Sammanfattning av publikation

Nielsen, 2016 🔗

Challenging Rightlessness: On Irregular Migrants and the Contestation of Welfare State Demarcation in Sweden 

Year: 2016

Type of text: Doctoral thesis

Published by:  Linnaeus University

Language: English

Author: Amanda Nielsen

Pages: 210

Available at:

Short description of text 

“This thesis explores the political struggles that followed after the appearance of irregular migrants in Sweden. The analysis starts from the assumption that the group’s precarious circumstances of living disrupted the understanding of Sweden as an inclusive society and shed light on the limits of the welfare state’s inclusionary ambitions. The overarching analytical point of entry is accordingly that the appearance of irregular migrants constitutes an opening for contestation of the demarcation of the welfare state … The study approaches these struggles over demarcation through an analysis of the debates and claims-making that took place in the Swedish parliament between 1999 and 2014. The focal point of the analysis is the efforts to make sense of and respond to the predicament of the group” (Abstract). 

Most important results

– ‘This chapter has explored the politicization of irregularity in the 2000s. This has, first and foremost, entailed an analysis of the demarcation of a problem and the subsequent attempts to enforce different readings of this problem. I have argued that the problem, most fundamentally, has been articulated as a problem of rightlessness. This articulation establishes a linkage between a range of distinct components – most importantly fear, vulnerability, exploitability, lack of rights and exclusion from welfare services – that are held out as worrisome and in need of address. This basic understanding has remained more or less the same throughout the period studied. The origin of this problem, and the means for its rectification, has however been articulated in different ways. In the chapter I have shown that competing discourses were invoked to make sense of the appearance of the group. In accordance with this, furthermore, the fate of the irregular migrants became drawn into a number of on-going parallel debates. First and foremost in the sense that they became a focal point in debates over what was perceived as Sweden’s restrictive asylum policy. The struggles over the composition of the group that I have accounted for in this chapter are, in part, a reflection of this controversy. Another example of this is the attempts to link the issue to demands for labour migration that were bound up with a larger struggle over migration policy and its paths of entry. The analysis in this chapter, furthermore, has approached these debates over the composition of the group as struggles over categorization. As such, I have argued, the debates essentially revolved around the legitimacy of the group’s claims for membership. Initially, the efforts to establish desert were primarily oriented towards the group’s need for protection. Over time, however, this focus was widened through efforts to establish other forms of grounds for desert. In addition to this, I have discussed the linkage between the categorization processes and disputes over terminology. The analysis has shown that the use of terms is intimately bound up with different understandings of the group and the legitimacy of its claims. 

The chapter has provided numerous examples of contestation of both policies and practices. Swedish legislation, that is to say the Aliens Act, was recurrently criticized on a number of grounds. One strand of critique focused on its alleged restrictiveness and the strict criteria for asylum whereas another strand of critique focused on the lack of opportunities for labour migrants. This debate, I contend, boils down to disagreement over the bases of desert: in the first case the demarcation of the category “worthy” was argued to be too narrow and in the second case an additional category, for those deemed “contributive”, was called for. With regard to practices, furthermore, there was persistent critique of the asylum process. This entailed both critique of how the law was interpreted by the officers at the Migration Board and of the lengthy process and lack of due process. There were thus, without hesitation, profound conflicts over policy and its outcomes. Nevertheless, from a larger perspective, the debates also bear mark of agreement on a more fundamental level. All of the issues of contention revolve around aspects of categorization – whether the determination of principles or how these are put into practice – but the basic need for, and legitimacy of, categorization is accepted as given. This lack of contestation reflects, I argue, a shared understanding that immigration needs to be monitored, and that selection must take place, to safeguard the welfare state. The character of the disputes, that is to say, is indicative of the uncontested status of the principle of regulated immigration. One overarching conclusion that can be drawn from this observation is that there is an absence of more radical forms of contestation in the debates studied in the sense that the citizenship order remains unchallenged’ (p. 109-110). 

