Sammanfattning av publikation

Gustafsson & Johansson, 2019

A Worthy Reception? Ambivalences in Social Work With Refugees and Migrants in Sweden 

Year: 2018

Type of text: Academic article

Published by:  Advances in Social Work

Language: English

Author: Kristina Gustafsson & Jesper Johansson

Pages: 22

Available at:

Short description of text 

The study documents experiences of the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe and Scandinavia from a bottom-up perspective among professionals and volunteers, drawing on data collected in 2016. ‘The purpose of this article is to analyze how reception practices and  the  meaning  of  a  “worthy”  reception  of  refugees  and  migrants  are  negotiated  in encounters  between  various  receiving  actors  in  times  of  shifting  Swedish  migration policies’ (p. 984).

Most important results

– ‘The first central theme identified during the coding process of the interview data was that refugees’ and migrants’ existential needs were partly overlooked during the reception. We have structured the findings around this theme following three different perspectives discussed in the reference group meetings: the existential vulnerability and uncertainty of asylum  seekers,  the  lack  of  meaningful  everyday  activities, and existential life beliefs’ (990).

– A narrow view of social work and an individualisation discourse among the professionals working for public authorities were found: ‘Most public actors felt that it was first and foremost the individual’s responsibility to tackle any existential problems. They expressed a common  feeling  that  public officials should treat all clients politely, objectively, and with the same  kind  of treatment  and  respect. However, in different ways they all expressed a lack of professional responsibility to involve themselves in people’s existential  worries  or anxiety.  Accordingly,  these public  officials claimed that their ability to involve themselves was restricted by the law (i. e., the migration law, the social services act, the regulation on labor market policy, etc.). The responsibility for engaging existential needs and problems was left to the individual refugee or migrant. In  contrast, the teachers working with introducing refugees and migrants into society as  well as employees from civil society organizations such as the Swedish Church, the Red Cross and Fryshuset (the Freezer House) expressed a willingness to develop the  existential  support  available to  refugees  and  migrants […]  In contrast to public actors, actors working for civil society organizations expressed a stronger willingness to engage themselves in people’s existential needs and everyday social  activities. Ironically, however, despite their  willingness,  their efforts  are sometimes hampered by their  organization’s limited economic and staff resources or limited access to the target groups for which their social activities are intended. The limited access was the result of public regulations or weak multisectoral cooperation’ (p. 992). 

– ‘We identified a consensus in the reference groups’ discussions concerning views about the problem of “refugee and migrant women.” The main perceived problem was that they lived in culturally different contexts that expected them to stay at home and not pursue education or work. This, in turn, undermined the virtue of gender equality that was embraced among the participants, and was considered  as  a  non-negotiable value in Swedish society and  by  Swedish  authorities’ (p. 995).

– ‘In contrast to these officially-sanctioned values of gender equality and labor market activation policies, a more critical discussion came up in the reference groups as they talked about the need to  recognize cultural differences. Thus, according to the participants in the reference groups, reception in contemporary Sweden is not gender and diversity- sensitive. The current reception approach is not able to solve differences between men and women, nor between individual circumstances. Participants expressed  a  willingness to  do  more  in this area.  On  the  one  hand,  those  active  in reception work desire to uphold the normative idea of gender equality, promote labor market  activation,  and  change the way they perceive that many refugee and migrant women live their lives. On the other hand, there is a willingness to be more open-minded, to find ways to talk about cultural differences in various languages, and to find ways to meet the individual needs of  particular  women or men instead  of  offering standardized support that is more in line with the officially proclaimed needs of society’ (p. 995).

– ‘There were, however, differences  in  how  the  “problem”  was  perceived  and  formulated.  Those working  for public authorities focused on the normative perspective of promoting gender equality through education and working activation for women. Those working in civil society organizations and in close relation to refugees and migrants through their position as grass-root social  workers  and  teachers  had  a  larger  engagement  in  finding  ways  to promote mutual understanding of cultural differences. They also recognized the need for a gender- and diversity-sensitive reception’ (p. 1000). 

– ‘In  the third theme about ambivalences towards who are  perceived  as “worthy”, “true”  and “false” refugees, the main difference was that civil society organizations helped everyone who came to them regardless of legal status, while public authorities were only allowed to support  those  who were still asylum seekers or had received a permit to stay. This third theme highlights the impact of legislation and the conditions for those who work and are involved in the reception structure. Migration policy limits a country’s ability to receive refugees and migrants, but  also affects the willingness among  those actors who receive. In times of shifting migration policies,  the issue of who is a worthy receiver is negotiated. Hence, an ethical dilemma that affects the  everyday work of social workers and other welfare state professional groups was raised and contested in the reference groups … The division that emerged in the interviews, between who was defined as a “true” refugee and who was not, was shaped by the participants’ different knowledge-producing  groups  and  different levels of  authority. The  division  was  supported  by contemporary restrictive legislation that gives more authority to border controls, security issues, and police forces than to human rights and social work values (Jönsson & Heggem Kojan, 2017; Lundqvist & Mulinari,  2016). Such a focus on social control also affects contemporary  debates  about  migration  in  Sweden  and other European countries. An implication is that social workers need to be more actively involved in debates on migration so that the importance of responding to human suffering and inequality is not lost to the dominant   perspective on control and security’ (p. 1000).

Theoretical perspective/framework

Combination of political theory about “willingness” versus “ability” to receive refugees and migrants (Gibney) and postcolonial theoretical perspectives on concurrences in cultural encounters. “Reception”, “cultural encounters”. 


Ethnographic methodology, eight reference group meetings with fifteen representatives from state and municipal agencies, the private sector, and civil society organizations, involved in reception of refugees in south of Sweden during 2015 and 2016, as well as individual interviews with eight participants. 

Summarised by: Alva Nissen