Family practices, deportability and administrative violence: an ethnographic study on asylum seekers’ family life in the Swedish migration context

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  • 1 Linnaeus University, , Sweden
  • | 2 University of Gothenburg, , Sweden
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Utilising data gathered through ethnographic fieldwork this article investigates (a) how asylum seekers portray family life in relation to their decision to flee their country of origin, and (b) how asylum seekers’ ways of doing family life intersect with the Swedish migration context. Analytically, the article leans on sociologically informed theories of family practices and a conceptual discussion on deportability. The results show how family life among the participants is reconstituted both in terms of geographical closeness and distance, and in terms of ideas about a previous family life in the country of origin and hopes for a possible future in Sweden. The insecurity and the strains placed on people and their family bonds by current migration policies, and the risk of deportation, are interpreted as a specific form of administrative violence that cuts into family practices, serving to maintain physical and emotional distance between family members and break down social bonds.

Abstract

Utilising data gathered through ethnographic fieldwork this article investigates (a) how asylum seekers portray family life in relation to their decision to flee their country of origin, and (b) how asylum seekers’ ways of doing family life intersect with the Swedish migration context. Analytically, the article leans on sociologically informed theories of family practices and a conceptual discussion on deportability. The results show how family life among the participants is reconstituted both in terms of geographical closeness and distance, and in terms of ideas about a previous family life in the country of origin and hopes for a possible future in Sweden. The insecurity and the strains placed on people and their family bonds by current migration policies, and the risk of deportation, are interpreted as a specific form of administrative violence that cuts into family practices, serving to maintain physical and emotional distance between family members and break down social bonds.

Introduction

It is early summer in the south of Sweden and a father stands on a small jetty, watching his two sons squabbling further out near the ladder leading down to the water. The boys have their swimsuits on, but are debating whether or not to go in. They want to go for a swim, but the temperature in the water is only 16 degrees. The younger brother thinks it is too cold. The older brother tries to urge him on. He says ‘Let’s pretend that if you jump in, we get to stay in Sweden; if you don’t, we’ll be deported. Whatcha gonna do?’ The younger brother answers the question by saying ‘I’ll jump in, of course.’ Meanwhile, on the shore, the mother of the two boys is preparing a picnic for the family. (Observational note)

The above observation describes one of several meetings with a family that has left their country of origin to seek asylum in Sweden. The observation can, in some ways, be considered characteristic of how family life is done. From a distance, the observation seems to portray an ordinary family that has taken some time off to go to the beach, hang out, and enjoy themselves and each other’s company. The boys’ hypothetical choice of jumping into the water or being deported, however, suggests that the life predicaments of this family are shaped by them being bound to the decision making of the Swedish migration authorities. Although they are having a good time, it is obvious that the two squabbling boys on the jetty are aware of their precarious situation, which is affecting the very fabric of their daily family life and family practices.

The family is undoubtedly one of the most important social units in an individual’s life (Johansson, 2009), playing a significant role in asylum seekers’ decision making and behaviour (Schiefer, 2020). Nevertheless, as suggested by Schiefer (2020), in public discourse, among policy makers, and in scholarly debate, migration issues and refugees have predominantly been addressed individually. Individualised perspectives on refugees, however, tend to overshadow not only the significance of the family, but also the fact that those who flee their country of origin, alone or together, are still ‘shaped by their embeddedness in their family network in the country of origin’ (Schiefer, 2020: 201; see also Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002; Coe, 2014). During a flight, families can also separate or unite – geographically, emotionally and socially. Adding to this, new family practices and bonds may develop in the country of destination. Indeed, as suggested by Björnberg (2011), the institutional context of the family in the receiving country is of decisive importance for asylum-seeking families, in terms of their wellbeing, their ability to exert their agency, and their hopes for the future (Kleist and Thorsen, 2017; Hynie, 2018a). Regulations, and how regulations are implemented in and through the asylum process, thus influence not only the welfare of families, and their health and wellbeing, which has been widely recognised in the scholarly debate (Coe, 2014), but also how family life can (or cannot) be carried out during the seeking of asylum (Ascher, 2005; Vitus, 2010;2011; Coe, 2014). Though the scholarly debate has shown how families are affected by asylum-seeking processes, less attention has been given to how day-to-day family practicalities can be affected by rigorous migration processes and their social effects.

