‘Hiding in Plain Sight’: Daily Strategies and Fear Management among Undocumented Refugee Children in Sweden

‘Hiding in Plain Sight’: Daily Strategies and Fear Management among Undocumented Refugee... Abstract Undocumented refugee children live a paradoxical existence, excluded from the right to remain in Sweden while at the same time holding formal rights to education and health. Building on long-term ethnographic research with 19 undocumented children aged 6 to 17, my analysis shows that children carry a pivotal role in hiding their own and the family’s whereabouts and migration status. The concept of invisibility is used to explain the political and social forces at play in relation to which undocumented refugee children attempt to hide ‘in plain sight’. To maintain social invisibility, I suggest, children must work out whom to reveal their undocumented refugee status to, in both close and distant social relationships. The issue of undocumented migrant children’s access to human rights within the local authority is discussed, as well as children’s active role in contributing to and transforming the undocumented migration situation. Introduction This article examines the paradoxical existence of undocumented refugee children who are excluded from the right to remain in Sweden while at the same time holding formal rights to education and health. ‘Undocumented refugee children’ in this article refers to rejected asylum seekers who reside unlawfully on the territory and hide from authorities to avoid deportation. They were accompanied by their parents and had lived several years without contact with authorities and welfare services, maintaining livelihoods through informal networks and labour (to whom they were highly visible). The difference between a rejected asylum seeker and an undocumented refugee is that a refused asylum seeker is permitted to remain on the territory in which he or she claimed asylum until the migration authorities have declared the stay illegal under the EU returns directive (EU Dir 2008/115). The latter case refers to study participants. In view of the increasing criminalization of ‘illegal migrants’ in the EU, it should be noted that, juridically and ethically, an act can be legal or illegal but not the person. Moreover, residing in the EU on an undocumented basis is not a criminal offence, but an infraction of administrative regulations (EC 2006, Resolution 1509). Nonetheless, undocumented refugees’ everyday lives are shaped by ‘deportability’—the constant threat of deportation, even if not immediate or acute (de Genova 2002). For many undocumented migrants, invisibility constitutes a survival resource—a ‘weapon of the weak’ (Scott 1985) in the attempt to hide and obscure identities and activities outlawed by the state or other powerful institutions (Polzer and Hammond 2008). Based on social anthropological research, I analyse the complex nature of refugee children’s efforts to remain invisible in their communities, while their everyday survival depends on the good will of others. I seek to contribute to a wider understanding of the ‘shrinking space of asylum’ (Eastmond and Ascher 2011) and human rights issues affecting undocumented refugee children, as well as help attune responses from the practitioners and voluntary actors who encounter them. I use the concept of invisibility to explain the political and social forces at play in relation to which undocumented refugee children attempt to hide ‘in plain sight’ (see Carter 2010). I begin by positioning my argument within the ethnographic literature on undocumented migrant children and discussing in more detail the extent to which children know about, disclose and seek to change and maintain their hidden and marginal situations. Thereafter, I outline a theoretical framework of political and social invisibility, arguing that the deportability regime and the construction of childhoods in ‘child-friendly states’ constitute two political spaces (Durham 2000) that reify and obscure undocumented childhoods. I then place these political spaces in relation to the Swedish political and social context. After a brief presentation of methodological and ethical issues, I present the ethnographic material illustrating how children’s unique position often entails added fears and risks to those experienced by adult undocumented migrants. Earlier Research on Undocumented Migrant Childhoods The existence of undocumented migrant children within nation states is well established (PICUM 2008; Meloni et al. 2014); however, there is little research evidence on what the undocumented migration status entails for children in their day-to-day life (Sigona and Hughes 2012; Lind 2016). Based on the view of children as active social agents who ‘contribute to, transform and influence the situation and environments in which they find themselves’ (Eyber and Ager 2004: 190), it becomes essential to put children’s own responses to their vulnerable situations firmly at the centre of the research inquiry. In this way, questions of ‘what is power’ and how children are included or excluded from rights can be examined in relation to children’s lives ‘on the ground’ (Durham 2000). However, the bulk of research with undocumented migrants has concerned adults (e.g. McNevin 2006; Willen 2007; de Genova 2010; Khosravi 2010; Anderson 2014), or has focused on the level of legal and policy analysis (Ruiz-Caseres 2010; Meloni et al. 2014). In the latter area of research, children are described as ‘invisible victims of immigration restrictions’ (PICUM 2008) who hold an indefinite position between legality and illegality, citizenship and non-citizenship, with little power of leverage to claim the ‘right to have rights’ (Meloni et al. 2014). But, given their precarious status and limited access to goods and services, how do children survive? One answer is that, to sustain livelihood, children and their families must expose themselves to certain persons in the local community (Malkki 1995). Ethnographic studies show that (in)visibility of undocumented migrant children is highly dependent on national and local contexts (Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Mann 2010) and is often a matter of who undocumented migrants are invisible to and in what situations (Polzer 2008; Sigvardsdotter 2012). In the United States and the United Kingdom, undocumented migrant children appear to be largely unaware of the condition of illegality as long as their parents are working in the irregular economy (Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Sigona and Hughes 2012; Lind 2016). In some contexts, therefore, the undocumented migration status can sometimes be hidden to children themselves. However, there are variations within federal states and local communities; children may also be aware of their unauthorized status and attempt to conceal it to others (Dreby 2015). Lind (2016) maintains that children assert political agency in taking direct action to find out the full extent of their undocumented migration status