Bordering in the pandemic: abandonment and containment

By Maja Sager

The global pandemic is a mirror that reflects back a magnified, high contrast image of the world we live in. The vulnerabilities, inequalities and deficits that were already there are now clearly visible to all: unequal division of unpaid care labour; domestic violence; precarious labour conditions; vulnerability and exploitation in the gig economy; underfinanced and privatised healthcare; the racialization of poverty, of housing, and of access to healthcare. And, as I will focus upon in this post, the vulnerability of migrants from the global South subjected to border control inside the European Union. 

European bordering processes are stretching simultaneously outwards and inwards. Outwards, through processes of externalisation – as the ongoing shift of bordering responsibility to third countries surrounding EU is called – and inwards, through the increased pressure on those migrants that are deemed either undesired or desired only as cheap labour. The inward forms of bordering are reinforced further by the general neoliberal turn and withdrawal of the welfare state, which creates divisions and inequalities that have consequences for migrants but also for structurally disadvantaged citizens. 

Some examples of bordering that put pressure on asylum seekers and precarious labour migrants from outside the EU in most European states today are the temporalisation and conditioning of residence permits, the conditioning of family reunification, shrinking access to welfare services and to social rights. Policy changes provoking this pressure are often explicitly presented as aiming to create ‘incitement’ for migrants to return or not to come in the first place. 

A particularly explicit example is the way in which the British Home Office over the last decade has shaped their approach to asylum seekers and irregularised migrants residing in the country within what Teresa May’s government called a ‘hostile environment’. This hostile environment was created by shrinking the spaces within which migrants could exert a sense of autonomy, community and access to basic welfare services, such as healthcare, housing and education – by withdrawing rights and expanding border control points to welfare institutions. Today, as Yuval-Davis, Wemyss & Cassidy note people working in schools, universities, hospitals and as landlords are often pushed into the position of border guards. 

In Sweden, deportations, limitations of rights and conditioning of residence permits and family reunification have been articulated less through explicitly expressed hostility than through a patronising, allegedly benevolent form of hostility. In 2016, when Swedish migration legislation was severely restricted in the field of asylum and family reunification, the argument was to make Sweden less attractive for refugees. However, despite that explicit aim, the policies are often still presented as being for the benefit of all. As an example, in November 2020, news media reported that around 32 000 applications had been turned down due to the tougher conditions for family reunification, which include a requirement of a secure income and accommodation (P1 Morgon, 2020-11-24). Morgan Johansson, Swedish migration minister, commenting on this, remained positive about the effects on ‘integration’ of these requirements. When asked about people who worried for the safety of their family while being separated from them, the minister answered: ‘Well, then [if one is worried about one’s family] there are even bigger reasons to make sure to establish oneself’ (P1 Morgon 2020-11-24). 

What do these examples of governing through direct or indirect hostility and cynicism have to do with the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, they point towards the extent to which bordering processes in Europe are already happening inside a racist logic of shaping and conditioning migrants’ lives by taking away basic rights, but also by a kind of administrative dehumanisation. This sense of dehumanisation can be defined by the lack of a ‘right to have rights’, and through the exclusion from a political community. This is a central context within which migrants’ and asylum seekers’ experiences of the pandemic need to be understood.  

Johanna Saunders, senior advisor in social rights at the Swedish Red Cross, is working with a project to map the consequences of the pandemic for people in migration. The study consists of interviews conducted during autumn 2020 with the organisation’s own networks: asylum seekers, refused asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and persons with temporary residence permits who are in contact with the Red Cross, as well as employees and active members in local Red Cross groups. The report will come out in early 2021 in Swedish and in English, as a part of a compilation of national studies organized by the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Migration Lab. I talk to Johanna Saunders over a zoom link:

– Could you tell us about the work with the report and share some of the preliminary impression after having conducted the interviews?

– The focus of the Red Cross in general is to support those most vulnerable in situations of catastrophes or crises. People in migration are one such group and we initiated the study because we saw early on in our local groups that the pandemic brought a lot of serious consequences for this group. Initially, when the pandemic started to accelerate, the main problem people in migration had was that they did not get any information, and if they did it would often not be available in their languages. Maybe they ended up only having information from their home countries which then didn’t correspond to the recommendations in Sweden. This generated a lot of worry, of course.

Then, more recently, the main problem has instead been that people don’t have the material conditions in place to be able to follow the regulations. The conditions at reception centres and immigration detention centres haven’t enabled keeping distance or isolating*. Also, a lot of people in migration are homeless, which means most of the recommendation can’t be followed. Even people who live in their own accommodation often lack the conditions for staying safe and isolate. 

The Red Cross’s study has focused mainly on the level of access to basic services for people in migration, aiming at mapping the access to basic support, such as health care, support from welfare authorities, housing. Saunders continues describing the image that has emerged in the interviews with people in migration:

– When it comes to access to health care, there is a lot of worry and a concrete lack of possibilities for testing. Of course, before it started up properly this autumn, testing has been difficult to access for most, but it has been particularly hard for people in migration. Also, now, when the main option is to log on with a bank id to order a self-test, it remains more complicated for those who don’t have a personal id number or easy access to digital services. Even if there exists an option to book a test by phone, it has been harder to get a test that way. Many of the people I talked to are also worried about the vaccination, and we share that worry at the Red Cross – will people in migration get access to the vaccine? 

Why do you think so many groups of migrants have been left outside of the strategies for tackling the pandemic?

