Precariousness among young migrants in Europe: a consequence of exclusionary mechanisms within state-controlled neoliberal social work in Sweden

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  • 1 Linnaeus University, , Sweden
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This ethnographic article addresses social work’s participation in exclusionary practices performed by migration authorities in Sweden, leading to extreme precariousness among young people searching for protection. Through ethnographic descriptions of young people who fled from Sweden to other European countries, we argue that Swedish social workers played an active role in depriving young people of their social rights. A central concept in the article is administrative violence. Such institutionalised violence risks being excluded from a moral assessment. We argue that moral responsibility is not about following state rules, but may instead involve acting in a way that rules do not support. If social work accepts the boundaries of the nation-state, its border work and the logics of neoliberal ideologies, it cannot live up to the ethical standards of social work and its emphasis on social justice.

Abstract

This ethnographic article addresses social work’s participation in exclusionary practices performed by migration authorities in Sweden, leading to extreme precariousness among young people searching for protection. Through ethnographic descriptions of young people who fled from Sweden to other European countries, we argue that Swedish social workers played an active role in depriving young people of their social rights. A central concept in the article is administrative violence. Such institutionalised violence risks being excluded from a moral assessment. We argue that moral responsibility is not about following state rules, but may instead involve acting in a way that rules do not support. If social work accepts the boundaries of the nation-state, its border work and the logics of neoliberal ideologies, it cannot live up to the ethical standards of social work and its emphasis on social justice.

Introduction

This article analyses the lived consequences of exclusionary practices in Sweden among young people seeking protection. We argue that social work has assisted the migration authorities through chains of exclusionary practices, making the lives of young people so precarious and unbearable in Sweden that continuous escape in Europe becomes a preferred choice of action. Within the framework of two ethnographic research projects, we have interviewed and followed about 20 young people who arrived in Sweden as so-called ‘unaccompanied minors’. We have participated in their everyday lives and at critical moments, such as potentially life-changing meetings with the Migration Agency and social workers, or during Migration Court proceedings. A significant part of our interaction with the young individuals took place during periods of stressful waiting for authority decisions that have a crucial impact on their lives and future. Some of the participants have felt it necessary to set out on a continuous escape and, thus, are caught in dire circumstances at various places in Europe (Elsrud, 2020).

Theoretically, we use a sociological power-critical analysis inspired, above all, by Zygmunt Bauman and Judith Butler. Their theories help us understand how some people are ascribed a lesser value than others by being excluded from rights, dehumanised and seen as less grievable (Butler, 2016). We focus on what can be referred to as ‘bureaucratic’ or ‘administrative violence’ (Rousseau et al, 2001). In administrative violence, ordinary, everyday, institutionalised tools are used to create and uphold differences between those considered worthy of help and those who are not, causing severe harm to those labelled ‘undeserving’ in the welfare system. This type of violence occurs through dehumanisation processes, where targeted people are made into anonymous clients, cases or numbers. Violence is not recognised as violence, but seen as a legitimate and standard procedure, ‘exempt from the category of phenomena suitable for moral evaluation’ (Bauman, 1995: 149). Thus, such acts of violence risk being excluded from a moral assessment.

While acknowledging the role of neoliberalism for increased precariousness among people seeking protection in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, we want to focus on what happens in the welfare state regime and its excluding administrative, bureaucratic mechanisms that expel people and put them in situations of extreme insecurity. Indeed, the welfare state regime functions well in the service of neoliberal societies (Kamali and Jönsson, 2018; Abdelhady et al, 2020). Being the cornerstones of globalised neoliberal ideologies, individualism and the depoliticisation of structural inequalities have also made their way into the world of social work. As Kamali and Jönsson (2018: 11) write: ‘Social work education and practices are therefore, in this fashion, infiltrated and influenced by neoliberalisation. In other words, neoliberalism colonises the realm of the social (including social work) by enhancing managerialism and limiting critical thinking, literature, curriculum and practices.’ Thus, we argue that neoliberal logics within Swedish social work have strongly contributed to the administrative violence and precariousness described in this text. The processes of expulsion turn young people in search of protection into a precariat. They become easy prey for neoliberal societies and the nationalist welfare states’ need for easily accessible workers to fill the employment gaps (Standing, 2011).

Against this backdrop, the aim is to analyse the lived consequences of exclusionary practices within social work and the Migration Agency among young people who arrived in Sweden seeking protection but later find themselves forced to re-escape to avoid deportation. We approach this topic through three overarching research questions:

  • How can their experiences of being excluded from social support and from Sweden be understood?

  • How can the administrative violence they experience be analysed?

  • How can the role of social work be understood in relation to the precariousness of the participants, and how can social work act with greater ethics and responsibility?

After presenting an outline of the three years of ethnographic work informing this article, we reflect on the lives of Hamas and Saleh, two of our project participants. These young men, 19 and 20 years old, were deprived of everything that they had built up during their years in Sweden through the state’s bureaucratic violence. Their precariousness is the consequence of a chain of negative actions and decisions made by Swedish authorities, whose legal certainty has been subjected to intense criticism from researchers in recent years (Hedlund, 2016; Johannesson, 2017; Elsrud, 2020; Skodo, 2020; Elsrud et al, 2021). Now battling for survival in Italy after having embarked on a continuous escape, this time from Sweden, their stories convey that they live in prolonged social and existential suffering (see Khosravi, 2018). We describe the highly insecure life situation that they have been through and continue to live under in Italy, thus clarifying the consequences of Sweden’s legal and political austerity measures (Barker, 2017; Elsrud, 2020).