Following this, utilising data gathered through ethnographic fieldwork with asylum seekers in Sweden, this article has a twofold purpose. First, it aims to analyse how asylum seekers portray family life in relation to their decision to flee their country of origin and how this potentially changes social bonds and relationships within families. We argue that contemporary flows of transnational migration and asylum seeking can serve to fuel particular understandings of the family and family life. Second, the welfare state is also involved in regulating the formation of family life. Therefore, we will also investigate how asylum seekers’ ways of doing family life are influenced by and intersect with the Swedish migration context, and the conditioning of life predicaments that are constituted in and through this context. Though our participants come from different parts of the world and their reasons for leaving their countries of origin may vary, they are united in how their family practices in one way or another become entangled in and conditioned by decisions made by authorities in the country of destination, Sweden. Though asylum seekers are by no means to be understood as a homogeneous group, this article will consequently address the various ways the Swedish migration context can serve to form day-to-day family practices among asylum seekers.

Background

In the context of increasing scholarly interest in the family during the 1990s, sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen (1990) published his often-referenced work on the relationship between family life and the welfare state. Esping-Andersen identified clusters of nations representing different political ambitions and ways of implementing social policies, showing how these forms not only affected the structural/institutional conditions for families, but also families’ everyday lives. Although Esping-Andersen’s typology and model has been problematised by other researchers (Pierson, 1998; Bambra, 2004; Åmark, 2005), it still captures a popular image of Sweden as a social-democratic welfare state with a generous support system for family life.

Adding to this picture, we have a growing population of internationally mobile citizens and changing migration patterns that have fuelled scholarly debate on transnational family life, migrating families, care regimes, and how family life is constructed globally and locally (Kilkey et al, 2014; Johansson and Andreasson, 2017; Schiefer, 2020). Scholars have also given a fair amount of attention to how families have balanced a combination of emotional, economic, social and political factors related to cultural and institutional challenges and ways of doing family life in different countries due to migration (Ryan and Sales, 2013; Coe, 2014; Gillespie et al, 2020; Man and Chou, 2020).

More recently, a growing body of literature, partly in the field of work-related migration family studies, has also recognised the significance of family life among refugees seeking asylum (Ashbourne et al, 2021). This research has shown that refugee families have to handle not only the support system that may or may not be available to families, for instance parental leave policies, but also welfare entitlements, threats of deportation, and more (Vitus, 2011; Nakeyar et al, 2018). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, Sager (2016), for example, examined how rejected asylum seekers’ experiences in Sweden were shaped by and constructed in the cross-roads of migration policies, social policies, and notions of gender (see also Bexelius, 2008; Hajdukowski-Ahmed et al, 2008). This research showed how experiences of living under the threat of being deported are constructed in intersection with a lack of social welfare entitlements and the refugee’s family status. It also shows how the risk of being deported is produced beyond the realm of the labour market (see above), in and through a series of other policy areas, and aspects related to family and gender norms, such as immigration policy and more (Sager, 2016: 41; see also Hynie, 2018b). As expressed by Kathrine Vitus (2011: 97), ‘the politically contested official/legal position of asylum seekers vis-à-vis the nation state is reflected in the ways in which the private lives, family lives and bodies of asylum seekers have simultaneously become politically contested’ (see also Christensen and Vitus Andersen, 2006; Timshel et al, 2017; Moran et al, 2019).

Similar to the popular image of a family-friendly Swedish welfare state, described earlier, Sweden has had a reputation of being somewhat of a moral superpower (Dahlstedt and Neergaard, 2016; Djampour, 2018). Although this self-image has been strong, Sweden simultaneously, and as a contrast, has implemented an increasingly stringent asylum and immigration policy that has impacts on the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers and their families (Herz and Lalander, 2021). This became especially evident after 2015 when an unusually large number of people (162,877 in total) applied for asylum at the same time (Herz and Lalander, 2021; Swedish Migration Agency, 2021). Among other things, this more stringent approach has led to harsher restrictions for people applying for and possibly receiving asylum and residence permits. One change particularly concerning families involves a curtailment of family reunification options and a significant increase in the maintenance requirements on the party located in Sweden (Asylum Information Database, 2020). There is also a development in Swedish policies, politics and public debate – similar to debates across Europe, further affecting its self-image as a moral superpower – whereby the criminalisation of refugees has created an entire industry of illegality that views immigrants as a threat to Europe, and as being deportable (Khosravi, 2010; Andersson, 2014; Djampour, 2018). This industry involves not only border controls, detention centres and outsourced border surveillance, but also more implicit changes in migrants’ ability to obtain permits or social support (Khosravi, 2010; Andersson, 2014; Djampour, 2018). Everyday family life is thus infused with migration policies and public debates in which family members, largely on an individualised basis, are constructed as both a possible threat to the nation and as deportable, rather than families in need of welfare support (Vitus, 2011). As a result of these harsher policies, Sweden has seen a decrease in asylum seekers: from 2015 to 2019, between 22,000–29,000 people (of whom 900–2,200 were unaccompanied children) per year sought asylum (Swedish Migration Agency, 2021). In 2020–21 even fewer people have sought asylum, probably the result of the combined effect of the harsher policies and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the image of the Swedish welfare system can be described as family friendly, research suggests that migrants and their families often fall outside this support system, which affects their autonomy (for example, Vitus, 2011; Sager, 2016). That such predicaments can serve to create scattered families has been thoroughly recognised (Coe, 2014). The impact on daily family practices and how relationships between parents and children evolve in the context of deportability, however, have been less researched, although the centrality of family relationships to refugee experiences has been demonstrated (Gangamma, 2018; Schiefer, 2020).