– Well, both in Sweden and globally, the migration politics have become extremely restrictive and inhumane over the last years, so then, when a crisis comes, it reinforces that vulnerability in a range of ways. Both the risk of getting the virus and the consequences of the restrictions hit migrants hard. 

In the Swedish context, it is a consequence of the migration policies, like these different forms of legal limbo that many people get caught in, but it is also a consequence of the general dismantling of the public welfare system.

Saunders explains that the study results also point towards secondary effects of the pandemic clashing with already ongoing difficulties for undocumented migrants and refused asylum seekers:

– The pandemic has coincided with an already initiated period of ever stricter assessments of social welfare support to people in migration. Refused asylum seekers have earlier been eligible for social welfare in some municipalities, including Malmö, but over some time the decisions on economic support for subsistence and housing have become increasingly strict. Families that received that support over long stretches of time in Malmö are now suddenly told that they have been around too long and have to leave the country. But social welfare services also reject those who apply for the first time this autumn. When that development coincides with the pandemic it is drawn to its extreme. One could imagine that the social welfare services would lean towards the more generous interpretation of the policies that they have worked with earlier, but instead they press on with these harsher assessments despite the unproportionate consequences!

I have tried to have a dialogue with them and underscore that even if they don’t care about the humanitarian aspects, it is crazy to push people into homelessness in the middle of a pandemic.

Another remarkable phenomenon is the way in which they have handled the situation in detention centres. When the Migration Board had to limit the number of detainees to make the centres safer, they just suddenly let people out – of course I am sure most of them wanted to leave, but it is hard if you are more or less thrown out with no warning, we even heard of events when people had been let out in the middle of the night! And then they haven’t received any support, or valid LMA cards [the kind of temporary id card that asylum seekers get to access health care]. Many of our local Red Cross groups have told us that people suddenly have knocked on their door: “Hello, we have been let out of the detention centre, but we have nowhere to go”.

Another kind of secondary consequences is the general crisis on the labour market created by the pandemic. The growing difficulties to find a job means that it is harder to fulfil criteria for permanent residence permits or family reunification. Unaccompanied minors, in particular, have problems. Many in this group have been included in a special provisional legislation that stipulates they can stay as long as they study or if they find a job right after their studies. Those who study find it difficult to follow online studies if they are homeless or have no computer or internet access. Those looking for a job find it hard when the kinds of jobs normally available are disappearing, like service and restaurant jobs.

Migrants’ and migration rights movements’ responses to the different expressions of hostile environments across Europe consist often in building up alternative and parallel forms of community and support. Social centres, meeting points, language cafes, informal housing venues, etcetera work as spots for community building, information exchange, places to reload and plan the next step or just rest or have fun. Another worry with the pandemic is that those kinds of initiatives become limited due to guidelines restricting meetings in larger groups or close down during lockdowns. In this sense the pandemic risks causing even more isolation and precarity. I ask Johanna Saunders if she has noticed this shift in Malmö and she confirms this general image:

– Yes, many of these meeting places are closed. Normally there is a network of organisations we can direct people to if they want to get support or organise, but now many places are closed or have very limited accessibility.

Have people managed to counter this problem and get together anyway in safe ways?

– Well yes, many organisations are aware of how important the meeting places are and try not to close completely. Digitalisation has been one way to stay in touch, another has been to arrange activities outside. Red Cross has moved its homework support project online and several unaccompanied minors have continued attending in that format as well. But of course, digitalisation comes with many limitations in terms of access and what you can do. We have tried to reorganise activities aimed at assisting people with basic needs, like providing food, so that one has to book an individual appointment and these are spread out over the day. That takes away the element of collective social space, but at least enables people to stay in touch individually.

Will the report suggest any specific strategies?

– Well, again, the elements of strict asylum and migration regulation is a given background and often the root cause, but we address those issues in other reports – they are always at the core of our local work – so in this report it will be more of concrete recommendations in relation to the pandemic. It will deal with providing for basic needs by the social services, like a daily allowance, somewhere to stay, access to testing and vaccination. 

I think it is also important to just be loud and push on about this. I was in touch with the public health authorities already in the spring. Then they seemed to be a bit taken by surprise, like ‘oops, didn’t think about that’. But now migrants, including undocumented migrants, have been explicitly included in the instructions for crisis support that was just launched. 

What was most surprising to you when you were conducting these interviews?

– I realized that it is those who are or have been in the asylum system that describe the most negative effects of the pandemic. But we also talked to some migrants who never applied for asylum, they live and work irregularly in Sweden, and some of them described that the pandemic didn’t have so big consequences on them. Don’t misunderstand me, it is mainly because they had already lived in a situation characterized by precarity so they didn’t see a big difference, but it also seems to be that those who live more kind of outside of the radar of the migration authorities are somehow less at risk right now. The very institutions, the accommodation and detention centres, are places where many people have felt exposed and worried about the virus – and unable to take control of their own safety. For those outside of all that it might be easier in some ways.

Migrants are often exposed to unsafe spaces and left without the conditions necessary to follow the Covid-19 regulations. One could understand this state as a politics of abandonment – a politics in which it becomes an inescapable reality that some lives are less cared for. But it is also pertinent to talk about a politics of containment – a politics in which being placed within certain categories in relation to border control can mean being placed in a net of structures and regulations that circumscribe one’s autonomy in a range of ways. These categories of migrants are not only ignored and abandoned, but also held back and stuck in places of risk. 

*For additional information on the situation in Swedish migration detention centres see Asylkommissionen’s report in Swedish here and blog post in English here


December 8, 2020

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