We then turn back the clock, returning to the expulsion process in Sweden before their continuous escape. We demonstrate that social work, both state-governed and emanating from civil society initiatives, plays an essential role in this process. While state-governed social work has mainly excluded and separated, voluntary social work has reduced the suffering created for those separated from, and no longer supported by, welfare systems. Finally, we discuss moral and ethical responsibility in relation to what state-governed social work could be and sometimes is. From being a country with a relatively acceptable universal welfare policy, Sweden has rather dramatically excluded people seeking protection from the right to legal certainty, as well as social and economic security. Using Sweden’s increasingly excluding welfare practices as an eye-opener, we want to highlight the need for future morally and ethically based social work that takes responsibility for people in extreme precariousness, regardless of neoliberal nation-state dictates and boundaries.

From single- to multi-sited ethnography

This article is based on recurrent ethnographic interviews and observations with approximately 20 young men who arrived in Sweden as so-called ‘unaccompanied minors’. Many more boys, and some girls, have contributed to our understanding through informal interviews and conversations during participant observations. The data collection originates from two ethnographic research projects with a similar focus. One project is studying the experiences of the Swedish asylum context among networks of young people having sought asylum in Sweden and volunteers supporting their efforts to stay in Sweden. The other project is analysing how issues of hope, trust and belonging are affected by social interaction in the Swedish asylum reception system through the experiences of asylum-seeking people of all ages and backgrounds.

This article draws on interviews and observations with young male participants from both projects who arrived in Sweden around 2015. A majority of them are Afghan citizens. At the time of writing, 14 participants have left Sweden after multiple rejections. They are now coping with precarious living conditions in other countries in Europe, with the majority living in Italy, while others are in France and Portugal. While the initial idea for both projects was to do recurrent interviews with people in Sweden, it did not take long before the first participant was forced to leave, and we decided to follow. From there, the projects evolved from single-sited into multi-sited ethnographies (Boccagni and Schrooten, 2018).

Meanwhile, once we were abroad in Italy, Portugal or France to visit our participants, we were introduced to other young men who had also spent several years in Sweden and often spoke nearly fluent Swedish. They too wanted to contribute to our understanding of how it feels to have been a minor seeking protection and receiving rejections in Sweden, the country some of them viewed as the most democratic, gender-equal, education-oriented country in the world. Thus, in our ethnographic quest to understand the complexity of the ‘local cultures’ of our participants, we allowed for the projects to begin growing outside of Sweden. We saw this as an important opportunity to reach a group of people who can rarely share their views due to their marginalised position.

An essential point about ethnographic studies where researchers listen and learn from those with whom they study and collaborate is that they can provide descriptions that move beyond common stereotyping and categorising representations of people, such as media-created notions of ‘unaccompanied young men’ with a ‘Muslim background’ (see Djampour, 2018; Herz, 2019; Herz and Lalander, 2020). In addition, opportunities are created to unveil how structural hierarchies (socio-economic, administrative and discursive) intervene and affect people’s everyday emotional lives. Thus, ethnographic studies contribute to questioning the processes and policies that create extreme uncertainty and severely precarious living conditions for some people.

Both projects are examples of critical ethnography (Thomas, 1993), which not only describes ‘what is’, as conventional ethnography does, but also ‘asks what could be’ (Thomas, 1993: 4). Based on the participants’ voices and experiences, and the use of critical-sociological theory, our research has a political purpose, in that it questions existing neoliberal social and political conditions and wants to contribute to social mobilisation and political change. Thus, our research has been characterised by solidaristic acts. For instance, we provide our experiences and knowledge to legal representatives and collect funds for food, clothes and lodging for research participants. From a social-equality perspective, doing such things is an ethical obligation (Maher, 2002: 315). Besides, keeping a distance or acting as ‘neutral’ researchers would have made relationship-building nearly impossible in this context, particularly with individuals who have a recent history of having been mistrusted and expelled from Swedish society. As researchers oriented towards social justice, it has not been difficult to decide on whose side we are. We believe that taking and embodying a moral and ethical position is to ‘enrich and strengthen ethnographic understanding’ (Maher, 2002: 315).

Places where time just goes by but everything stands still

It is an afternoon in mid-November 2019 in a small town in Northern Italy. Outside our hotel, we meet Hama face-to-face for the first time. He has invited us to spend a few days with him to learn about his situation. The hotel overlooks the harbour. A large tourist vessel has arrived. Tourists with international bank cards and passports move across the pier. We greet each other and we comment that it is “nice here”. Hama smiles a little, takes a puff on his cigarette, and replies, “Not for me.” The words are far from random. They speak to an embodied consequence of Hamas’ situation, his life history and the fact that he was forced to leave Sweden. He left a few months before we met him, after his third and final asylum application rejection, when the Migration High Court denied his request for leave to appeal.

