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Kazemi, 2021 🔗

Unaccompanied Minors (Un-)made in Sweden – Ungrievable Lives and Access to Rights Produced through Policy

Year: 2021

Type of text: Doctoral Thesis

Published by: Stema Specialtryck AB

Language: English

Author: Baharan Kazemi

Pages: 328

Available at:

Short description of the text 

“In this thesis, the meanings associated with the concept of unaccompaniedness in Swedish legislation is explored in order to critically analyze the changes that took place during and after 2015.” (p. 6)

“The seemingly continuous reforms of migration law and the shift in attitude described both in relation to migrants and asylum seekers made me curious to explore the process leading up to new policy. I am interested in what makes it possible (or not) to produce a policy program at a moment in history – how certain demands become hegemonic and others perhaps are marginalized or silenced. A central idea to this thesis is thus how a phenomenon becomes articulated as a “problem” and a particular policy is formulated as its “solution” (Bacchi & Goodwin 2016).” (p. 16)

“The overarching purpose is thus to analyze how access to rights and (un-)grievable lives are produced through policy directed towards unaccompanied minors. Four research questions guide the analysis:

  • What is presented as a problem and a motive for the government bills and how can this be understood given the political context of the bills?
  • What is assumed about unaccompanied minors, their needs and the needs of society in relation to these subjects?
  • How can discursive effects of policy be understood in terms of grievability and access to rights?” (p. 17)
  • How are borders and citizenship enactments produced through articulations of unaccompaniedness? What expressions of resistance or counter-discourse can be identified as a response to this?

Most important results

“The main results indicate that the way in which unaccompanied minors are described as different from children in general and thus in need of other support and other rights, has existed long before the restriction laws from 2015. The discursive formation with a specific position for unaccompanied minors has thus not undergone a total transformation. Rather, additional layering of meanings associated with the concept has been added. In the reforms from 2005-2006, unaccompanied minors are mainly regarded as grievable lives due to the vulnerability associated with their specific migration experience and being without guardians. Through various political logics, where economy and anti-immigrant sentiments have an impact, subjects are increasingly excluded from this position. They are attributed negative associations and disqualified from being both children and vulnerable. This demarcation defines who can be a ”real” child and thus a grievable life with the right to protection and rights. The exception rules that were presented in 2017-2018, acknowledge the precarious position created through the restrictive reforms. A pathway to residence permit through participation in upper secondary education was provided. Thereby, the figure of the unaccompanied minor was also re-invented from a child refugee to an international student and potential labour migrant. In this thesis, it is argued that lives are constructed as grieavable and not through specific meanings given to the term vulnerability in relation to concepts of childhood, borders, racialization and the nation. Through these processes of meaning-making subject positions are shaped and access to rights defined. However, policy is produced in a political context and dependent on social practices. Thus it is relevant to see the reforms in relation to social work practice, social movements and the populations affected, who through acts of citizenship and of solidarity challenge the dominant border regime.” (p. 6)

Theoretical perspective/framework

“Discourse theory forms the basis of the theoretical approach, with concepts that enable an analysis of processes of meaning-making.” (p. 74)

“The theoretical concepts that will be presented here serve to analyze processes of meaning-making. This calls for a reflection on the approach to language, on how to understand expressions and what they represent. In order to do so, I have found my main theoretical inspiration in the works of Carol Bacchi and the post-structural policy analysis called What is the problem represented to be (WPR) which she has designed as a theory method for social policy research (Bacchi 2009, Bacchi & Goodman 2016). The WPR approach is theoretically grounded in the post-structural understanding of meaning-making processes as ongoing, never completed, and open-ended (Derrida & Bass 2001).” (p. 58)

Additional central concepts of the dissertation are:

  • Childhood 
  • Borders and citizenship (p. 58)


“With a theory-method design drawing on post-structural policy analysis and discourse theory, seven government bills are analyzed together with interviews with welfare workers/activists and young persons affected by the policy changes.” (p. 6)

“In this chapter I have expanded on my approach to post-structural policy analysis and the specific theory-method framework that I have designed, drawing on the WPR approach and the logics approach (Bacchi 2009, Bacchi & Goodwin 2016, Glynos & Howarth 2007). The seven government bills selected as the core of the empirical body are more or less centred around the concept of unaccompaniedness, and thus serve as points of departure for an analysis that stretches beyond the specific document to the political context within which it is imaginable. By a theory-oriented coding of the bills, I have traced key concepts informed by the literature on which I support the analysis. Two maps of nodes, or labels, have been sketched out to illustrate the process of change during the moment of dislocation that I refer to as the migratory turn.  […] [The dissertation also includes] interview data and using other sources, such as media and parliamentary debate, exploring and critically analyzing how a specific proposal could become hegemonic, taken for granted as the natural solution to a unquestionable problem.” (p. 104)

Policy suggestions

“I argue that regardless of motive, the taken for granted “truths” about these subjects are created through daily interactions which include a wide range of professions. It is through acts of age estimations, exclusion from housing for children, exclusion from financial aid and finally, exclusion from the territory, that certain bodies end up as child soldiers or struggling for survival along the shores of southern Europe. The violence of bureaucracy should therefore be underscored. And perhaps it is by demanding of the bureaucratic agents to shift gear of loyalty, from the deportation machine to humanity, that a change can be envisioned.” (p. 270) 

“Rather, I call for reflection on how a professional code of ethics can be turned into practical action without individual social workers facing legal or institutional risks.” (p. 274)

“As an example, forced deportations, exclusion from basic human rights and violence (physical as well as bureaucratic) are practices that should be seen within a political context. The participation of social work in such practices is inherently political. Hence, there is a need for an ethical reflection that includes the political aspect of the situation. The political-ethical division of the field can otherwise limit the space within which practitioners see an ability to act. To be critical of deportations can be dismissed as a political act that is not appropriate for civil servants, rather than being seen as professional ethics in practice. I argue that the opposite should be the norm: that when faced with complex professional dilemmas, ethics and the politics of a situation should be handled jointly. “ (p. 274-275)

Suggestions for further research

Social work practice can, and I argue should, position itself more independent of migration policy, strengthening its loyalty to client categories as human beings rather than with the machinery of deportation. Grounded in a progressive political-ethical self-reflection, there can be a meeting-point between the professional, and scholarly and activist conversation, where alternative visions can be imagined. I look forward to that conversation.” (p. 275)

Summarized by: Josefine Carlsson