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Nordling, Sager & Söderman, 2017 🔗

From Citizenship to Mobile Commons: Reflections on the Local Struggles of Undocumented Migrants in the City of Malmö

Year: 2017

Type of text: Academic article

Published by: Citizenship Studies

Language: English

Author: Vanna Nordling, Maja Sager och Emma Söderman

Pages: 18

Available at:

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Short description of text 

‘Focusing on undocumented migrants’ struggles over rights and representation in the city of Malmö, Sweden, this article argues that these practices constitute an enactment of citizenship. Drawing on the literature on autonomy of migration, we also explore acts of solidarity beyond the terminology of citizenship through the concept of ‘mobile commons’. We focus on experiences and activist practices of undocumented migrants as well as citizens in Malmö; the development of local guidelines extending limited social benefits rights to undocumented migrants; and a theatre performance involving undocumented actors. The analysis is organised thematically around the tensions emerging from these empirical cases: between visibility and invisibility, mobility and immobility and access to social rights. We argue that encounters between citizens and non-citizens can create situated spaces ‘in between’, by claiming citizen rights and by going beyond the language of citizenship’ (Abstract).

Most important results

– ‘Our own presence in these contexts stretches from the early 2000s. During those years, the struggles – both the support work and the campaigning – had a certain focus on legal issues. Although individual activists had an agenda that pointed towards promoting a ‘no border perspective’ the main part of the actual practices was, in relation to individual asylum cases, and stretching and finding loopholes in the law. In campaigns, the focus tended to be on demands for more generous and less arbitrary interpretations of the asylum laws. The danger with this centring on legislation was manifested in the attitude of some people connected to the movement who regarded it as their duty to decide whether someone was a ‘real’ refugee or not (Sager 2011). This focus also seemed to carry with it a less central role for migrants themselves, who were taken into account more as ‘clients’ or ‘cases’ rather than as critical political actors in their own right. 

    Our material points towards the crucial role of two specific migration political moments/ events in the process of changing the focus and practices of the movement. During the early 2000s, families from Bosnia and Kosovo were a growing part of the undocumented migrant population. The ways in which the appeals and complaints by these families were dealt with by the Migration Agency, and the increasing desperation especially of their children’s situation, became a tipping point at which many activists and asylum-seekers lost all remaining trust in the asylum system and in the mechanisms of the law that they/ we had been dealing with. This situation triggered a massive campaign for regularisation of undocumented migrants. The campaign was partially successful. An agreement was reached that gave permanent residence permits to certain groups of refused asylum-seekers – mainly families with children. However, this produced new divisions between ‘deserving’ families and other ‘undeserving’ asylum-seekers. This complex combination of ‘success’ and new exclusions brought about an increased awareness and intense discussions about the problems inherent in arguing for migrants’ rights through the language and categories of legislation and of border control (McNevin 2006; Anderson, Gibney, and Paoletti 2011) […]  The other such moment with a catalysing effect took place between the end of the 2000s and the early 2010s. At that point in time, movements in Malmö were increasingly linked to unaccompanied children and young people from mainly Afghanistan and Somalia. Also in this case, there was an initial focus on improvements inside the asylum system through a campaign demanding that unaccompanied children should be exempted from the Dublin Regulation. Another parallel to the regularisation campaign was that minors became exempted while the campaign was running, but yet again this ‘success’ produced new exclusions and when young people were deported to a life on the streets in southern Europe or Afghanistan, or were forced to live in precarious conditions as irregular migrants for years, the trust in the possibilities to effect change inside the language and categories of the law vanished again. 

