Life in ‘Punitive Protection’: The paradox of migrant detention in Estonia


  • Timothy Anderson Tallinn University


The detention of irregular migrants in the European Union has increased
in scope and intensity in the years following the 2016 ‘refugee crisis’.
Detention is usually codified as an administrative practice, a neutral routine
necessary for the surveillance of irregular migrants and the enforcement
of immigration laws. However, this formally ‘administrative’ process belies
a unique contradiction: although cast as a benign procedure, detention is
often experienced by detainees as a form of punishment and incarceration
in the absence of criminal charges. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork from the Metsa Detention Centre in Estonia, I argue that this paradox—what I term punitive protection—can make detention a disorienting and uncanny institution for migrants. Detainees experience ‘punitive protection’ as the tension between what they are told is real and what they are certain is real. For my informants, Metsa was not just a space of confinement, but an alternate reality where their beliefs, hopes, and struggles were denied by state practice.

Keywords: Migration, detention, agency, refugee studies, criminology




How to Cite

Anderson, T. (2023). Life in ‘Punitive Protection’: The paradox of migrant detention in Estonia. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 47(2), 29–48.