Unlike the tourists, unlike us, Hama cannot move across borders with ease. He is tied down to the place where he is now, stuck in constant waiting. He is a ‘Dublin case’, a category created by the European Union (EU) countries’ cooperation around migration policies. Following the ‘principle of first country of asylum’, this position poses significant problems for him, as he risks being sent back to Sweden, the country where he first applied in the autumn of 2015. Therefore, Sweden must be the country responsible for testing his right to asylum (EASO, 2018). He is now waiting to see if Sweden wants him back to lock him up in one of six Swedish detention centres for people who have had their asylum cases rejected so that he can be sent back to the country from which he once fled. If Sweden does not want him back, or if Italy chooses to let him apply for asylum in Italy, his situation will look a little better. Then, at least, he is an asylum-seeker.

In another Italian setting, in Rome, we meet Saleh. He is also stuck in a Dublin process that drags on without any indications of what will happen. During one of our interviews, he describes his position:

‘I thought that when I go to Europe, I will study, I will just fix a future. I will just fix a life. I will live there, in any country. I had not thought that if I go to Sweden or Europe, they expel me, or that so many bad things happen, that I will sleep on the street.… This life I have is not a life, you could say. Sleep on the street. Three years in another country and then leave, and then another country and then leave, and to another country and then leave. Only time passes without me being able to do anything.’

Saleh’s words from this interview ring in our ears as we stand and watch other people, like Saleh and Hama, who are seeking asylum in Italy and are hiding under cardboard boxes and plastic bags along the walls at the Termini Station in Rome. It is cold and raining heavily this February evening. Rome’s commuters pass by in a steady stream while avoiding stepping on the feet of homeless people jutted out along the sidewalk. Like the tourists in Hama’s town, they are on their way somewhere. They have a life to go to, a life similar to what Saleh was going ‘to fix’ when he fled war and persecution some years earlier.

The meetings with Hama and Saleh unveil stories of extreme insecurity and injustice. Both know that the lives of the homeless can be theirs at any time. Saleh spent his first nights in Rome outdoors on the street, and he can quickly end up there again, as his current accommodation is a short-term solution. Both also know that their lives could have been more stable and focused on the future if they had been granted asylum in Sweden. They could then have completed their education and continued to work as part of building a future, of ‘fixing a life’. In that sense, they are painfully aware that their life cycles and future plans have been brutally disrupted (Khosravi, 2018).

Their lives are similar to those of many others living under extreme insecurity and who are not seen as grievable within the bureaucratic contexts of state welfare systems. Life is characterised by waiting: a protracted, uncertain and painful being-in-exclusion and not-belonging. In the autumn of 2020, a year after we first met, Hama visited the Italian migration authorities only to be told to come back for a new appointment in March 2021. He had nurtured a hope that he would be told that his ‘Dublin’ was now removed and that he would be categorised as ‘normal’, as an asylum-seeker, but he was yet again forced to wait. Likewise, Saleh is still waiting to escape ‘Dublin’ after two years in Italy. Such waiting without an end is extremely difficult to deal with emotionally. Both feel that they live a life in the margins, where “only time passes, without me being able to do anything”, as Saleh says. Life has become a relentless stretch of waiting. What are viewed as administrative formalities from the authorities’ perspectives have become crucial and life-changing for Hama and Saleh.

Hama tells us that every morning, when he wakes up in his temporary home, he thinks to himself, “What am I doing here?” Every morning, he finds himself in the wrong place, not where he was just a few months earlier and where he had his friends and school. Even during our phone conversations after we left Italy, Hama continually returns to the fact that, in reality, he should now be doing his last year of upper-secondary school, continuing his friendships and development together with his classmates. Similarly, Saleh describes a continued profound loss and grief in relation to the situation, place and people that he was forced to leave. He has strong emotional ties to people in Sweden and a special love for the place where he lived. Both feel that they must return and that they will never feel at home where they are now. They are going through a substantial emotional trauma and a personal tragedy caused by the Swedish state’s administrative violence and the severe disruption of their life cycles. Like many others, they try to cope with ‘time as broken and the life cycle as interrupted’ (Khosravi, 2018: 7), being ‘stuck in the threshold’ (Fontanari, 2017: 33), with anxiety attacks, stress, sleeping disorders and the fear of hoping too much while waiting for a decision or just an opportunity to come. The many rejections and losses of safety during an identity-forming adolescent period have led to the painful realisation that hope is fragile and life extremely uncertain. However, their precariousness should not be confused with personal weakness or inabilities to act. They are both resourceful and creative, but their grim contexts slow down their power to decisive action and force them into monotonous waiting.

This evening in Rome, as we walk around Termini, Saleh has recently arrived in Rome and received temporary help from a Christian organisation. They have provided a bed in a room with six people in a small apartment. Saleh’s support comes from civil society in Sweden and Rome, as well as from other asylum-seekers who once tried to find safety in Sweden. Most of the people in the apartment have been given a chance at a life in Italy after several years of repeated rejections and experiences of bureaucratic and administrative violence in Sweden. They have been granted Italian residence permits with refugee status (‘political visa’), illuminating that different standards and praxis are used by European migration authorities when interpreting the grounds for asylum. However, for Saleh and Hama, who came to Italy later than the others, the situation is hard. Political promises of getting tough on people seeking protection in Italy have begun to permeate the authorities’ actions. Saleh has queued many nights trying to submit an asylum application, without success. The system has hardened, the other guys in the apartment where Saleh lives have explained. They have also described how politely they were treated some years earlier when they arrived in Italy after moving on from Sweden to avoid deportation (Elsrud, 2020). After a couple of weeks of trying, as we stand in the rain outside Termini, Saleh is still not registered as an asylum-seeker. He experiences fear, doubt and vulnerability that reach levels he never thought were possible when he fled to “fix a life”.