Analytical framework

Focusing on the ongoing construction and ‘doing’ of families, we use the thoughts and ideas of family practices put forward by sociologist David Morgan (2011; 2020). In his writings, Morgan developed a theory of the family that placed ongoing discussions about families and gender into a dynamic and sociologically informed framework. According to Morgan, the doing of families − through, for example, interaction and relational support, emotional caring for one another, the undertaking of certain tasks, such as providing financial support to a family or carrying out household work, and so on − is formative for the construction not only of families and identities, but also of how family life is understood and how families are given meaning. Family life is a relational practice through which social bonds are formed, affirmed, reproduced and sometimes redefined (Morgan, 2020). Intimate family relationships can thus be understood as fluid in character, shaped by the interconnectedness of family members as they move or change over time and space (see also Jamieson, 1998; Smart, 2007).

At the same time, families do not operate in a vacuum. How family life is played out is also influenced and formed by different cultural and structural conditions, particularly in relation to different welfare states and to the support that may or may not be provided by the state (for example, Esping-Andersen, 1990; 2009), and in relation to states’ migration policies (Bech et al, 2017). In this vein, Morgan (1985: 282) suggested that the family can be seen as ‘looking both ways, at society and at the individual, at the institutional and the structural and at the personal and private’. This duality, or bidirectional way of looking, in the family might be particularly relevant to consider in the context of migration processes and asylum seeking, during which children sometimes lose contact with their parents, or where family members seeking asylum may receive different decisions from migration authorities, which makes it difficult for families to keep together. Such ‘collisions’, in which policy and culture intersect with family practices, have been debated and conceptualised in somewhat different ways (for example, Swidler, 2001; Hochschild, 2003; Morgan, 2020).

In this article, to be able to capture this duality of the family, we will connect Morgan’s (2011; 2020) perspective on family practices with the concept of deportability. Deportability focuses on the threat of deportation or being removed from the spatiality/country in which asylum is sought, and how this threat becomes an organising principle in the lives of migrants as they await or receive a decision (de Genova, 2005). What the concept of deportability underscores is that, regardless of whether the deportation actually occurs or not, the uncertainty and the risk of being deported shapes individuals’ and families’ life situations and scope of action, and consequently their family practices and social bonds (see also Coe, 2014; Sager, 2016; Morgan, 2020). Although de Genova (2005) used this concept primarily to discuss how migration policies serve to regulate the labour market, in this article we will consider deportability as an experience that is mainly constructed in and through the regulations governing refugee migration (de Genova, 2005). Similarly to how the labour market can be said to be regulated by migration policies, asylum seekers from different parts of the world and their family practices are conditioned by the entitlements to support and welfare that they are potentially granted by migration authorities when seeking asylum. Therefore, deportability can be understood as an organising principle in migrant families’ daily lives, pushing them towards the margins of society and significantly restricting their ability to protect their rights or take control of their situation, to create a family space of their own (de Genova, 2005; see also Spade 2015). In this article, we argue that not only is deportability an organising principle before residency is obtained, but that it can linger and continue to affect family life for a long time, even after the migration authorities have presented their decision.

Method and research design

This article is based on a longitudinal ethnographic project that was carried out during 2018–20, in which different aspects of migrants’ experiences were analysed. Through interviews, informal conversations and observations, we gathered data from asylum seekers in Sweden concerning their interaction with family members, friends and authorities. In this particular article, the focus is on how asylum seekers ‘do family’, so to speak, from negotiating an escape route, to navigating the Swedish migration context and creating a new life in Sweden.

In terms of data collection, ethnography is understood as an inclusive collection of methods involving the researchers participating in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, listening to what is said, and watching what happens, while employing a relatively open-ended approach and research design (Maxwell, 2004; Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007). Epistemologically, ethnography is not primarily approached and understood as a method in and of itself, but rather as a relational philosophy of research (Anderson-Levitt, 2006; Skukauskaite and Green, 2012). This article is therefore to be understood as the outcome of an intersubjective process between the researchers and the participants.

