of depressed detainees, often after receiving a negative decision from the department. When an incident like this occurs it reverberates throughout the entire centre and can lead to chaos. One incident I was involved in included two Afghani men attempting suicide just before the centre was going to celebrate Idil Fitr. One man attempted to hang himself, while the other cut himself. Panic immediately struck and it was clear that the situation could be volatile. The training received from the department was crucial in having the knowledge and skills to turn around possible unrest or panic. As we knew the clients quite well, we knew which detainees were seen as leaders and we asked them to come with us into the room and help us with the men. We asked others to calm the women in the centre. By involving the detainees and understanding their grief we were able to calm a potential riot. This attitude was indicative of the department's careful thought in who they employed to work in the centre. I felt no animosity between staff and detainees while working at Carlslund. The relationship was generally congenial and one of mutual respect, certainly a change from the previous system.

Every Friday night there would be a meeting between clients and caseworkers. They would be informed of any changes taking places and it was an important platform for clients to air any concerns with the running of the centre and to make suggestions. Every week we would go through whether or not these suggestions were to be implemented or not. Once a month or so the head of the detention centre would be present. Issues ranged from visitation times to what videos they were to hire on the weekend.

Formal complaints can be lodged by detainees, either directly to the Director or Supervisor of the centre, or directly to the Immigration Department's Asylum Bureau.

There was a regular unrestricted presence of NGOs and religious clergy at the detention centre who contributed enormously to ensuring the detainees had contact with the outside world. The NGOs were also valuable in noticing problematic aspects of the centre, which can easily be overlooked by caseworkers, especially as the caseload could be very emotionally demanding. The members of FARR as well as other NGOs were also involved in a consultation process with the Immigration Department in the direction of management of the detention centre. The media also had open access and was regularly in the centre, usually to follow a particular case, and on two occasions we had film cameras in the centre doing documentaries, who weren't allowed to film the faces of detainees.

On a number of occasions it was necessary to remove detainees from the detention centre. This was usually for an emergency hospital or dental visit. Two Caseworkers together can take a detainee without any restraints being used. Ambulance services are used when there have been suicide attempts, but whenever possible two staff members will take clients to the emergency ward. If detainees are required to stay in hospital for an extended period the client is signed out of the detention centre, otherwise staff will work in shifts to observe the client. In the case of attendance of appeal court hearings, the Police Transport Unit will be employed to transport and supervise the client during the proceedings.

In cases of extreme depression where staff are concerned the client may attempt suicide or where they have stated that they will, clients are either taken directly to the psychiatric emergency ward or caseworkers are stationed in the client's room in shifts throughout the night. A mental health professional will speak with them during the day and often they will be prescribed anti-depressants. The use of anti-depressants was somewhat common in the detention centre.

Staff begin their shift in a briefing, which informed of new clients, any incidents that had taken place, what decisions had come through, if there were any deportations taking place and the atmosphere of the centre. The number of staff on duty was directly proportional to the number of clients in the centre. A number of staff were on-call, and others worked casually weekends and nights. At the end of the shift there was a debriefing, giving staff an opportunity to go through the events of the day.

In the case of an incident occurring, usually a suicide attempt, the staff on duty were given counselling and called a number of times in the next few days to see how they were coping. This was a necessity as the emotional stress of the job was often overwhelming. This was especially so for caseworkers wanting to alleviate the stress levels of their clients and thereby taking a lot of stress upon themselves. I found the support given to staff and clients by the department and management commendable in light of often difficult and trying situations.


Sweden has long had a reputation for its exceptional treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and though this has been tarnished somewhat in the last few years, certain minimum standards in detention procedures have been established which are undeniable rooted in the state's consciousness of fundamental universal rights for all within the nation-state. Swedish law states that all who are held in detention shall be treated humanely with their dignity respected.[8]

This is not to say that Sweden is a "soft touch" country in regards to detention, refugee policy or deportation issues. Enforcement of policy is a serious concern for the Government and the Immigration Department. In Sweden however it seems to be understood that the refugee experience is not an orderly process that can be bureaucratically controlled and planned. People flee in whatever capacity and by whatever means in order to save their lives. Some arrive by boat, some by plane, some with documentation, others without. In Sweden, genuine refugees are not punished with restrictive visas because of the means by which they arrived in the country. It is understood that some refugees are unable to access a valid passport before fleeing. The Swedish Government states however that all people entering the country need to be security cleared and their identity known.

Previously with the Police and a private security firm running detention centres there were serious problems of rioting, hunger strikes and criticisms of management practices. The Swedish Government decided to constructively address these issues, not by increasing security and secrecy, but by:

These steps taken by the Swedish Government and the receptiveness of the Immigration Department has enabled positive changes to take place in Sweden's 4 detention centres. A more human approach to detention leads to less animosity and problems in a detention centre and a safer working environment. It also helps those granted refugee status and residency to integrate more quickly into society. The link between immigration and settlement is taken seriously in Sweden, with the way individuals are treated during the immigration process directly related to how they adjust and settle into the new country.

On a recent visit to the Carlslund detention centre, the Canadian Immigration Minister commended Sweden on what was noted as a fair and just system of detention and indicated that Canada had plans to follow suit.[10] The Swedish practice of detention should be seen as a model for other countries, not only in its ability to quell unrest and create a safer working environment, but also in how to treat and respect those detained.

For more information contact:

Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project
Fax: (03) 9326-8030
Mobile: 0403 194 665

Footnotes & references

[1] Polisen kommer oanmäld (The police come unanounced), Jean-Luc Martin, UR Artikel 14 nr 4/97.

[2] Immigration and Refugee Policy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1997, page 30-31.

[3] Besök i Förvar (Visit in Detention), UR 14 nr 4/97.

[4] All the above detention categories and requirements are listed in: Rikslagen (State Law) 1996:1379.

[5] Swedish law and practice surrounding deportation and voluntary repatriation are not covered in this paper but will be covered in a follow-up paper.

[6] Rikslagen 22: 1997:432.

[7] An amendment was made in 1996 changing the rules for children in detention from 16 to 18 years. Immigration and Refugee Policy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1997, page 29.

[8] Rikslagen 18: 1997:432.

[9] This practice of Group Homes has been previously used for children in detention in Sweden, but was clarified in greater detail by law after 1996.

[10] Telephone interview with Anna Wessel, former head of the Carlslund detention centre, who met the Canadian Immigration Minister. The visit took place in early October.