    Over these periods of time, and especially through the moments discussed here, the focus of the political struggles around migration in Malmö has moved in two directions. One is towards more direct action against the most repressive aspects of migration control, such as deportations and detentions. The other is towards a focus on finding alternative routes to welfare access and on building local spaces and communities that would enable people to live safer and more liveable lives despite the lack of legal status […] the movements tried to politicise and articulate this practical work as a local struggle against border controls. It was central to conceptualise the support work as a way to challenge and slightly displace the borders and boundaries of the state – rather than just as charity or humanitarian aid […] Parallel to these shifts in focus, there has also been a more practically oriented transformation towards more inclusive and open forms of organising that aim to transgress rather than reinforce boundaries between citizens and non-citizens […] The movements have also increasingly been shaped by migrants themselves […] The changed perspectives effected during these two periods indicate that experiences of, or a close look into, the conditions regulating migrations to Europe can easily undermine people’s belief in the possibility of protecting all migrants within the legislation regulating this migration. But at the same time, since access to legal status is the most urgent issue at stake in many migrants’ life situations, they and their allies are forced into the language, categories and legislation of borders’ (p. 116-17). 

– ‘Through professionals coming into contact with undocumented migrants, there were examples within the social services where undocumented migrants were granted social assistance. The activities and campaigning in the local migration rights networks, with their focus on the construction of liveable conditions for undocumented migrants, contributed to these processes; the variety of strategies and arguments included those in relation to municipal services. Local access to health care and schooling also contributed to a debate climate where undocumented migrants, especially children, were visible as rights-bearers. The lines between being recognised as a citizen with formal rights and of being excluded through institutionalised citizenship practices were thereby blurred, due to the recognition of undocumented migrants as inhabitants of the city. Thus, the inclusion of certain rights for undocumented migrants in the local guidelines created a space ‘in between’ where the restrictive regulations of the state were contested. 

As the Malmö guidelines for social assistance direct the practical work of social workers, they have brought about changes in the everyday life of Malmö’s undocumented population. However, these changes are uneven and sometimes experienced as arbitrary. The guidelines state that undocumented migrants should have assistance, but not what kind of assistance in the case of adults. When there is such room for interpretation, praxis is almost bound to differ both between and within municipalities. The guidelines expand the municipal responsibility to give priority to the best interests of the child: undocumented children can receive social assistance on the same basis as other children residing in Malmö. The child’s perspective was central throughout the work on the guidelines, and the issue of undocumented migrants in relation to the social services was incorporated into the larger discussion of children’s rights. However, the inclusion of children specifically can also be understood in relation to a larger discourse where children were understood as ‘innocent’ and therefore more ‘worthy’ than undocumented adults (see Sager 2015; Nielsen 2016). This contributes to the idea discussed above of some migrants being more ‘worthy’ of inclusion. The guidelines have contributed to new exclusions and distinctions between groups of migrants who are perceived as vulnerable/‘worthy’. Even if not directly expressed in the guidelines, in practice there seems to be a hierarchy of perceived deservingness where children and former asylum-seekers are seen as less problematic to be given assistance than, for example, adult EU citizens who reside as undocumented […] Just as with the laws at the national level, the Malmö guidelines can be understood within present citizenship practices. They follow a logic of ‘included exclusion’ whereby only the most basic needs are covered (Sager 2011)- (p. 118-19).

– ‘Through their presence in the public space and through the activists’ acts of solidarity discussed in the last section, it can be argued that undocumented migrants to some extent have become perceived as a responsibility of the municipality rather than a silenced group. Therefore, we argue that such presence and acts may have longer term consequences and may be interpreted as an enactment of citizenship […] The access to social assistance gives more room for manoeuvre to activists (citizens as well as non-citizens) to focus on issues beyond the everyday survival: they provide a form of ‘stillness’ in the everyday struggles (Gill 2009). Therefore, it can be argued that this institutionalised social right may serve an undocumented population in ways that were not envisaged when it was implemented. Even if it is arbitrary and partial, the inclusion in the present citizenship regime therefore contributes to the opening of a new space ‘in between’ citizenship and non-citizenship (p. 119-20). 