– ‘Calls for regularisation entail a challenge of the exclusionary outcomes of particular citizenship regimes and often come accompanied with critique of particular policies. This was the case in Sweden where the demands were advanced in conjunction with severe criticism of both asylum policy and the processing of individual applications. In accordance with this, the demands for amnesty – as restitution for state wrongdoings – have been conceived of as fundamentally critical by both its advocates and opponents. The demand has also, as the analysis in this chapter has shown, been controversial and it has been met with strong resistance. I argue that this resistance should be interpreted against the backdrop of a shared commitment to the principle of regulated immigration. From this perspective, amnesty – a measure that sidesteps the framework for categorization – is considered potentially threatening. The conflicts that I have accounted for in this chapter accordingly also revolve around whether an amnesty would undermine migration control. The opponents repeatedly advanced the argument that an amnesty would be detrimental as it would create incentives for more people to go underground and undermine the principle of individual trial of each applicant. The advocates, on the other hand, consistently argued that the graveness of the situation, and the fact that it has been caused by historic injustices, calls for exceptional measures. Furthermore, as I have discussed in this chapter, the linking of the demand to the institutional reform enabled the pro-regularisation camp to advance amnesty as a one-time measure that would not threaten the principle of regulated immigration’ (p. 133). 

– ‘In relation to the framework of regulated immigration, that is to say, the demand for amnesty was conceived of as a radical proposal. Nevertheless, as argued by numerous scholars, the implications of regularisations are ambiguous. Experiences from previous regularisations in different contexts suggest that these kinds of programmes often come accompanied with the imposition of more restrictive policy and more controls. Furthermore, they are ambiguous on a more principal level as they simultaneously challenge and reinforce the prevailing citizenship order. They are challenging, first, in the sense that they provide remedies to some of the exclusions that this order produces. Often, moreover, the demands for regularisation come accompanied with a critique of policies and politics. Nevertheless, demands for regularisation also reinforce the hegemonic citizenship order in a number of senses. First, as argued by Anne McNevin, they strengthen this order in the sense that they “reboot the system, tidying rough edges and anomalies that exposed its cracks and strains” McNevin 2011:151). The measure as such, furthermore, means that rights are secured through incorporation into the current citizenship regime. These kinds of strategies, it has been argued, also “inevitably reproduce the inclusive/exclusive logic of citizenship” (Tyler & Marciniak 2013:146). Furthermore, as pointed out by Peter Nyers, the criteria of regularisation programs often serve to “produce and stabilize notions of citizenship” (Nyers 2010:136)’ (p. 133-34). 

– ‘This tension between contestation and reinforcement can also be discerned in the debates that have been analysed in this chapter. The analysis has shown that amnesty, first and foremost, has been motivated with reference to the state’s need to compensate for institutional malfunctions. The demands for amnesty were intimately linked to a critique of the processing of asylum applications and its outcomes. This articulation of amnesty as restitution ultimately established desert for residence permits through suffering and victimhood. Another strand of arguments motivated the need for amnesty with reference to integration. Both social integration – in the sense of being part of a social networks, raising children and speaking the language – and economic integration – in the sense of being a consumer, worker and taxpayer – were recurrently invoked in the parliamentary debates to support the demands for amnesty. The latter argument in particular is interesting as it serves to constitute the irregular migrants as functioning and contributing member of society that it would be economically unwise to reject. This focus should be interpreted against the background of the framework for categorization that positions burdensome migrants as “undesirable”. 

Overall, I contend, the claims-making on behalf of irregular migrants in Sweden has tended to draw on established notions of desert. In line with this, the arguments for regularisation can, somewhat simplified, be subsumed under the two headings victimhood and contribution that correspond with the primary grounds of desert. The common denominator for arguments that belong to the first category is that entitlement to rights is invoked with reference to victimhood. […] The second strand of arguments downplays victimhood and focuses on irregular migrants as functioning and contributing members of society. Arguments that emphasized integration – in the form of employment, relationships and language skills – appeared already in the 2005 debate. Thereafter, in conjunction with the launch of the labour migration reform, references to profitability in a more narrow economic sense increased. These kinds of arguments can, following Saskia Sassen, be understood as attempts to draw attention to common experiences and establish irregular migrants as fellow members of society. […] The irregular migrants, it is argued, fulfil their obligations as de facto members of society and should accordingly be granted the corresponding rights

