As I write these lines, the West’s evacuation in Afghanistan has ended while tens of thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country, and the central discussion within the European Union is how to avoid them reaching the shores of Europe. For Europe and Sweden, these people are perceived as a problem and a threat. Western countries certainly do not understand themselves as responsible to these people on the move, and new asylum and refugee policy in Sweden indicates they are not even considered ‘valuable’ enough to be ‘deserving’ of asylum and support. In this post, I reflect on the words “deservingness” and “value”, their meaning and how we should understand them in relation to an increasingly restrictive asylum and refugee policy in Sweden.
How much is a human being worth, how much is a human being deserving of, and who decides this? We know from previous research that often deservingness is determined by ranking people based on different characteristics. The emergence and development of welfare regimes has always been a matter of assessing value and deservingness. As welfare regimes are mainly organized through the nation-state, the focus has been on the country’s citizens and to some extent residents. But both the European Union (EU) and international agreements and conventions also affect nation-state assessments of deservingness and value.
In the discussion of dignity, it is possible to roughly distinguish three categories based on life course: children, the economically active and pensioners (which are all part of our project). As children and pensioners are not expected to earn their own living, they have a special positive position in assessments of deservingness and value, which has been one central criterion underlying welfare regimes.
Those who are of economically active age and who do not earn their own living without a “legitimate” reason (which I will return to soon) are placed in the opposite position. In Sweden, social insurance for these people can cover e.g., illness, work-related injuries, and unemployment, with parenthood enjoying significant support as a legitimate reason for support. But discussions about length, level of compensation and cheating have gradually weakened these social insurances. Financial assistance (social assistance) is the last safety net, a welfare benefit that has historically had the lowest popular and political support, where beneficiaries have often been seen as ‘welfare scroungers’ and ‘benefit cheaters’.
As I already mentioned, ideas about welfare deservingness are often linked to citizens and residents. Research has shown that especially the social democratic’ welfare regime project advanced inclusive and equality driven reforms. Although, this was and is often based on ideas of national belonging and feminist scholars have demonstrated that the patriarchal roots of welfare persist.
Our Swedish case studies in this project are instead about “the others” and their access to welfare, ie those who are called irregular migrants and asylum seekers, where additional dimensions are added in the assessment of value and deservingness in the Swedish welfare regime. To begin exploring this issue it is important to understand the Swedish welfare regime in relation to migration regimes. While asylum seekers are ‘in the waiting room’ – neither included nor excluded in society – their value and deservingness are mainly assessed in relation to the right to enter Sweden. Irregular migrants are by definition formally without the right to stay in Sweden. While the Swedish welfare regime is for citizens and residents, the Aliens Act mainly regulates welfare for asylum seekers and the irregular migrant.
In the Aliens Act, the ‘deservingness’ of these two groups of people is clarified. The state ensures that asylum seekers can survive pending a decision, but at a minimum level of support significantly lower than the financial assistance for citizens. Following a decision, they are separated into those who receive a residence permit and moved to the group that is (partially and temporary) included, but still with lower benefits and a higher degree of uncertainty than “real Swedes”. If, on the other hand, their applications are rejected, they quickly lose even the minimal support that one receives as an asylum seeker – with the state’s aim to starve them out of Sweden. But here also comes the difference between children and adults. The minimum survival allowance remains if there are children in the household. However, this premised on contributing with information to the authorities to facilitate deportation.
For irregular migrants, the situation is worse! Here there is no financial support from the public. The state’s ideas is that it should be so horrible that they voluntarily choose to leave – that is explicitly the purpose of the policy. But the children then? Here it gets more complicated. In the interpretation of the Social Services Act, which is not really intended to replace the Aliens Act, there is still a possibility of preventing irregular migrant children from starving. This option is used in some municipalities but not in most, based on what we know so far.
Welfare is always linked to politics, attitudes and regulations based on perceptions of people’s value and deservingness. The Swedish Aliens Act has become more restrictive both in terms of who is admitted, but also based on the support people receive who are physically present but not (yet) admitted by the state i.e. those who lack a residence permit.
One consequence of this restrictive policy is that people who do not have a residence permit are forced to seek support through irregular work to be able to survive in Sweden. For them, even if this means survival in Sweden, it also means a super-exploitation through very low wages and often horrible working conditions. In the long run, this will probably also effect others – deteriorating working conditions spreading like rings on water to people born abroad and within the country.
In concluding, I would like to return to the question about how value and deservingness must be negotiated even by those who do not have a residence permit. The big problem here is the non-admitted children (both undocumented and those being rejected residence permit). Letting children almost starve, denying them even the most basic and minimal forms of financial support, is ideologically difficult to legitimize. Thus, when we hear about “anchor children”, “bearded children”, lack of parental responsibility, ideas on lowering the age limit when children turn into adults, or when the anti-Muslim satirical magazine showed a cartoon about Aylan Kurdi (the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned on his way to Europe) with text suggesting he would have grown up to sexually harass European women, it is, among other things, about removing the image of migrant children as real and worthy of protection like European / Swedish children. It is about being able to justify more restrictive asylum and refugee policies for all, lacking (sufficient) value and deservingness.
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 Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. 1990. The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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