At the time of writing, nearly two years after Saleh’s arrival in Italy, he has still not received the documents required to be entitled to the limited financial support available to people seeking asylum. Instead, he has been forced into the illegal job market, working ten to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for a salary of approximately €2.2 per hour. However, he has not received any money for his work for the several months, but stays, hoping the boss will eventually hand him the cash, now amounting to €1,700. All his waking time is focused on working and surviving, not saving or ‘fixing a future’. He has become one of Italy’s many ‘useful intruders’, an asylum-seeker who keeps the local economy going without actually earning anything from it (Tuckett, 2016). His young body, worn and tired from working seven days a week, now belongs to those who gain from the precariat of the neoliberal metropolis (Standing, 2011; Wacquant, 2014).

In the following section, we go back in time and return to what happened before Hama and Saleh fled to Italy to avoid being placed in one of the Swedish prison-like detention centres and, subsequently, deported in one of the planes chartered by Frontex. We describe what we call ‘processes of detachment’ that occur when young people are separated from their fundamental human rights and denied support from the welfare state despite being caught up in situations characterised by extreme precariousness. This section discusses the role of state-governed social work during the detachment process.

A process of detachment

Like many other young people, Hama and Saleh have been in Sweden during the three existing steps of the asylum process, from the first rejection at the Swedish Migration Agency, via a second rejection at the Migration Court, to the third rejection that gains legal force when the Migration High Court denies a leave to appeal. As long as the young person is a minor, municipality-run social welfare offices are responsible for their care and housing, with financial support from the state. However, when they turn 18 or are re-aged and adultified, often following strongly criticised medical age assessments by the National Board of Forensic Medicine (Noll, 2016; Lundberg, 2017; Malmqvist et al, 2018; Mostad and Tamsen, 2019), many social welfare offices in Sweden have chosen to discharge these young people from housing and care. Instead, their needs have either become the Migration Agency’s responsibility in preparation for voluntary return or deportation, or been catered for by committed people in civil society and non-profit organisations (Elsrud, 2020).

However, exemplifying how the municipalities’ discretionary powers convert rights to care and housing into a lottery, the municipality where Hama lived chose to keep him until the final decisive rejection, despite him having turned 18. It was only then that he was deprived of his home in a residential care unit run by the local social welfare office. He is the only project participant being allowed to remain in municipality care upon turning, or being turned, 18. Hama describes that he had good contact with the residential care unit staff, even though staff rules say that they should not develop friendship-like relationships with the residents (Herz and Lalander, 2021). The officer who authorised the discharge was a social welfare secretary described by Hama as “great”. She told him that she had been commissioned to dismiss him by her boss, that she was unhappy and that his new situation was sad. He defends her by saying that discharge from the residential care unit is mandatory when you get the third, decisive rejection. It seems that the social welfare secretary refers her action to the organisation and its rules, and that there is nothing else she can do. In that sense, she appears as an officer who does what she is obliged to do. She thereby contributes to administrative violence, with real and dangerous consequences for Hama, regardless of what she feels before the task.

During this time, Hama also visits the Migration Agency’s return unit and meets a female officer. Hama says that she tried to express empathy and said it is sad when things like this happen. Hama is informed that they want him to take the train to Stockholm to visit the embassy of his country of origin to apply for a travel document. He should then bring it back to show to the Migration Agency. The travel document is essential in executing the deportation through making sure that he can cross the border into his country of origin. Hama tells the officer that he will go to the embassy, but he has already decided to escape deportation by going to Italy. In addition, the Migration Agency wants him to sign a document in which he approves of his return to a country with which Sweden does not have a return agreement.

Hama spends three days packing, giving away or placing things he cannot take with him among friends. Many of the staff are sad. Some cry the last night before he will take the train to the airport. Several of the staff still have contact with Hama a year later. Thus, they are violating the residential care home’s code of conduct, which says that they should not have continued contact with residents who have been discharged and made deportable. Instead, they follow another moral code that the authorities have not stated. The moral code means that Hama is a grievable person, with an insecure life, who needs support and sympathy. They transcend their roles as public servants and show that they do not have to limit themselves in the way codes of conduct prescribe. They show that it is entirely possible to allow solidarity to extend into Hamas’ future, even if he no longer resides at their workplace.

Saleh’s memories of the detachment process, from being a child in a residential care unit relatively protected by the Swedish welfare system, to having a life as an ‘undocumented’ and excluded young adult in a Swedish family, are not as clear. He recalls the actual interaction with various representatives from the Migration Agency and social services as being acceptable, and remembers more about the pain of having been distrusted, cheated on and expelled, regardless of how the rejections were performed. During the ‘return conversation’ with the Migration Agency, he receives a ticket to Stockholm to pick up travel documents from the embassy. He gives polite thanks but throws the ticket away when he leaves the Migration Agency with his legal guardian. They both know that he cannot return without risking his life. Saleh never waits to be told by social services to leave the apartment where he lived at the time of the third refusal. After the return conversation, he goes straight there, packs his things, sneaks out and moves in with a Swedish family with whom he has developed a close relationship. He stays there for six months until he feels no more hope for a solution in Sweden. The Swedish family prepares the back seat of the car and drives him to Italy. “I had no future in Sweden. Not a chance. It was completely black for me”, he says one year later in Italy. “I felt I had to, the Migration Agency is forcing me, the Swedish government is forcing me”, he explains, and he lists everything he could not do that forced him to leave Sweden: “go to school, get medical care, get a driver’s licence, work legally, have your own bank account”.