[…] Strategies that invoke contribution, on the other hand, recognize people with basis in the value they create for the community in which they reside. Both strategies accordingly come with certain limitations as they institute different form of hierarchies between categories of migrants. Arguments that emphasise economic and social benefits, to start with, ultimately reinforce the division of migrants into “productive”, i.e. “desirable”, and “unproductive” categories. Humanitarian arguments, on the other hand, run the opposite risk as they tend to “exceptionalize the deservingness of specific categories”, such as refugees or children, with basis in suffering and victimhood (Tyler & Marciniak 2013:153). In relation to irregular migrants, for instance, it has been argued that arguments that make regularisation conditioned on “vulnerability” simultaneously render irregular migrants who do not fall in this category more vulnerable (Kraler 2011:314). Finally, in a broader perspective, both strategies are equally problematical in the sense that they reproduce and reinforce the logic of categorization. 

Regularisations, to conclude, thus come with a number of contradictory effects. They entail a challenge to some of the exclusions that the prevailing order produces. From the perspective of its beneficiaries, furthermore, regularisations are highly valued as they provide them with legal status and consequently with security and access to rights. In the parliamentary context, moreover, the demand for amnesty has been conceived of as a radical proposal that challenges the principle of regulated immigration. It has also come accompanied with sharp criticism of both policy and practice. Nevertheless, from a larger perspective, demands for regularisation also tend to reinforce the prevailing order. First, as outlined above, in the sense that both calls for regularisation and criteria for actual programs tend to appeal to existing legislation and, consequently, confirm existing hierarchies and mechanisms for sorting. This means, furthermore, that not only particular notions of desert are reproduced but also the underpinning assumption that not all people are prospective members of the state. That is to say, ultimately, regularisations naturalize the very institution of citizenship and nation state order as they “confirm the spatial logics that separate citizen and territories from unwanted and unworthy outsiders” (McNevin 2011:151)’ (p. 134-36). 

– ‘The empirical investigation has shown a widespread and profound dissatisfaction with the processing of asylum applications and its outcomes. The discontent peaked in the early 2000s, before the institutional reform, when there was a wide agreement that the process failed to deliver trial in accordance with the rule of law. Thereafter, the critique of asylum processing in the debates became sparser. Another example that also falls into this category of contestation is demands for regularisation. These make up a particular subcategory, as it is the very denial of status as such that constitutes the contested. However, as the analysis in Chapter five has shown, demands for regularisation have been closely linked to critique of institutional deficiencies and allegedly restrictive evaluations by the Migration Board. 

I argue that this strand of contestation ultimately leaves the overarching principles, as well as the underpinning logic, of the citizenship regime unproblematized. There is critique – sometimes profound – of both legislation and its outcome in the form of decision-making. Nevertheless, in a wider perspective, these forms of disagreement come with the effect that the legitimacy of regulation as such is left uncontested. This means, in extension, that the privileged position of citizens, as well as the fact that not all people are potential members, is recognized’ (p. 170). 

– ‘The developments of the last years have shown no openings towards further inclusion of irregular migrants. The demand for regularisation has, as already noted, been less successful compared to the demands for social rights. The campaign for amnesty in 2005 resulted in temporary legislation under which some irregular migrants were able to regularise their stay. The legislation was however not a general amnesty. This meant both that not all applications were approved and that not all people were eligible to apply in the first place. Consequently, the legislation did not provide a solution for all irregular migrants. Furthermore, after the implementation of the institutional reform, the pro-regularisation camp has been marginalised. Demands for amnesty have continued to be voiced, but the overall support for this kind of measure has been severely reduced. Gradually, moreover, there has been a decrease in motions that call for regularisation. Taken together, this suggests that the likelihood of full scale regularisation in the near future is low’ (p. 176). 

– ‘The recent response to the increasing number of asylum seekers – in the form of a more restrictive asylum policy and more repression towards irregular migrants – rather suggest that the reactivation of the demarcation of the welfare state has resulted in a confirmation of the need for closure’ (p. 179). 

Theoretical perspective/framework

Citizenship theory and discourse theory


The primary material consists of various forms of documents from the parliamentary decision-making process: minutes from parliamentary debates (1999-2014); parliamentary motions; government bills, committee considerations and official reports; and reports that have been important to the political debate.

Summarised by: Alva Nissen