Institutional encounters by non-citizens in the Nordic welfare state – a dialogue

By Valter Sandell-Maury and Liselott Sundbäck.

How is access to the Nordic welfare state services navigated and negotiated by non-citizens? What is the role of social workers and other street-level bureaucrats when delivering these services? As two PhD students exploring the contemporary welfare state regimes in Finland and Sweden, we ask how migration policy is created and delivered by social workers and other state employees on the ground. Our aim with this blogpost is to elaborate on emerging questions about the Nordic welfare states. We chose to write the post as a dialogue, highlighting the similarities and differences in our approaches. Valter comes from a social work stance and Liselott from a social policy one.

Valter: The Nordic welfare state model has been characterised as universalist and comprehensive. The residence-based model is widely understood as egalitarian in the sense that it does not overtly distinguish between citizens and legally residing non-citizens in terms of social welfare entitlements. However, obtaining legal status does not guarantee a secure position, as immigration law creates different legal statuses, some of which are precarious (Könönen 2018). This suggests that we need to go beyond the dichotomous understanding of inclusion and exclusion of non-citizens in the Nordic welfare state, and towards a graded understanding of the hierarchisation of rights. Goldring and Landolt (2013) picture the residence permit system as comprising ‘chutes and ladders’, where one can climb upwards towards a more secure position or slide downwards to illegality.

Liselott: Yes, I agree, and current migration research also discusses the neoliberal turns and welfare chauvinism within the Nordic welfare state (Keskinen 2016) and shows how bureaucratic violence (Näre 2020) is present in the everyday life of asylum seekers. Within Nordic migration policy accessing services and benefits requires numerous institutional encounters, institutional discourses and a certain form of dependency on the welfare system. Counselling, benefits and services are often tied to interaction with street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 2010), such as personnel at the employment offices or municipal immigration offices. As Lipsky (2010) suggests, institutions carrying out street-level bureaucracy are to some extent structurally similar despite performing unrelated and diverse work task. It is the action and positioning of these street-level bureaucrats that I am trying to understand better in my research, as well as the trajectory, created through state migration policy, that leads to a form of dependency on both the institutions involved in ‘integration’ work and the actions and discretion of the street-level bureaucrat.

Valter: Social work research sheds light on what kind of challenges these encounters between undocumented migrants and social workers in the Nordic welfare state evoke (Cuadra 2018, Jönsson 2015, Nordling and Persdotter 2021). The tension between social work ethics, emphasizing social justice and equality, and undocumented migrants’ exclusion from social services and rights raises pressing questions about how social workers can assist undocumented clients who turn to social services when in need.

Meanwhile, less scholarly attention has been given to the kind of challenges that different legal statuses among non-citizens produces, as the type of legal status can affect their social entitlements. It is valuable to broaden the picture of how immigration law and controls create challenges for social work practice that go beyond the dichotomous understanding of legally residing non-citizens and undocumented migrants. We should look towards a critical inquiry of how the diversification of legal statuses affects social work practice, and how social workers both reproduce and challenge these inequalities.

Liselott: I believe that the study of institutional encounters as part of migration governance in the Nordic welfare states of Sweden and Finland can benefit from a particular focus on trust and distrust. We know that the level of trust in Nordic states is high among both citizens and recently arrived migrants (Andreasson, 2017; Bäck and Kestilä-Kekkonen 2019; Holmberg and Rothstein, 2020; Nannestad et al. 2013; Pitkänen et al. 2019) but we know little about how trust and distrust is experienced and shaped through what I call the series of institutional encounters present in the everyday life of forced migrants. Multiple institutional meetings are needed to access the welfare state, with regards to guidance, permits and benefits.

What interests me is both a top-down and bottom-up perspective of how trust is enacted in these encounters as narrated by the experiences of both young, forced migrants (as clients) and street-level bureaucrats (as representatives of institutions). In order to understand this better we have to scrutinise the shaping of trust from various angles, such as its characteristics, context, timing and power asymmetries.

While trust is a strong narrative for the Nordic welfare state, I would argue that the notion of trust is also a means of migration governance with street-level bureaucrats striving to create trust in order to steer the migrants towards ‘integration measures’ such as employment and education.

Valter: Likewise, we need to look closely at how social workers actually carry out their role on the ground. Critical social work scholarship has stressed that the ethical principles of social work should work as the guiding star of social work practice. This rallying cry for a de-politicisation of social work is, of course, important as it stresses that social work should stand with the precarious, the poor and the disadvantaged. However, the emphasis on the ethical principles of social work and the portrayal of social workers as social activists rather than street-level bureaucrats risks essentialising them as morally good or as activists by nature. But rather than just focusing on what social workers ‘should do’ (for a critique of social work see Maylea 2021), or how the ethical principles of social work should be followed in practice, it is also important to investigate how social workers use discretion in their work with migrants of precarious status in a way that might reproduce injustices.

Liselott: Exactly, that is also what I see in my research on trust and distrust: the positioning of the social worker, or other street-level bureaucrats, in using their discretion is crucial for trust shaping. Maynard-Moody and Musheno (2000) argue that the street-level bureaucrats’ work is characterised by a dichotomy – they are either an agent of the state or an agent of the citizen. But I would argue that it is much more dynamic than this, with their individual discretion playing a key role in how they position themselves between state and citizen or, when also including non-citizens, the individual. I elaborate on this in more detail in my research on street-level bureaucracy in Finland and Sweden.

So, what we argue is that in order to understand how migration policy is ‘made’ in the contemporary Nordic welfare state more focus needs to be put on the series of institutional encounters between social workers and migrants, and the actions of street-level bureaucrats.

Valter Sandell-Maury is a PhD candidate in social work at Malmö University in Sweden. He is affiliated with the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM) at Malmö University and with The Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN) at the University of Helsinki.

Liselott Sundbäck is a PhD student in social policy at Åbo Akademi University in Finland. Her research focuses on forced migration and institutional encounters in Finland and Sweden. She is also a short-term visiting PhD student at the Division of Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) in Sweden.

MMB works in collaboration with the Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM). During March-June 2022, MMB Director Bridget Anderson was based at MIM as the Malmö City Guest Professor in Migration Studies.

Image: Flags in Helsingborg by Lars Strandberg on Flickr.

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