Hama’s and Saleh’s descriptions of the responses from various authority representatives and their experiences of the authorities’ actions have two sides. On the one hand, they feel treated correctly or kindly; on the other hand, they describe a feeling of being abused by Swedish authorities and severely affected by inhuman decisions. Most other participants in our research described a more one-sided experience, where inhuman decisions were delivered by insensitive and disrespectful administrators and social workers who did not show the empathy that Hama, in particular, describes (Elsrud, 2020). However, in this text, we would like to point out that regardless of whether the treatment from individual authority representatives seems empathetic or not, the consequences and outcomes remain the same. No matter how the decisions are implemented, they lead to extreme uncertainty and a life with almost no safety net.

Nevertheless, a form of informal safety net remains for Hama, Saleh and several other project participants that has acted as a counterweight to total exclusion from human rights. Individuals and organisations in civil society have seen them as grievable people worthy of care. Unlike those who work in the welfare offices, civil society actors are not obliged to follow governmental orders, but can act more freely with the people they meet. However, civil society’s authority to act is often limited to reducing harmful effects, rather than changing the outcome of asylum processes or creating new opportunities in Sweden. Therefore, Hama, Saleh and other young people who have run out of options in Sweden have often received support to re-escape to other countries and avoid a life on the streets. Still, in our projects, some participants live undocumented lives in Sweden and are supported by civil society, or are in shelters in deportation countries that were built or provided for by Swedish civilians.

There are different ways to understand that phenomena resulting from seemingly ordinary and mundane governmental processes can have catastrophic consequences for the individuals affected. In his book Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman (1989) explains how the annihilation of millions of people was made possible by many people simply doing their jobs. Each of them was responsible only for their part during a chain of events that led to such cruelty and death. Thus, they did not have to be held morally accountable for the whole, which, in that case, resulted in one of the worst atrocities of modern history. Bauman points at a type of administrative violence whereby bureaucrats, through their everyday routines – decision meetings, signatures, communicative documents and so on – neutralise and make invisible the cruelty of the process that leads to so much suffering. The phenomenon of neutralising atrocities is not only relevant in connection with such extreme events as the systematic killing in concentration camps during the Second World War. Administrative and bureaucratic practices also hide state cruelty in contemporary Sweden and elsewhere that may lead to legally uncertain asylum investigations (Hedlund, 2016; Johannesson, 2017; Elsrud, 2020; Skodo, 2020; Elsrud et al, 2021). At the same time, these practices become vital parts of the normalisation of governmental cruelty. The grim picture is hidden behind a chain of individual actions by individual officers following administrative routines. The bureaucratic process legitimises that people are systematically placed in extreme precariousness and vulnerability, with extensive suffering as an obvious consequence.

Project participants talked about feelings of being “killed by a pen … over and over again”, for every rejection they go through, every new situation they are forced into and all the episodes of uncertain waiting. Their lives have become chopped up by decisions, most of them so fraught with significance that they have life-altering consequences. Several have been in an asylum process involving multiple rejections for four to five years. The rejections are related not only to the asylum procedure itself, but also to the norms and praxis of other authorities. Recurrent are the stories of young people having lost both municipality housing and support from social services following medical age examinations that many experts consider both unscientific and unethical (Noll, 2016; Lundberg, 2017; Malmqvist et al, 2018; Mostad and Tamsen, 2019; Elsrud, 2020). Some participants have described how brutal these evictions can be. They were forced out of the residential care unit on the same day that they were re-aged by the Migration Agency, while being threatened by staff that the police will be called in if they are not gone before a particular time. Others have been denied visits to their former residential care unit to spend time with their friends, play football and gain access to social interaction because they no longer belong to the category that is to be offered social service support (Elsrud, 2020).

Some participants have managed to stay in Sweden on a temporary residence permit to study following the new upper-secondary school law (regulated by Act 2016:752 on Temporary Restrictions on the Possibility of Obtaining a Residence Permit in Sweden, §16a–16i). Many of them have been denied economic support and support for rent from social services despite being too young to receive study loans, resulting in homelessness and total dependence on civil society charity. For some, their application for financial support has been rejected because they have not applied for work, even though the condition for them to stay is that they study and complete their studies within a time frame agreed on by school authorities and the Migration Agency. Many participants who remain in Sweden cannot open bank accounts or obtain a driving licence because the Swedish Tax Agency and the banks do not accept their identity documents. Individually, these administrative refusals and rejections are small parts of a whole that is invisible to individual decision-makers. Still, for young people, each refusal can be decisive and lead to a state of extreme insecurity and unprotection. Several young people have also become socially isolated through being forced into homelessness, before finally choosing to leave Sweden (Elsrud, 2020).