– ‘The members without residence permits expressed fear of just moving outside, of going to and from schools and rehearsals, and of being detected when in contact with, for example, health care providers. In the areas where members (the majority of whom lived in close vicinity of each other) lived and rehearsed, there was a high police presence. Recurring discussions on how to assure actual safety as well as on how to increase feelings of safety were held in light of the threat of deportation. Locations for meetings and rehearsals were frequently changed. For those who resided as undocumented there was a constant fear of the police in the everyday, a fear that many times had an ‘isolating’ effect […] Participation in the musical was a welcome interruption to the experience of isolation. It provided chances to meet new friends and, as performances were staged in different cities, to see new places in Sweden. The members’ experiences of residing as undocumented correlated with being spatially limited, as they could not afford to travel to visit friends and family at other locations in Sweden, and/or were too afraid of the risk of identity controls on public transport. This fear of moving was also present when moving to and from different places in the city, and for the undocumented members produced limitations in regards of mobility. Both the risk of getting detected by the police and the experienced fear underline the challenges of creating a public performance in a context of violent migration control. Thus, one crucial dimension of the working process of the musical was to create a safe space. This process was fundamental both to being able to, and daring to, perform on a stage, as well as to participate in rehearsals. Of importance in this process was to get to know each other […] The musical in many ways formed a common platform for mobilisation, both in terms of voicing experiences of and critiquing the violent control of migration and its consequences, and in terms of being a context where resources for support could be mobilised. This support concerned, for example, struggles to prevent a deportation, distributing information of the latest development in regards to asylum procedures, police controls, good lawyers, cheap places to buy food, help in finding housing, etc. This sharing of knowledges, of networking, of social care-taking, was a prerequisite for mobilising and voicing experiences, as well as a critique of the violent control of migration. Constituting a space for regular meetings and for distribution of such crucial information, the musical can be described as a local space ‘in between’, of mobile commons. These mobile commons were, however, not perhaps very mobile, but deeply conditioned by the local context, such as where the police controls were carried out, where one could find cheap food, or places to hang out where one did not need to spend money […] This space ‘in between’ was constituted of a myriad of practices that can be encapsulated by the concept of ‘mobile commons’. However, an in-depth participatory exploration of the musical also highlighted that the inequalities and injustices that the musical aimed to critique and transform were also present within the project itself’ (p. 121-22). 

– ‘The image we have sketched shows a messy and at times contradictory character of migrant advocacy work at the local level of Malmö. Among the range of claims, practices and desires in this field, one important goal for many is being able to remain – in stillness (Gill 2009). Therefore citizenship (or residence permits) are mobilised as tools or goals, while other parts of the struggle are more focused on creating life situations and spaces that function independently of residence permits, as well as trying to push for other conceptualisations of justice and belonging through everyday practices, as well as through critical actions and campaigns, keeping a distance from the state. These two ways of organising, mobilising citizenship as well as actions beyond claims of citizenship, are often carried out simultaneously. Through approaching these different practices and strategies as a ‘mobile commons’, also contradictory practices and ideas can be understood as the construction of a – however fluid and changing – space ‘in between’ (p. 123). 

Theoretical perspective/framework

Critical citizenship theory, the field of autonomy of migration, ‘acts of citizenship’ (Isin), ‘mobile commons’ (Papadopolous & Tsianos).


The article draws on material collected during four separate ethnographic studies during the period 2006-2015 consisting of interviews with refused asylum-seekers and activists; field notes from participation in asylum rights movements; documentation from media and organisations, interviews with musical members in the musical and one group interview with seven members; fieldnotes from participation in the musical as a researcher, activist and amateur actor, interviews with local politicians, policymakers and social workers; documentation of the process of developing and implementing the new Malmö guidelines on social assistance for undocumented migrants and interviews with activists with and without experiences of migration or the asylum process; field notes from participatory fieldwork in migration rights groups in Manchester and in Malmö; photos and material produced by the organisations themselves. 

Summarised by: Alva Nissen