A total of 35 current or former asylum seekers, living with their family members, constitute the basis of the analysis that informs this article. Participants were initially recruited from different asylum facilities, schools and non-governmental organisations in Sweden that cater to asylum-seeking families, adults and unaccompanied minors. In a second selection stage, recruited participants could provide new contacts. Thus, the sample can be described as a strategically and respondent-driven snowball sample. Among the participants, a few were initially unaccompanied youngsters (16–19 years old) who were subsequently able to reunite with their families, whereas others arrived with their families (one or two parents with children). The participants who were formally interviewed varied in age, stretching between 16 and 65 years old. In some families there were also younger children, although these minors were not interviewed for ethical reasons. With the permission of their parents, however, children younger than 15 years old were included in observational data. The participants’ countries of origin vary but reflect, proportionately, the groups arriving to Sweden at the time of the fieldwork – that is, mainly from Afghanistan and Syria, but also Eritrea, Lebanon and other countries (Swedish Migration Agency, 2021).

Participants were interviewed on at least two occasions. During the first set of interviews we generally employed a semi-structured approach to ensure the inclusion of certain themes (such as background, current situation and status in the asylum process, family situation, relationships with other family members and friends, and health) (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2009). Follow-up interviews and informal conversations were less structured and relatively open, and were carried out to permit clarification of potential ambiguities and situations that might have arisen since previous meetings/interviews. Furthermore, this approach made it possible to uphold relationships of trust and support between researchers and participants. The formal interviews, carried out in Swedish or English, were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Some conversations – for example, during observations – were not recorded but instead captured through observational notes.

Regarding observations, a key strategy was to observe and participate in the daily lives of the participants. This approach has the methodological benefit of establishing relationships of trust (Fangen, 2005), simultaneously enabling the researcher to unravel and capture aspects of daily life that might be overlooked in interviews. Consequently, during our observations, we were able to resume discussions initiated in the interviews and use observations we had made to ask new questions in follow-up interviews. Alternating observations with interviews and informal conversations also served to amplify our findings and increase trustworthiness (Lincoln and Guba, 1985; see also Banik, 1993; Rose and Johnson, 2020). Consequently, through multiple analyses of the data we have tried to gain a complex understanding of asylum seekers’ diverse ways of understanding and doing family life when conditioned by the decision making and legal frames set by the Swedish migration authorities. Observations were documented through field notes that consisted of both descriptive information and analytical reflections (Emerson et al, 1995; Aspers, 2007).

In ethnographic research, data collection and analysis usually are understood as parallel processes. Consequently, data analysis is initiated, on a rudimentary level, in the formulation of a research problem (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007; Atkinson, 2017). As suggested by Atkinson (2017: 4), ‘there is a constant, iterative process between data and ideas. Just doing fieldwork on the basis of “exploratory” inquiry is not good enough. Exploring does not mean being directionless.’ During fieldwork, not only did we continuously take notes on empirical matters, but we also made theoretically and methodologically informed reflections. This was done with the intention of identifying shared understandings and abstracting their meanings to contextualise the data and further develop our theoretical toolbox.

The more ‘hands on’ analysis, however, derived from the transcripts of the verbatim interviews and the observational field notes. When analysing the empirical data, our primary focus was the participants’ perceptions of family practices and how the participants situated and related their everyday arrangements in relation to the institutional framing of their situation in Swedish society (authorities, and so on). Consequently, our methodological aim was to capture both subjective experiences and perceptions, and to place them within a particular structural/cultural context (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). Due to space restrictions, all 35 participants are not quoted in the current article. We have, however, done our best to capture the diversity of voices found in our data material while staying within the framework set out by our research aims. Thus, the quotations and observations presented here were selected due to their ability to capture both subjective experiences and structural prerequisites of family life among asylum seekers in Sweden.

The ethical aspects of this study have guided us through the entire process. Because many of the participants have experiences of being documented, we chose to work with iterative consent. Iterative consent means working together in partnership with continuous dialogue to negotiate the conditions of participation in the project and the roles of all involved parties (Mackenzie et al, 2007). We also repeatedly emphasised that participation was voluntary, and that the project could not influence their asylum process or affect the authorities decisions in any way, should this have been an issue. Interacting with people over a long period is likely to create bonds between researchers and informants. We have extensive experience of working in similar settings, and are prepared to remain in contact with those who wish to continue for the full length of the project and afterwards. To ensure confidentiality, all names and places appearing in the text are fictitious (Mackenzie et al, 2007). Formal ethical approval was secured from the Regional Ethical Review Board of the University of Linköping, Sweden (ref. no. 2018/239-31).