To understand how administrative violence is possible, it is essential to recognise the embedding of the nation-state idea within social work. The administrative expulsion or detachment processes in the name of the Swedish government are expressions of state violence exercised against people who have been categorised so that they are considered not to have any rights. Concepts such as ‘illegal’ and ‘undocumented’ contribute to a criminalising language where people are reduced to inconveniences and threatening elements to the state. The belief that the nation-state is superior to other principles, such as international convention commitments and human rights, makes Sweden and Swedish authorities into something that must be protected from threats from the outside. Vanessa Barker (2017: 449) has described how such nationalism contributes to the criminalisation and dehumanisation of migrants:

By blocking legal channels of entry, refusing to renew a residency permit, or by denying asylum, the state through its immigration law creates illegality where none existed before (...). It turns a migrant into a wrongdoer, subject to sanction, voiding sympathy, and depressing rights. This kind of classification process is both an expression and exercise of state violence.

By turning migrants into criminals, those who help them risk being branded as collaborators with criminals. The state violence which legitimises that other people are seen as less valuable and fundamentally different emanates from and creates fear. Sara Ahmed (2004: 124) writes that ‘the narrative of asylum seekers “swamping” the nation works as a narrative of fear. Fear works to create a sense of being overwhelmed.’ She also writes that discourses about dangerous strangers ‘remind us that danger is often posited as originating from what is outside the community, or as coming from outsiders, those people who are not “at home” and who themselves have come from “somewhere else”’ (Ahmed, 2007: 162). These nationalistic stories were accentuated in Sweden in 2015, increasing the pressure on politicians to make the country’s borders more impenetrable, which also meant that it became more difficult to obtain a residence permit.

Shahram Khosravi (2007) and Pouran Djampour (2018) both write about borders from a performative perspective, where borders are considered as selectively acting against and stopping certain people, such as Hama, Saleh and many others. Meanwhile, people such as the tourists in the Italian coastal city are allowed through even though they also cross a border (rarely noticing that a border has been crossed). The border acts by separating and forcing certain people into extreme insecurity. It acts by keeping people waiting while hoping to be deemed worthy enough at some point in time to obtain some form of residence permit, to receive the support of the welfare state and to become grievable as citizens. Performative border work is also performed by a neoliberal and depoliticised social work involved in detachment processes and creating extreme insecurity for many young people who have sought protection in Sweden. However, social work could act with far greater responsibility.

Conclusion: Accountable social work

With most of the socially significant actions mediated by a long chain of complex causal and functional dependencies, moral dilemmas recede from sight, while the occasions for more scrutiny and conscious moral choice become increasingly rare. (Bauman, 1989: 25)

Except for the Migration Agency, social services are the most important actors in a process that has forced thousands of young people into extreme precariousness. The young people in our projects have convincingly described an official social work praxis that has primarily served as border protection and an instrument for detachment and separation in the service of the nation-state. The social services’ acceptance of the Migration Agency’s re-ageing of minors, with subsequent discharges from residential care units, and rejection of economic support applications from young people with temporary residence permits become essential components in the process of administrative violence. As Bauman describes earlier, their praxis contributes to the long chain of neutralised, causal and interconnected entities leading to real-life cruelty. An expulsion by one agent is followed by a rejection of the next and so forth. Social work then risks becoming an exercise of authority without moral presence and awareness, and without moral accountability. There is often discretionary power in the situations described here or a choice of what action to take within the legal framework. Social services may, for example, make their own age assessment as long as people are not registered for the census (see Swedish Government, 2016: 13), and they may investigate whether a young person who turns 18 or has been re-aged by the Migration Agency should remain in the care of social services according to the Social Services Act (Socialstyrelsen, 2020). However, none of the young people who contributed to our research has seen them use this room for manoeuvre.

To understand how social work has ended up executing the migration authorities’ exclusionary work, decades of neoliberal logics and managerialism need to be added to the picture. As Kamali and Jönsson (2018: 12) argue, neoliberal states not only ‘retreat from their obligations regarding citizen welfare’, but also ‘increase their involvement in the areas of immigration control’. The ideological shifts from supportive to punishing welfare states, and from acknowledging structural inequality to blaming the individuals for shortcomings, have also chiselled themselves into the logics and praxis of social work. These shifts are not least visible in social work education in Sweden, where critical and radical social work perspectives are rarely integrated into compulsory courses (Lauri and Jönsson, 2020). Under such circumstances, managerialism and new public management logics can continue to grow.

Indeed, this is a situation in which ethical codes and moral values are pinioned and pushed aside by the neoliberal logic. Returning to Bauman’s (1995) arguments, the situation calls for reclaiming responsibility within social work. From Bauman’s (1995: 287) perspective, responsibility is not about following rules; rather, ‘it can often require that you ignore the rules or act in a way that the rules do not justify’ (see also Maher, 2002). Bauman’s perspective can be transferred to the idea of what social work could be: a profession that sees and recognises people’s grievability and precariousness (Butler, 2016). In this way, moral responsibility can take precedence over the nation-state ideology. Choosing to work for the good of others and to fight against structures that significantly contribute to increasing the suffering of some people is the result of a moral choice. This choice recognises that those affected by an unfair migration and social policy are put in life situations of (extreme) insecurity and suffer to a greater extent than others. Such morally based social work also consists of attributing to those affected a fully fledged humanity, seeing that they are perceived as grievable and, in that sense, have insecure lives worthy of protection and support. Moral responsibility is not tied to the nation in which people grew up, but applies regardless of where the individual was born or what (if any) identity documents the individual carries. These ideas, which are based on cross-border solidarity, are also expressed in the book Global Social Work in a Political Context: Radical Perspectives:

