Sammanfattning av publikation

Nordling & Persdotter, 2017 🔗

Bordering through destitution: the case of social assistance to i

irregularised migrants in Malmö, Sweden

Year: 2021

Type of text: Academic journal 

Published by: Nordic Social Work Research 

Language: English

Author: Vanna Nordling & Maria Persdotter

Pages: 14

Available at:

Short description of text 

“In this article, we focus on municipal-level social service provision as a site of bordering. More specifically, we consider the provision of social assistance (i.e. a means-tested cash support program, ekonomiskt bistĂ„nd) for irregularised migrants residing in Malmö, Sweden.1 Our aim is to examine the presence and configuration of local-level bordering practices. Specifically, we analyse changes in municipal policies and practices pertaining to the welfare entitlements of irregularised migrants following the 2015 spike in asylum-seekers arriving in Sweden and the associated reversal of asylum-policy. Based on a close reading of the City of Malmö’s 2013 and 2017 guidelines on social assistance, we consider whether and how entitlements to social assistance have been redefined and restricted over the last several years.2 In doing so, we ask whether we are seeing the emergence of local-level ‘self-deportation policies’: that is, policies that aim to encourage ‘voluntary return’ by restricting access to services and welfare benefits for migrants (Park 2019).”  (p. 155-156)

Viktigaste resultaten/Most important results

“We argue that although municipal social policy is still more inclusive of irregularised migrants than national-level policies, access to social assistance has been partially restricted as part of a strategy to encourage ‘self-deportation’. In particular, we point to three developments – the specialization of services, the concomitant standardization of practices, and the juridification of discourse (Bergmark 2014; Ponnert and Johansson 2018) – that jointly contribute to the exclusion of irregularised migrants from municipal social services.” (p. 156)

“First, when we read the 2013 and 2017 guidelines together we notice an overall shift in language: the 2017 guidelines are framed in a legalistic language, using formulations that are close to the original law text. While some of these changes were surely intended as clarifications of how the right to social assistance should be interpreted, we can see a shift in the language that signals a different standpoint compared to the earlier guidelines. We take this as an example of the re-framing of public, political and professional ethical issues in legal terms, and thus as a sign of juridification. This shift is accompanied by a re-categorization of irregularised migrants: whereas the 2013 guidelines used the term ‘undocumented’, a term frequently used by Swedish authorities, the 2017 guidelines instead use the phrasing ‘persons without permission to stay in Sweden’. “ (p. 161)

“Second, and most importantly for our purposes, the revised 2017 guidelines are characterized by a stronger emphasis on (potential) conflicts between the provision of social assistance to irregularised migrants and the aims of border enforcement. For example, the 2017 guidelines underline that

Persons without permission to stay in Sweden lack legal residence in the country and shall therefore leave Sweden. It is their responsibility (‘det Ă„ligger dem’) to follow Swedish law and decisions made by another authority. (Malmö stad 2017b, 15)“ (p. 161-162)

“Third, the 2017 guidelines place a relatively stronger emphasis on the short-term nature of emergency social assistance. The 2013 guidelines stress the principle of ultimate responsibility, emphasizing that ‘the ultimate responsibility of the municipality remains as long as the person resides in the municipality and does not get her/his support met in another way’ (Malmö stad 2013, 13). Hence, they allow for an interpretation of ‘emergency’ as a lasting, long-term situation. The 2017 guidelines does not include any mention of the municipality’s ultimate responsibility. Instead, they separate irregularised migrants from other groups, stating that the ‘unauthroised’ applicant may only qualify for emergency social assistance under extenuating circumstances (synnerliga skĂ€l)” (p. 162)

“Fourth and finally, the 2017 guidelines redefine the best interest of the child. Here a rephrasing has been made concerning how to apply the principle of the best interest of the child. This is of special interest, as the 2013 guidelines were aimed to strengthen the child perspective (Malmö stad 2013). […] In 2013, the municipality recommended that children should receive the national norm for social assistance. It was also recommended that families with children should get support in regard to housing. The 2017 guidelines no longer state that this interpretation is recommended, but that the principle might still be applied in this way:

The Social Services have a special responsibility for children, especially children belonging to vulnerable groups. Children shall, when deemed appropriate, be able to be granted support to a reasonable standard of living. Based on the principle of the Best Interest of the Child this might mean that children are granted social assistance while their parents are only granted emergency support. Assistance to children might be granted up to full norm [riksnorm]. Considering the Best Interest of the Child, assistance might also be granted to a reasonable cost for housing that is based on the child’s need. (Malmö stad 2017b, 16)” (p. 162-163)

