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Jämte & Pitti, 2019 🔗

Strategic interplay in times of crisis: Opportunities and challenges for state-civil society interaction during the Swedish “Refugee Crisis” of 2015-2016

Year: 2019

Type of text: Academic article

Published by:  The Open Journal of Sociopolitical Studies

Language: English

Author: Jan Jämte & Ilaria Pitti

Pages: 26

Available at:

Short description of text 

An analysis of the “refugee crisis” of 2015-16, in the case of Malmö, and the strategic interactive processes between SMOs, NGOs and GIs, new formal and informal practices that emerged and what factors that triggered and hindered them. It identifies under which conditions cooperation between the different actors occurs and the different ways SMO’s strategically respond to the conditions for cooperation set up by NGO’s and GIs. It further argues that the GI’s changed the situation in their favour. 

Most important results

– ‘Results show that the crisis initially strengthened the role of SMOs in Malmö’s public scene but that in order to enter into formal cooperation with NGOs and actors within institutionalized politics, SMOs had to meet certain conditions. In particular, in order to be considered as potential partners, SMOs needed to 1) have a clear organizational structure, 2) downplay or abandon their political ideology, and 3) assume a complementary and ancillary role to the other actors. These criteria narrowed the space in which SMOs could maneuver and, in the end, hindered possibilities of developing lasting connections once the crisis began to fade. As a result, SMOs adopted one of three different ways of responding to the conditions set by GIs and NGOs: adapting, exiting, and challenging the rules and players in the arena’ (p. 414).

– ‘Our analysis highlights how none of the actors involved in the management of the refugee crisis in Malmö was completely self-sufficient. As a consequence, strategic interplays emerged as players attempted “to get others to do what [they] want[ed] them to” (Jasper 2015, 19; Verhoven and Bröer 2015). At the same time, the various players critiqued each other. SMOs questioned the inadequacy, inefficiency, and inflexibility of the GIs and NGOs in that they were not always able to provide the direct help refugees needed and sometimes obstructed the attempts of SMOs to assist. GIs accused SMOs of stepping over boundaries and disregarding certain rules that safeguarded the refugees. They were also critiqued for taking on responsibilities without having the necessary expertise. Moreover, the fluid and undefined nature of SMOs was interpreted as a lack of long-term stability and of limited accountability. In sum, GI representatives tended to portray SMOs as an important resource that needed to be managed, coordinated, and contained in order not to become problematic’ (p. 425).

– ‘On the one hand, the establishment of new forums and partnerships could be read as a victory on the part of SMOs, in that their presence and relevance were recognized. On the other hand, our analysis shows that SMOs were gradually curtailed. From our data, Swedish institutions emerge as slow, but efficient machines. Following the initial turbulence, the creation of a temporary transit area at Malmö Central Station and the increasing controls at borders marked the beginning of a restructuring of the power relations within the arena, with local and national GIs gradually taking control of the management of the crisis. 

– ‘Taken together, the three conditions narrowed the space in which SMOs could maneuver; they were allowed to cooperate in assisting refugees and received full recognition only under specific circumstances. In the reconstructed arena defined by the strategic action of the GIs, SMOs had to decide if they wanted to be “in” or “out.” … As a result, SMOs reshaped their strategies in relation to the changing conditions within the arena, opting for one of three approaches: 1) Adapting – staying in the arena and adjusting to the rules for participation, as defined by the GIs. SMOs that opted for this approach underwent a process of institutionalization and normalization that, in the long run, allowed them to engage in long-term cooperation with GIs and NGOs. However, this approach also resulted in internal disputes, sometimes followed by members joining other SMOs and by a gradual decrease in activity. 2) Exiting – abandoning the arena. After the initial stage of the crisis, some SMOs decided to avoid interaction with GIs and NGOs, focusing their energies on other issues and arenas. These SMOs stopped providing direct assistance to refugees, claiming that this was the duty of institutions, not civil society. In so doing, they Jämte and Pitti, Strategic Interplay in times of crisis 431 safeguarded their organizational structures, ideals, and positions from normalization and institutionalization, but they also entered into conflict with their members and other SMOs that interpreted their decision as an abandonment of the struggle and those in need. 3) Challenging – continuing to provide services to refugees, but doing so autonomously, without interacting with GIs or NGOs. In this case, SMOs decided to “compete” with GIs, providing services for refugees by setting up alternative shelters, canteens, and helpdesks. By creating a parallel autonomous structure, the SMOs challenged the rules and conditions set by NGOs and GIs. In so doing, they became more prominent political actors in the city, mobilizing new adherents and constituents. However, the activists acknowledged that the decision to challenge GIs on this issue made cooperation in other areas more difficult’ (p. 430).

Theoretical perspective/framework

Interactionist approach to contentious politics, with “players” and “arenas”. 


Semi-structured interviews with eight activists from SMO’s, and four representatives of NGOs and GIs each, conducted in 2018. 

Suggestions for further research

– ‘While this analysis has mainly focused on the interaction among compound (collective) players, future research would benefit from analyzing the influence of personal relationships, preexisting and emerging friendships, and hostilities among simple (individual) players on the dynamics of interplay. Moreover, while this article does not focus on the role of emotions in structuring the arena and the interplay, future analyses would also benefit from studying how feelings of compassion, guilt, rage, fear, etc. influenced the strategies of different players’ (p 432).

Summarised by: Alva Nissen