Findings

This section presents the findings in three parts. The first part corresponds with the first part of the aim: that is, to analyse how asylum seekers portray family life in relation to their decision to flee, and what this brings in terms of changed dynamics within the participants’ families. This part builds on previous research on family life among migrant families. The second part focuses on how these family practices specifically relate to the Swedish migration context and the issue of deportability. The third part digs deeper into how family life can be affected by deportability, in terms of how deportability can be understood as administrative violence. The second and third parts correspond with the second part of the aim: how ways of doing family life are influenced by and intersect with the Swedish migration context, and the conditioning of life predicaments that are constituted in and through this context.

Changes in family dynamics due to migration

All the participants who contributed their stories share the experience of having to leave their country of origin, escaping war, discrimination, abuse, poverty or other threats. Some participants were able to engage in this endeavour together. Others, however, could not. Yusuf, for example, left Syria when he was only 16. Below, he talks about the situation when he and his family (consisting of Yusuf, his parents and two younger siblings) discussed their situation, and how they gradually came to the decision that Yusuf had to flee alone, ahead of his family, hoping to be able to reconnect at a later stage.

Yusuf:‘You see, the government started to force young boys into the military, and my father was worried about me. He didn’t force me to leave Syria. “You must decide,” he said. “This is your life and your future but remember if you go you cannot change your mind.” I didn’t understand what he meant. Not until I got here. Then I remembered what Dad said and understood what it meant.’
Interviewer:‘And you got a residence permit, and after a while you could bring …’
Yusuf:‘… my parents, yeah, after two years. Because I couldn’t do anything until I got my decision. And the family also had to go to the Swedish embassy for an interview to make sure that my parents were my real parents. It’s like, the first period was really stressful because I was waiting to get a residence permit, and the second period was stressful because I was waiting for my family to get here. You don’t want to live without your family. You want to unite the family.’

When Yusuf and his father talked about him leaving Syria, the family’s future seemed uncertain and complex (cf., Ungar, 2016). This also illustrates how a father and son talked about the future, for both the son and for the family. During his first two years in Sweden, before his family could reunite, Yusuf often felt lonely and disconnected (cf., Hynie, 2018a). In a way, family life was put on hold during this period due to the enforced distance. What this experience shows, then, is a clear connection between family, intimate relationships and spatial parameters. In this case, as articulated by Morgan (2020: 735), the family ‘may be described as being “close” or “distant” and this closeness or otherwise is not simply in genealogical terms or geographically but also emotional terms’. In order words, on his arrival in Sweden, Yusuf was physically safe but emotionally and socially unsafe/distant (see also Vitus, 2011; Coe, 2014; Ashbourne et al, 2021). Accordingly, it is understandable that Yusuf, as scholars have shown, also found it difficult to initiate social connections and participate in community life in Sweden (Hynie, 2018b).

Whereas Yusuf fled without his family, others were able to leave their countries of origin together with their families. Zuar, for example, lived in Libya with his wife Abichail and their three children. He had the role of breadwinner in the family and he worked hard and was successful. He was also politically active. In one interview with the family that included two of their children (16 and 19 years old), Zuar explained his thoughts about the family and how things proceeded before they left Libya:

‘You feel that you’re a family. We stayed together until the war came. I had a good job. I earned a decent living. I worked at an embassy, and we had our family restaurant, too. Life was good. After the war, while it was bad for everybody; for us, there was this personal threat due to my political involvement. We were under direct threat, as a family. We were threatened. ISIS was not only a general threat. They threatened us directly, to our face. They called us up and threatened us. They do what they say they’ll do.’ (Zuar)

Faced with this threat, Zuar and Abichail realised they had to escape. They had heard about Sweden and that people there ‘cared about each other and showed humanity’, which can be related to the image of Sweden as a moral superpower (Dahlstedt and Neergaard, 2016; Djampour, 2018). They thought Sweden could offer a future without war and violence, and although it did that, things did not turn out as planned, as their daughter Adelisa explained:

‘Here we were alone with our thoughts. Dad especially finds it difficult. Now, we’re just sitting here, waiting and receiving money from the authorities, and we don’t like that. We want to work and earn our living. Dad’s really annoying. In Libya, he always worked, and he used to take it out and react at work. Then he got home, and he was an ordinary dad. But now, when he’s at home all the time, it’s more like, “Turn off that lamp, turn off the water, why are you doing that? Go clean your room.” He has nothing to do.’ (Adelisa)

Zuar’s frustration over the situation, over not being able to work as a result of not having received a work permit, has had an impact not only his individual experience but also how he interacts with his family and acts as a father (cf. Snel et al, 2015). Research on work-related migration tends to focus on transnational work, working without a permit, or the working conditions of transnational employees (Axelsson and Hedberg, 2018). In Zuar’s case, however, it was rather the inability to work as a result of Swedish migration laws that led to changes in the family dynamic. His daughter Adelisa alluded to this change when she suggested he’s not an ordinary dad anymore. Not being allowed to work while awaiting a decision from the Swedish Migration Agency thus created problems for the family, as previous roles or practicalities in the family changed (see also de Block and Buckingham, 2007; Monsutti, 2007). What this situation also illustrates is how thoughts about their previous life in Libya linger within the family. Family practices and relationships are reconstituted, highlighting the fluidity of family relationships and their location in time and space (Morgan, 2020).