In the face of the contemporary ‘refugee crisis’ social work is faced with a fundamental question: whose side are we on? This is a question that can only be answered politically. The refugee crisis demands that we meet the needs of vulnerable people for social and material support and protection as they flee war, poverty, environmental degradation and oppression. Confronting the refugees, we have powerful states and elites who have imprisoned, impoverished, dehumanised and stigmatised the vulnerable. For a profession committed to social justice, equality and confronting both oppression and inequality, there should be no doubt: we stand with the refugees. (Ferguson et al, 2018: 110)

Meanwhile, we have described how social work in the spirit of nationalism (Barker, 2017), contributes to increasing the vulnerability of people seeking protection by forcing them into situations of extreme insecurity. This process is done together with legislative changes, the stricter application of migration-related laws and the exercise of authority by other actors. In that sense, working for solidarity that stretches across borders may require working in opposition to governments and the actors who function as delegates, enforcers and border guards. An accountable and compassionate social work is political, in that it needs to open up for silenced voices to be heard and work with both refugees and civil society representatives to bring about social and structural change by daring to criticise the exclusionary systems and their applications. Social work is based on specific knowledge and competence about difficult living conditions and extreme challenges among children, young people and adults. As a skilled authority, social work should have a voice in the area of social policy that is strong enough to protect the groups affected by exercises of power of other authorities. Such a recapturing of power to define the situation and resist neoliberal logics is urgent, especially in relation to those authorities where knowledge of vulnerable groups’ conditions is lacking. For instance, this is evidenced by the Migration Agency’s lack of child perspectives in asylum investigation interviews (Hedlund, 2016). As Judith Butler (2016: 13) writes: ‘there ought to be a more inclusive and egalitarian way of recognising precariousness, and that this should take form as concrete social policy regarding such issues as shelter, work, food, medical care, and legal status’. Thus, recognition means not only words, but also, to a large extent, action and political change. It takes effort and practical arrangements to subdue people’s insecurity and vulnerability, allowing more people to create and live their lives without being forced into abysses of painful waiting to meet their human rights.

During World Social Work Day 2016, the two leading international organisations for social work – the International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of Schools of Social Work – wrote a joint statement to establish a work plan for working with refugees. Their first point is: ‘Coordinate social workers in each of these affected countries to provide better understandings and responses to refugee needs during their journey, transfer and integration in the asylum countries’ (Ferguson et al, 2018: 101).

Under the prevailing conditions, we see this as extremely important. Social work must extend internationally, not being dominated by the nation-state idea or by believing that what happens in Sweden is the only relevant and significant thing. People live in a globalised world, characterised by movements. It is of great importance that social work also becomes mobile and global, and that the people who have been forced to flee are seen as grievable and worthy of protection. In that sense, social work can take more responsibility for the extreme precariousness that has become the consequence of the welfare state’s bureaucratic violence. If social work accepts the boundaries of the nation-state and its border work, and uncritically accepts and submits to the Migration Agency’s orders and priorities, it cannot live up to the ethical standards of social work and its emphasis on social justice in a world where forced migration is a reality for so many people.

Funding

This work was supported by the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) under Grant 0720/18, the Swedish Research Council under Grant 2017-01562 and Concurrences LNUC under Grant 2016/1005-1.2 at Linnaeus University.

Acknowledgements

We wish to thank the participants for their generosity and willingness to share their experiences. We also want to thank the reviewers for their thorough work and helpful comments.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Rousseau, C., Mekki‐Berrada, A. and Moreau, S. (2001) Trauma and extended separation from family among Latin American and African refugees in Montreal, Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 64(1): 4059.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Swedish Government (2016) Åldersbedömning tidigare i asylprocessen [Age assessment earlier in the asylum process], Government Bill 2016/17:121.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Tuckett, A. (2016) Moving on. Italy as a stepping stone in migrants’ imaginaries, Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, 76: 99113.  Retrieved Jun 7, 2021, from https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/focaal/2016/76/fcl760107.xml

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wacquant, L. (2014) Marginality, ethnicity and penalty in the neoliberal city: an analytic cartography, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(10): 1687711. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2014.931991

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Abdelhady, D., Gren, N. and Joorman, M. (eds) (2020) Refugees and the Violence of Welfare Bureaucracies in Northern Europe, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ahmed, S. (2004) Collective feelings: or, the impressions left by others, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(2): 2542. doi: 10.1177/0263276404042133

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ahmed, S. (2007) A phenomenology of whiteness, Feminist Theory, 8(2): 14968. doi: 10.1177/1464700107078139

  • Barker, V. (2017) Penal power at the border: realigning state and nation, Theoretical Criminology, 21(4): 44157. doi: 10.1177/1362480617724827

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bauman, Z. (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Bauman, Z. (1995) Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodern Morality, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

  • Boccagni, P. and Schrooten, M. (2018) Participant observation in migration studies: an overview and some emerging issues, in R. Zapata-Barrero and E. Yalz (eds) Qualitative Research in European Migration Studies, Cham: Springer Open, pp 20925.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Butler, J. (2016) Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, London: Verso.

