Sammanfattning av publikation

DeBono, 2017 🔗

‘Burning without fire’ in Sweden: the paradox of state’s attempt to safeguard deportees’ psychosocial wellbeing

Year: 2017 

Type of text: Book chapter, part of Return Migration and Psychosocial Wellbeing: Discourses, Policy-Making and Outcomes for Migrants and their Families. Vathi, Z. & King, R. (eds)  

Published by: Routledge

Language: English

Author: Daniela DeBono

Pages: 31

Available at:

Short description of text 

Drawing on migrants’ subjective experiences of the deportation process in Sweden, in particular how they describe issues pertaining to their own psychosocial wellbeing, the official discourse of protection of migrants’ psychosocial wellbeing within this process is being critically analysed. It raises the question whether the proclaimed protection of migrants’ psychosocial wellbeing by the state is a paradox in the deportation process. It shows how ‘in spite of the relatively good structures in place, or rather the well-regulated, sophisticated bureaucratic structures in place’ (p. 25) deportable migrants in Sweden experience the deportation process and its ensuing hardships as painful and agonising – as ‘burning without fire’. 

Most important results

– The reputation of Sweden as a country valuing humanitarian rights is observed to be accompanied by high expectations of sympathy and compassion, an appreciation of the highly regulated and non-corrupt Swedish migration and asylum system and expectations of fairness, justice and discrimination. Thus ‘when migrants receive the return decision, the disappointment is accentuated by both raised expectations and the harsh reality of sanctions should they fail to obey the rules. These are contradictions which the system is ‘blind’ to, but which emerge powerfully from the ‘everyday’ narratives shared by the migrants’ (p. 3).

– ‘Migrants at risk of deportation may be living in the Swedish Migration Agency’s accommodation; or in the community with their whereabouts known to the authorities; they may have absconded and live in hiding; or they may be in detention. Some issues are common irrespective of their situation: for example, migrants mention mental health problems such as insomnia, paranoia, anxiety, physical manifestations of distress and a general sense of weariness often referred to as ‘ageing more rapidly’. There are also issues which are particular to their situation. Detention, for example, creates acute mental health problems and a total sense of powerlessness over their situation’ (p. 9-10). 

– Being sent to their official country of origin is experienced as an all-consuming fear by the interviewees: ‘this fear conditioned their lives and the choices they made. It serves to explain some of the more drastic choices: such as the decision to go into hiding and live underground, an experience which is particularly difficult in Sweden’ (p. 10). ‘This fear also translates into fear of the Swedish authorities who have the responsibility to return them. Particularly those who are living underground speak of a fear of the Police’ (p. 11). Further, ‘paranoia is not limited to the authorities; migrants are scared that other people could turn them in. This fear not only limits their movements, but critically it also limits their access to different services’ (p. 12), which they are entitled to. 

– An ‘in limbo’ situation characterised by powerlessness, dependency and depersonalisation and a lack of control of their lives and their future, is described by the interviewees, leading to frustration and disempowerment. The situation further ‘cements the feeling that they are wasting their lives’, ‘becoming old’ or feeling ‘older than one’s years’ (p. 15). 

– The interviewees describes how they are suffering from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. 

– The situation of deportable migrants is found to be one of isolation: ‘it is not only the location of the centres that is isolating, it is also the migrants’ strained financial situation (p. 16).

– The housing situation for migrants in hiding is found to be difficult but somewhat appeased by supportive networks: ‘the interviewees in this situation are living in different types of housing, but common to all of them is that they have contacts in Sweden who are assisting them. A common source of stress for those in hiding is their housing situation, which is often temporary. The migrants who are hiding describe how they are always looking for housing, and at certain points they have been forced to sleep outside in parks, or in train stations. In addition to the pressure of finding housing, persons living in hiding are often very worried about being detected by Police or other authorities. Migrants who do not have good contacts often have a hard time remaining in hiding even if they would like to. Swedish organisations and personal networks are a source of assistance, information and resources, without which it is almost impossible for a person to live underground’ (p. 17). 

– Coping strategies include relying on the support of their community, friends, activist groups and networks, but it is also shown that migrants avoid speaking about the issue, in some case because ‘they are surrounded by people who have their own serious problems to grapple with; in other cases, their fear of being apprehended by the police made them generally distrustful. However ‘strong’ and ‘determined’ they presented themselves, migrants at risk of deportation appeared to have little space and time to invest in coping strategies, and to take care of themselves. (p. 24). 

– Finally it is concluded that the allegory ‘burning without fire’ is adequate ‘for another key tension that can be found in migrants’ narratives: this is the trade-off that migrants make, preferring to remain in the miserable situation of deportables in Sweden rather than being sent back to their country of origin … migrants’ psychosocial wellbeing is severely compromised, to different degrees depending on the different situations that a deportable migrant can be in. The trade-off that many of these people are consciously making, by choosing to remain as irregular deportables in Sweden and not returning back, involves putting their own health at risk. This chilling realisation serves as an indicator of the gravity that a possible return constitutes for the migrants’ (p. 25). 

Theoretical perspective/framework

The concept of psychosocial wellbeing – a person-centred approach to mental wellbeing.


Ethnographic fieldwork, conducted during 2014 and 2015, including 26 in-depth interviews of duration 1-5 hours with migrants of different ages, genders and nationalities, most of whom were living in Sweden and were deportable. Other interviews were held with state officials in order to contextualise the data.

Summarized by: Alva Nissen