Mirroring previous research, the participants described how the process of seeking asylum has unsettled their family practices, having an impact not only on how they relate to one another and discuss their family life, but also how they view questions about their social life, health, work, the future and more (Hynie, 2018a; Ashbourne et al, 2021). Although the research participants come from different parts of the world and their rationales for engaging in an asylum-seeking process vary, they are united in this experience of finding themselves in a situation of unsettled family practices, which are related to their position as asylum seekers, of not being allowed to work (cf., Ivana, 2020), of not always being able to uphold previous social roles, statuses, and more.

Deportability permeating everyday family life

As mentioned, the image of Sweden internationally is closely related to one of a fairly generous welfare state and support system for families (Johansson and Andreasson, 2017). Such policies and politics rarely, however, apply to migrants, whose family lives are shaped by the policies informing the Swedish migration context and the political migration climate (Bech et al, 2017). Departing from the previous section in which we showed how family life can be renegotiated among migrants over time and space, and between countries (see also Ashbourne et al, 2021), in this section we will zoom in on the participants’ narratives of how their family practices relate to the Swedish migration context, especially in terms of living with the reality of their deportability.

In the following excerpt, Ali, a 21-year-old refugee from Syria living with his parents and a younger sister, initially talked about his general understanding of Sweden, only to soon state that this understanding did not include what is achievable for him and his family. The two faces of the Swedish state – Sweden as a supportive and family-friendly welfare state, and Sweden as a controlling state with strict immigration policies/laws – are ever present, although sometimes implicitly, in the narrative about the significance of the family.

Ali:‘I always think about the family – it comes first. The family plays a huge role. If you have your family you always feel better. Always. You feel better. /…/ But to live in a safe country, I mean, in Sweden, you can express yourself or say what you think – that’s a good thing. One can speak one’s mind without interruption – that’s a great thing. What’s it called? Freedom of speech, yeah. That’s important, and we didn’t have that in Syria, actually. We talked about PUT [permanent residence permit]. If you get that, you feel safer, and you become part of society. Without it, you feel insecure. Will I stay or not?’
Interviewer:‘You mean, if you knew that you could stay you could also look forward, towards a future?’
Ali:‘Yeah, exactly. Then, how society treats you, that’s crucial. It matters. How do you feel that society’s treating you? If you get a job here in Sweden, you feel better, instead of sitting at home just waiting. For me, waiting’s just shit. So, it’s also that society and the government matters. They play a huge role in how the individual feels as part of society. It’s not only people that must try. The state must try too, so that security can be developed collectively.’

In Ali’s narrative, the family is at the centre of his experience and how he thinks about life, the future and society. Family “comes first”. Nevertheless, he still felt unsafe in Sweden because of his precarious status as a refugee. Consequently, his situation and feelings of safety seem largely to be an administrative problem for the family. He wants to live in Sweden and be a part of society, but the absence of a residence permit is a barrier and serves to marginalise and interfere in relation to this desire (see Khosravi, 2006; Sager, 2016). The threat of deportation creates a sense of a life being on hold, which tends to weaken dreams about a good future. The consequences of this have been thoroughly debated in previous research in relation to its adverse effects on refugees’ mental health and general wellbeing (see, for example, Hynie, 2018a; Moran et al, 2019), but less extensively debated in terms of how such predicaments come to permeate daily family practices (see Man and Chou, 2020). Thus, the ways family practices in daily life are shaped by deportability and the general framework of living conditions set by the Swedish migration context have not been sufficiently investigated. Below, however, we meet a Palestinian family with four children ranging from two to 15 years of age, in which this interrelatedness is illustrated and exemplified. In this family everyone but the daughter, Josie (5 years old), had been granted a permanent residence permit. From the observational notes:

Ylva and Arion (parents) have prepared dinner and the two youngest children are running around the table, chasing one another. The parents move between the kitchen and the table carrying plates and glasses, trying not to collide with the small runners. They’re serving Maqluba chicken, and Arion does the final ‘turn around’ of the dish before we sit down at the table. The kids are impatient, hungry and have soon finished their meal. The parents stay seated, however. We talk about them finally getting their permanent residence permit, and how they first couldn’t believe it, how they cried tears of relief. They talk about Arion hanging up the phone when his wife called him and told him that they got the letter, saying that they could stay. Arion laughs. He explains that he almost passed out when Ylva called him at work. But then their faces change. Soon they realised that this decision did not include Josie, their youngest daughter. Ylva expresses her worries about this, saying ‘I thought we could go on now. But what about Josie? I realised we will still have to go to Karlskrona [where the closest office to the Swedish Migration Agency is located] every year and await the decision of the Migration Agency.’