  • Djampour, P. (2018) Borders Crossing Bodies: The Stories of Eight Youth with Experience of Migrating, Malmö: Malmö University.

  • EASO  (2018) Judicial Analysis: Asylum Procedures and the Principle of Non-refoulement, EASO (European Asylum Support Office) Professional Development Series for Members of Courts and Tribunals, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Elsrud, T. (2020) Resisting social death with dignity. The strategy of re-escaping among young asylum-seekers in the wake of Sweden’s sharpened asylum laws, European Journal of Social Work, 23(3): 50013. doi: 10.1080/13691457.2020.1719476

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Elsrud, T., Gruber, S. and Lundberg, A. (eds) (2021) Rättssäkerheten och Solidariteten – vad hände? En Antologi om Mottagande av Människor på Flykt [Legal Certainty and Solidarity – What Happened? An Anthology about the Reception of People Seeking Asylum], Linköping: Linköping University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferguson, I., Ioakimidis, V. and Lavalette, M. (2018) Global Social Work in a Political Context: Radical Perspectives, Bristol: Policy Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fontanari, E. (2017) It’s my life: the temporalities of refugees and asylum-seekers within the European border regime, Etnografia e Ricerca Qualitative, 1 (January - April): 2554.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hedlund, D. (2016) Drawing the Limits: Unaccompanied Minors in Swedish Asylum Policy and Procedure, Stockholm: Stockholm University.

  • Herz, M. (2019) ‘Becoming’ a possible threat: masculinity, culture and questioning among unaccompanied young men in Sweden, Identities, 26(4): 43149.  doi: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1441692

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Herz, M. and Lalander, P. (2020) ‘Unaccompanied minors’ in Sweden reflecting on religious faith and practice, Journal of Youth Studies, epub ahead of print, https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2020.1800612.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Herz, M. and Lalander, P. (2021) Social Work, Young Migrants and the Act of Listening: Becoming an Unaccompanied Child, London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Johannesson, L. (2017) In Courts We Trust: Administrative Justice in Swedish Migration Courts, Stockholm: Stockholm University.

  • Kamali, M. and Jönsson, J.H. (eds) (2018) Neoliberalism, Nordic Welfare States and Social Work: Current and Future Challenges, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Khosravi, S. (2007) The ‘illegal’ traveller: an Auto-ethnography of borders, Social Anthropology, 15(3): 32134. doi: 10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00019.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Khosravi, S. (2018) Introduction, in S. Khosravi (ed) After Deportation: Ethnographic Perspectives, Bristol: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Lauri, M. and Jönsson, J.H. (2020) Rustad för morgondagen? Kritiska och radikala perspektiv i den svenska socionomutbildningens styrdokument [Prepared for tomorrow? Critical and radical perspectives in the Swedish social work education curriculum], Socialvetenskaplig Tidskrift, 27(3–4): 26990.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lundberg, A. (2017) Medicinska åldersbedömningar [Medical age assessments], in E. Sundberg and M. Kjellstrand (eds) Hör Detta och Lyssna Till det: En Antologi om Flykt, Malmö: Allt åt alla i Malmö, pp 6873.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Maher, L. (2002) Don’t leave us this way: ethnography and injecting drug use in the age of AIDS, The International Journey of Drug Policy, 13(4): 31125.  doi: 10.1016/S0955-3959(02)00118-4

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Malmqvist, E., Furberg, E. and Sandman, L. (2018) Ethical aspects of medical age assessment in the asylum process: a Swedish perspective, International Journal of Legal Medicine, 132: 81523.  doi: 10.1007/s00414-017-1730-3

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mostad, P. and Tamsen, F. (2019) Error rates for unvalidated medical age assessment procedures, International Journal of Legal Medicine, 133: 61323.  doi: 10.1007/s00414-018-1916-3

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Noll, G. (2016) Junk science? Four arguments against the radiological age assessment of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, International Journal of Refugee Law, 28(2): 23450. doi: 10.1093/ijrl/eew020

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rousseau, C., Mekki‐Berrada, A. and Moreau, S. (2001) Trauma and extended separation from family among Latin American and African refugees in Montreal, Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 64(1): 4059.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Skodo, A. (2020) Lesson for the future or threat to sovereignty? Contesting the meaning of the 2015 refugee crisis in Sweden, in D. Abdelhady, N. Gren and M. Joormann (eds) Refugees and the Violence of Welfare Bureaucracies in Northern Europe, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Socialstyrelsen (National Board of Health and Welfare) (2020) Ensamkommande barn och unga. Handbok för socialtjänsten. [Unaccompanied minors. Handbook for the social services], www.socialstyrelsen.se/globalassets/sharepoint-dokument/artikelkatalog/handbocker/2020-2-6588.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

  • Swedish Government (2016) Åldersbedömning tidigare i asylprocessen [Age assessment earlier in the asylum process], Government Bill 2016/17:121.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Thomas, J. (1993) Doing Critical Ethnography, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

  • Tuckett, A. (2016) Moving on. Italy as a stepping stone in migrants’ imaginaries, Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, 76: 99113.  Retrieved Jun 7, 2021, from https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/focaal/2016/76/fcl760107.xml

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wacquant, L. (2014) Marginality, ethnicity and penalty in the neoliberal city: an analytic cartography, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(10): 1687711. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2014.931991

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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