“In 2018, the City of Malmö opened a specialized unit, tasked with processing applications made by irregularised migrants. […] [A]ccording to the voluntary-sector service providers we spoke with during our research, the establishment of this specialized unit has primarily enabled a streamlining of the assessment process and a greater degree of control and oversight, with case officers now requiring more extensive documentation to ascertain the economic and migration status of the application (personal communication). This serves as yet another example of how the social services in Malmö are shifting from a comprehensive assessment of individual needs towards a category specific and group-based assessment procedure.” (p. 163)

“Crucially, the establishment of a specialized unit has also contributed to a heightened sense of unsafety among irregularised migrants who depend on social assistance. At the time of writing, the office where they have to file and renew their applications in person is only open for two hours at a time, two days a week. This creates a practical barrier for applicants to access support (cf. discussion on the control of migrant’s time in Misje, this issue). The border police in southern Sweden is widely known to have carried out internal border controls outside health care facilities and schools, and it is not difficult to imagine that the existence of a specialized office for irregularised migrants would allow for easier monitoring and surveillance. There are reasons to believe that the requirement to apply at a specific office (during a set time-span) creates anxiety and fear among migrants to such an extent that some might avoid seeking assistance altogether.” (p. 163)

“The 2017 policy guidelines are not entirely exclusionary. There are still openings for irregularised migrants to access social assistance. However, they do signal a shift towards a more restrictive approach. An overall standardization and juridification of the guidelines has meant that there is now less leeway for social workers to interpret the relevant regulations in ways that are favourable for their irregularised clients. At the same time, a number of organizational changes (e.g. the creation of a specialized unit for processing applications from ‘undocumented migrants’) have raised practical barriers to accessing services. Altogether, this has contributed to the creation of a more ‘hostile environment’ for irregularised migrants in Malmö.” (p. 164)

“We argue that the 2017 revised guidelines can be understood as part and parcel of an overall policy trend that treats destitution as a means to encourage self-deportation. Crucially, the changes in municipal policy and practice that have taken place since 2015 have not required any major political or legal reform. Instead, they have been implemented through a careful rewriting of the guidelines on social assistance, and through shifts in administrative practice. In particular, they have relied on an incremental and continuously ongoing specialization, standardization and juridification of social work practice.” (p. 165)

Theoretical perspective/framework

“In analysing social assistance as a (potential) site of indirect bordering, we draw on three analytical concepts from sociolegal studies – specialization, juridification and standardidation.”  (p. 159)


“Geographically, the study focuses on a single city – Malmö. Situated at the proverbial ‘gateway to and from Europe’, Malmö is typically the first city of arrival in Sweden for migrants coming from continental Europe.” (p. 160)

“The article is primarily based on a close reading and analysis of the main policy document that regulates the provision of social assistance by the social services: the City of Malmö’s guidelines on social assistance. In particular, we compare and contrast the guidelines adopted in 2013, with the ones introduced in 2017.” (p. 160)

“Our analysis is inspired by methods of discourse analysis (see Sahlin 1999). Specifically, we focus on content-related changes and discursive shifts between the two documents.” (p. 160)

“The article is further informed by our previous PhD research projects on social work with irregularised migrants and ‘vulnerable EU citizens’, both of which were based on interviews with local policy makers and practitioners (see Nordling 2017; Persdotter 2019). In order to complement and update this material, we have carried out two additional interviews as well as multiple informal conversations with voluntary-sector service providers and activists in the Malmö asylum rights movement.”  (p. 160)

Suggestions for further research

“While our analysis is limited to policy-on-paper and overarching organizational changes, it would be valuable to further investigate how these changes have affected day-to-day social work practice” (p. 164)

“Altogether, our findings highlight the need for researchers within the field of border studies to pay careful attention to sub-national policies and practices. They also point to a number of wider issues of relevance to social policy and social work research. The ‘meeting and meshing’ (Barker 2017) of national-level migration policy and municipal social policy needs to be carefully monitored and scrutinized in terms of how it affects the conditions and rights situation of irregularised migrants and exacerbates social inequalities – but also in terms of its implications for social policy more broadly” (p. 165)

Summarized by: Josefine Carlsson