Even though Josie will most likely not be deported alone, their diverse statuses as refugees clearly cut into the family’s daily life. This situation was the result of Josie’s having a medical condition that gave her a temporary residence permit before the rest of the family, to enable her to receive the treatment she needed at the time. When the rest of the family later obtained permanent residence permits, Josie was not included, as it was not yet time for her to renew her temporary one. Later, when it was Josie’s turn, there had been an amendment to the legislation in Sweden that said that no permanent permits would be given at all (see Herz and Lalander, 2021). Due to the changing political climate and policy makers’ decisions, the family was not treated as a unit and the risk of deportation continued to loom over the family. As expressed by another participant whose family had had experiences like those of Ylva and Arion, “dying would be easier than taking away one family member. You cannot do that. Even if they give me a permit to stay I won’t accept it without my family.”

In the context of asylum seekers and migrants, the state regulates the movements of individuals and dictates the extent of social welfare measures to which they are entitled, or if they are allowed to work or not (Coe, 2014; Herz and Lalander, 2021). To this end, the state’s power includes far more than the ability to police external borders (Vitus, 2011). As suggested by Agamben (1998), it can also serve to ‘abandon’ people, keeping them in limbo in a situation in which they are neither inside nor outside (see also Agamben, 2005; Brons, 2015; Nakeyar et al, 2018). This places families on a juridical, social and political threshold (Vitus, 2011). What the previous excerpts mainly show is the impact of deportability on the family members’ ways of understanding not only their situation, but also their family practices and social relationships. As will be discussed in the next section, this puts the participants in a position that sometimes results in a breakdown of the social and emotional sense of unity between the family and its members.

Family bonds stretched by administrative violence

Not only does the threat of deportation affect daily family life, it also serves to stretch and challenge family bonds. The relationship between Aram, who is in his late twenties, and his mother exemplifies this.

Aram:‘I no longer care about myself. I only want my mum to get a permanent residence permit so that she can receive care and treatment. She tells me all the time that she’s a woman who hasn’t seen a good day. In this age she’d like to live the rest of her life in a good place. And it depends on the Migration Agency. Otherwise, I don’t care, I’ll manage. But she’s in a really tough spot.’
Interviewer:‘How do you view the outlook for your family?’
Aram:‘We’ve done what we could have done. What we could do. What can we do? They say “You don’t have your ID papers,” that we haven’t substantiated our identities. But dammit, we’ve been here for almost nine years. If we had the papers, we would have given them to them. We don’t want to be in this situation. And my father was recently held in custody in Ljungbyhed, to be deported, but we haven’t told Mum yet. She thinks my father is at some friend’s, helping him out as carpenter. If we tell her she’ll only be more stressed. (…) I only feel worse when I see my mother like this, but we have nothing against the community care system here or against Sweden. They try to help us, they say, but they can’t do nothing – we don’t have the last four digits.’

Aram’s family, consisting of his mother, father and four children (in their late teens and young adulthood) has been declared stateless by the authorities. They have received a final deportation order, even though there is no country to receive them. Due to their statelessness, they have not been provided with a complete personal number (missing the last four digits) by the Swedish authorities, disqualifying them from receiving proper care, getting a job, getting a bank account, and so on (see also Lundberg, 2017). It is in this context that Aram decided not to tell his mother about his father being held in detention, and it is in this context that their family life was structured. Consequently, what this situation makes abundantly clear is how a political focus on rationality has taken the administration of life as its subject, also showing how macro-political and micro-social dynamics intersect, having impacts on asylum seekers’ private lives, family lives and physical bodies (Vitus, 2011; see also Man and Chou, 2020). We suggest this is an example of the administrative violence directed at Aram and other families living under the threat of deportation (Spade, 2015), in which a politically steered focus on rational administration of people’s lives creates barriers for Aram and his family. A similar situation occurred between Samih and his elderly mother Lila, who are also living as stateless persons in Sweden awaiting deportation. Having received their third and final rejection, Samih told us:

Samih:‘They told me that I must leave my apartment next month. They sent me a letter. They’re giving me a daily allowance and at the same time they’re giving me this apartment I’m living in with my mother who is 81 years old. We’re living together, in one room, only one room. But they told me I must leave my apartment by next month.’
Interviewer:‘How’s your mother coping with all this? You mentioned she’s 81. How’s she handling all this turmoil?’
Samih:‘Yes, believe me, I’ve received letters like this so many times. I try to avoid telling her about what the new ruling, what we’re getting. Because as a person of her age – and her health is not great – it’s not good to hear more things like this. It makes her health worse. [...] She needs to follow up with the hospital, but without her card she cannot follow up with the hospital – she cannot follow up with her dentist, with her clinics and all these things. At her age, she has so many visits to clinic, for cholesterol, for blood pressure, she has diabetes, she has pain. But everything will stop. I don’t know what will happen with our lives after they take all our things – I have no idea, actually. I’m just wishing this nightmare will end soon.’

