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Joorman, 2018 🔗

Asylstafetten – a longitudinal ethnographic study of protest walks against the detention of asylum seekers in Sweden

Year: 2018

Type of text: Vetenskaplig Artikel

Published by: Justice, Power and Resistance. EG Press Limited on behalf of the European Group for the Study of Deviancy and Social 

Language: English

Author: Martin Joorman

Pages: 24

Available at:

Short description of text

The article focuses on protests against the practice of detention of asylum seekers in ‘migrant imprisonment facilities’, as it is manifested in the Sweden-based, pro-refugee social movement campaign Asylstafetten, which have been staging protest walks for the rights of refugees in Sweden since 2013, specifically discussing the protests in front of the migrant imprisonment facility/detention centre in Åstorp. 

Most important results

– A crucial difference of personally having or not having experienced detainment and its’ impact is identified: ‘the different identities of either citizen or noncitizen …  constrained the possibility of building solidarity with those imprisoned; at least such solidarity that is based on first-hand, personal experiences of detention, expulsion and deportation’ (p. 339), although, it is being argued, a collective identity temporarily emerged during the protests, uniting in opposition to the imprisonment of people seeking asylum in migrant imprisonment facilities. The article further puts forward the differences within this shared identity: ‘concerning the envisaged ambition of change; from humanitarian engagement to make migration control, and thereby also migrant imprisonment, (more) “humane”, to radically altering, or “demolishing the system” (p. 343), arguing that ‘the tensions between the two (generalized) political standpoints of ‘asylum only for legitimate refugees’ and ‘no borders, no nations’ are strong – even within a pro-refugee social movement campaign such as Asylstafetten’ (p. 350). 

– The article further discusses the possible consequences for undocumented migrants or people who have their asylum applications pending, or legally recognized refugees who want to apply for Swedish citizenship, of participating in such protests and the limits this places on the potential for self-organized migrant rights activism: ‘if first-hand experience of detention shall be truly represented (Spivak, 1988), only people who had been imprisoned, who have since then been released, and thereupon received some form of residence permit, can, de jure, join a protest in front of such sites of migrant imprisonment. This becomes most clearly palpable during the policing of protest, as possible identity checks and/or (temporary) arrests render visible that, in particular for undocumented migrants, the participation in such political protest is extremely risky. Detentions of the past and present as well as possible future detentions are linked to the overall threat of deportation. That said, as the regulations of the Migration Board describe it, noncitizens must have lived a ‘well-behaved life’ (skötsamt liv) to be eligible for Swedish citizenship- (p. 349). 

– The article also highlights the importance of a discourse that frames refugees as competitors for increasingly scarce resources, especially affordable housing, relating this to the continuously widening gap between rich and poor in Sweden, and the neoliberalisation of ‘the Swedish Model’. 

– The article concludes with the importance of understanding Asylstafetten as a part of a wider transnational social movement for refugee rights in which ‘people with direct experience of seeking refuge are increasingly claiming their space within migrants’ rights activism’ (p. 351).

Theoretical perspective/framework

‘During Asylstafetten, the identity of being ‘paperless’ was represented as ‘in solidarity with the paperless’. In reference to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s (1988: 72ff.) conceptual distinction, it was merely possible to “re-present” the paperless, because representatives of this group could not be present (p. 342).

‘This concrete experience of protesting in front of a materialization of exclusion moreover illustrated the position of ‘the irregular migrant’, representing an existence in permanent risk of detainment and deportation; utvisningsbara (‘deportables’), as Helena Holgersson (2011) calls this position’ (p. 343).

‘Conceptually speaking, to borrow from ƞeyla Benhabib and in reference to Jacques Derrida, the right to hospitality that people seeking asylum are supposed to be granted – not only ethically (the concept of ‘the human right to seek refuge’) but also legally (“conceptions of human rights [that] require specific legal norms” [Benhabib, 2016: 137; cf. Alexy, 2002: 47-48]) – is challenged by ‘hospitality’. In other words, asylum seekers are perceived as ‘guests’ and/or ‘strangers’ through an iterative process that involves both hospitality and hostility’ (p. 350).


Longitudinal (2013-2017) engaged ethnographic fieldwork/participant observation as a participant researcher in protest walks and events. 

Summarized by: Alva Nissen