Ultimate outsidership for undocumented in Sweden

Press release
18 May 2012

Sweden is a well-functioning, secure, and efficient welfare country. But without a civic registration number, a person quickly winds up entirely outside of everything associated with this. In her dissertation, human geographer Erika Sigvardsdotter has investigated what it means to be undocumented in Sweden, in a legal and social sense and in an existential sense.

Nearly a year ago a government study (SOU 2011:48) pointed to the need to expand the right of the undocumented to access care in Sweden. It has not yet been circulated for comment. Sweden has ratified a number of international conventions that underline that all people have a right to good health and is therefore obligated to pass legislation in accordance with these conventions. The possibility of accessing care is one area that Erika Sigvardsdotter uses in her dissertation to exemplify what happens when a person is one of a group that is not legally defined in society and does not have a civic registration number.

-       In Sweden the civic registration number is used for virtually everything. For undocumented persons, with no identity that can be used in Swedish society, everything that requires identification—taking a train, picking up a package at the post office, renting a video or an apartment—is next to impossible. The ubiquity of often-computerized administration in Sweden entails that everyday exclusions of the undocumented are more extensive in Sweden than in many other countries, she says.

Officially, the undocumented do not exist; in legal terms they constitute an undefined, residual category but they nevertheless walk among us in Swedish society. This discrepancy is especially clear in the encounter with health care, where their official and administrative non-existence confronts their corporeal existence.

-       The most important obstacle to accessing health care, after a fear of the authorities, is the absence of administrative routines and lack of knowledge among care personnel. The sporadic and often delayed contacts with care have serious health consequences for the undocumented, says Erika Sigvardsdotter.

Her research has focused on what it means to be undocumented—how it is defined and functions legally, administratively, and practically, but also how being undocumented is experienced by the individuals themselves. Beyond the practical and economic problems that arise when a person stands completely outside of society, being undocumented also entails more fundamental political and existential consequences.

They cannot appear in public space and claim the social and economic rights that the rights debate is often about. As soon as they speak out on their own behalf, they run the risk of being identified, detained, and ultimately deported. From a phenomenological point of view, Erika Sigvardsdotter maintains that being undocumented means being cut off from one’s surroundings, which leads to feelings of complete outsidership and alienation.

- It’s difficult and dangerous to be undocumented in Sweden. You are entirely at the mercy of other people’s beneficence and compassion and can be exploited or become the victim of crime without being able to do anything about it. A first important step is to formally recognize their existence. Only then will it be possible to find solutions to the problems that arise when people find themselves caught in the middle of countries’ conflicts, legislation, and politics.

Download the entire dissertation Presenting the Absent – An Account of Undocumentedness in Sweden.

The dissertation will be publicly defended on June 8 at Uppsala University.

For more information, please contact Erika Sigvardsdotter, tel: +46 (0)18-471 73 91, erika.sigvardsdotter@kultgeog.uu.se