July 17, 2019 / 11:22 AM / a month ago

Backstory: Taking the time to talk to Denmark's migrants

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - The picture shows a group of young men sitting on the floor in a bedroom in western Denmark, two of them checking phones, one smoking a shisha pipe, all of them killing time as they wait to see if they will be sent back to Iran.

FILE PHOTO: Hoshang Rostami (L), 24 and Jamshid Rostami, 26, (no relation) stand in a hall of a male residence block at Kaershovedgaard, a former prison and now a departure centre for rejected asylum seekers, in Jutland, Denmark, March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

The shot is part of a photo essay by Reuters’ Andrew Kelly taken during a visit to Kaershovedgaard, once a prison, now a state “departure centre”, a last staging post for migrants whose applications to stay have been rejected.

Many reporting assignments are over in minutes or hours. This one - to get an insight into the rarely seen end stages of the asylum process - took a month.

First there was the slow business of building up trust with refugee rights groups and authorities, sending them emails, setting out what Reuters wanted to do.

Reuters’ requests came at a particularly charged point in the immigration debate in Denmark, where mainstream parties across the left-right divide have tightened controls, and far-right groups have raised their rhetoric.

“The groundwork I did before I arrived helped,” said Kelly. “Human rights agencies ... put me in touch with a resident there with a good word or two and I went from there.”

That got Kelly and reporter Andreas Mortensen an invitation to the fenced-off facility about four hours by road and ferry from Copenhagen, though things got off to a rocky start.

Staff initially barred Kelly from entering, saying he was expected weeks later. They relented but then said he could only take pictures of the man who had made the invitation, only in his room, to protect the privacy of the rest of the residents.

“I explained the scope of the piece ... and negotiated shooting in other situations as long as I had the permission of everyone who appeared in my photos and video,” Kelly said.

WAITING

The head of the centre “was happy with this except for a few of the busy public spaces like the canteen, the wood shop and the art class.”

Kelly also showed the staff his earlier work documenting immigrant communities in Denmark. “It showed that I was there to respectfully work with my subjects and not abuse their situation to create a sensationalist hit piece.”

He ended up spending three days there - arriving as soon as the gates opened at 10 a.m. and leaving at 9 p.m. - then a fourth day accompanying residents to a church meeting in a nearby town.

Mortensen talked to residents by phone and got the train over for a day of face-to-face interviews.

The coverage captured daily routines that had descended into rounds of waiting - hours upon hours of hanging out in corridors, staring through windows and smoking in doorways as legal appeals ground on miles away in the capital.

Many residents had kept the transcripts and statements that they said showed they had suffered hardships at home.

Slideshow (6 Images)

There was no way Reuters could verify those accounts from Denmark. The clearest thing to do was to record what they said and, just as straightforwardly, report on the responses from the authorities.

But the end of the stay Mortensen and Kelly had spoken to more than 20 residents - too many to fit into one article.

“I felt terrible about some people that we had to leave out,” said Kelly. “So many of the stories I heard were heartbreaking. A few still haunt me.”

Editing by Andrew Heavens

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