When asked about how his family is handling the looming threat of deportation, Samih told us that he has not told his mother, putting her in a situation of not knowing the imminent threat facing the family. Samih did this to spare his mother anxiety and agony, and potential health implications. But, by doing so he also put strain not only on their relationship and what can be shared between them, but also on his own health, by having to carry the burden of deportability all by himself (see also Mawani, 2014). As he puts it, “I’m just wishing this nightmare will end soon.”

The insecurity and the strain placed on people and their family bonds by current migration policies, laws and regulations can be interpreted as a form of administrative violence, which serves to delegitimise claims to citizenship. Through the implementation of law, by migration authorities and other state authorities, asylum seekers (perhaps in particular stateless migrants, as above; see also Beaugrand, 2011) are, in effect, told that they are impossible people who do not fit into the system (Spade, 2015). They are perceived as lacking the circumstances that could grant them the right to a few digits in their personal ID numbers or the credentials that could entitle them to the support that families normally receive from the Swedish welfare system. The risk of deportation serves not only to place asylum seekers on the periphery as non-viable, but as has been shown here and in the previous two sections, it also has a significant impact on family practices. Deportability breaks down family bonds and relationships, as everyday family life is seemingly saturated by the structural oppression generated by social norms and migration policies (Sager, 2016).

The effects of migration and deportability among migrants and their families are heavily discussed in the literature. However, what is evident from this article is how even the very fine print of day-to-day practicalities and family practices seems to be affected, changed and stressed by the administrative violence and deportability placed on these families through their social position as current or former asylum seekers.

Conclusions

The complex situations that asylum seekers deal with as families and the consequences that transnational movements between countries can have can be situated in the intersection between places, borders, migration authorities, changing family norms and roles, and subjective experiences as they change over time. As shown, for our participants the transition of their family life was initiated when they decide to flee. The process of seeking a residence permit in Sweden essentially meant that previous expectations and family practices were disrupted and the relational meaning making of one’s father, mother or child can be rethought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the participants’ family practices become subsumed during the course of fleeing and are soon embedded in the conditions and uncertainty provided by the Swedish migration context. This process highlights not only the fluidity of the notion of the family and how family practices among asylum seekers are carried out, but also how emotional closeness and distance are dealt with in time and space.

Further, this study shows how experiences of the Swedish migration context and the risk of deportability gradually become embedded, and embodied, in the everyday practices of the families participating. This was seen in the vignette of the two young brothers standing on a jetty debating whether to jump in the water (the observation that served to introduce this article), or the narrative of the father, not allowed to work, who stressed out his kids (by not being an ordinary dad, as explained by his daughter). It was also evident when families must suddenly keep secrets from each other and can no longer talk about ongoing life challenges related to their migration background. The dinner with Ylva, Arion and their children illustrated the strain on everyday family life and how it was affected when the family’s joy over receiving a permit was followed by anxiety because their youngest child did not receive one. To conclude, the risk of deportation, the experience of migration, and experience of the Swedish welfare system profoundly affected families, changing how people with migration backgrounds did family life.

Situated in an ongoing scholarly debate on scattered families (Coe, 2014), this article shows how long-standing familial practices are gradually adapted to the situation that asylum seekers find themselves in, as they try to maintain relationships and simultaneously navigate certain, often individualised, immigration laws and policies (see Coe, 2014). Despite the individual complexity of each participant’s life situation, this article illustrates how the Swedish welfare state and its strict migration policies can serve to exert administrative violence that penetrates the very fibres of asylum seekers family practices. Deportability, understood as a specific form of administrative violence, keeps families in a state of limbo in which they cannot work, plan, settle, and so on. This form of structural oppression also runs counter to broader social values. The restrictions that our participants encounter prevent them from carrying out family life and practices in the way they would prefer (being together, feeling secure, being employed). Still, they are a de facto part of Swedish society. Therefore, in a way, their predicaments can also be said to undermine the notion of Sweden as a family-friendly and humanitarian welfare state, as the values of family and family practices are granted to some but withheld from others through the use of administrative violence and the threat of deportation.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 Linnaeus University, , Sweden
  • | 2 University of Gothenburg, , Sweden

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