and, as they become aware of their deportability, they reject this subject position. In Tanzania, Mann (2010) shows that both adults and children employ ‘strategies of invisibility’ to live as unobtrusively as possible. Congolese refugee children are ‘hyper-visible’ as camp refugees in Tanzania, but strive to be invisible as self-settled refugees in towns to access necessities such as food, safe water, shelter, health care and schooling. Some children sell sex to bribe teachers to keep their secret identity and to pay for tuition fees (Mann 2010). Thus, these studies show that some undocumented migrant children live in extremely volatile situations and with an acute sense of threat of discovery, while, in other national contexts, the exclusion from rights can come suddenly when children reach adulthood or the family’s economic circumstances change (Gonzales and Chavez 2012). This brief overview on research about undocumented migrant childhoods points towards a recurrent theme of power relations, inclusion and exclusion in nation states. I suggest that the concept of invisibility is at the core of such dynamics of power. Theorizing (In)Visibility As a theoretical starting point, I position my discussion in relation to existing literature on (in)visibility, since, as I will show later, this concept catches the central observations I made of children’s everyday lives. Brighenti’s (2010) assertion that ‘the visible is not one of nature but of degree’ is fruitful in the analysis of undocumented migrant children who are visible to some sectors of society, but not others. The analysis of social and political invisibility is thus concerned with the partiality of perspectives in research, policy and sociological constructs (Polzer and Hammond 2008). One such issue relates to sites and categories that become reified and ‘spectacular’ areas of concern both on a global scale and within the welfare state. Sites of border policing and the categorization of refugees on the ‘migration cycle’ from departure to journey to settlement (Koser 2016) are well-known examples that have diverted attention away from an informal workforce within the nation state (Anderson 2014; de Genova 2015) and urban destitute, stateless children in the richer nations of the world (Fernqvist 2011; Montgomery 2013). Other issues of partial analysis regard the interpretations and framing of refugee children’s vulnerabilities in relation to mental health and psycho-social wellbeing (Watters 2008), to the exclusion (or limited analysis) of children’s social status as a determinant of childhood survival and wellbeing (Boyden 1994). Categorizations and statistical presentations of ‘people of concern’ on a global scale divert attention away from the vast majority of displaced persons who are not officially accounted for (Vollmer 2008). To understand the paradox of invisibility, we need to look at the kinds of political spaces children participate in, and how that participation comes to challenge, defer or even disrupt other political or social spaces (Durham 2000). We need also to understand changes over time and the ethnographic context and setting. For discussion, the political spaces refer here to the ‘deportation regime’, state governance and legal production of undocumented migrants and constructions of ‘safe’ childhoods in ‘child-friendly’ states. Below, I account for these political spaces in turn, suggesting that they bring certain characteristics of undocumented migrant children out of, or partially into, view. The ‘Deportation Regime’ and ‘Child-Friendly States’ The state and its administrative institutions have powers to manifest a ‘state of invisibility for specific categories of persons in a given space, location, time or position’ (Carter 2010: xxvi). The most obvious way in which this takes place in the present article and in the lives of undocumented migrants is the immigrant-receiving nation’s project of defining who belongs in terms of residence permit and according to what criteria (Shachar 2011). The asylum-determination process at its core ‘is part of the exclusion of the many through the inclusion of the few’ (Lundberg and Lind 2017: 17). Research shows that children’s rights come at the expense of upholding the violent system of the ‘deportation regime’, such as state practices aiming to separate out children who should be deported (Peutz and de Genova 2010; Lundberg and Lind 2017). Rather than presenting a story of an increasing population of ‘illegal’ migrants as a result of increased ‘migration flows’, and a ‘sorting’ of the deserving and righteous migrants from the non-deserving (Shachar 2011), the phenomenon of undocumented migration is a consequence of the power of the state to ‘create’ such groups (de Genova 2015). In Sweden as well as in many other richer nations, the poor, the homeless and the stateless child is often thought to be taken care of by an imagined ‘child-friendly state’ (Giner 2007; Fernqvist 2011), because of the comparatively generous welfare benefits to children and families, and its international reputation of championing children’s rights in general and refugee children’s rights in particular (Eastmond and Ascher 2011). Less is known about the shrinking space of asylum rights and the lower welfare benefits that asylum-seeker families are granted compared to the general population (Abiri 2000). Moreover, the asylum-determination system can be biased towards ‘rejecting’ asylum-seeker children (Lundberg 2011), and often fails to hear and consider refugee children themselves (Ottosson and Lundberg 2013). The domestic sphere of the family home and the school are commonly perceived as given and safe places for children to spend their childhood (Ennew 2001). Adults are seen as the unequivocal providers of a suitable upbringing for children (Panter-Brick 2000). Thus, certain groups of children and childhood issues come to be ‘spectacular’ and obvious areas of intervention, including ‘street children’, orphans and refugees, while other groups of disadvantaged children, such as stateless children and children living in poverty in rich countries, come to receive less attention (Wells and Montgomery 2014). Below, I expand on the Swedish sociopolitical context that further have a bearing on the (in)visibility of undocumented refugee children’s lives. The Swedish Sociopolitical Context I suggest that there are five aspects specific to the Swedish sociopolitical context that impinge on undocumented migrant children’s everyday lives. First, the law specifies that undocumented migrant children have the right to education, health and medical care (Sweden 2012a, 2012b). While these formal rights present a more favourable position than undocumented migrant children have in many other countries, children access these rights at the risk of discovery of their undocumented status (Jönsson 2014). Second, children can spend the better part of their childhood with an unresolved migration status that limits the extent to which they can remain anonymous within the local community. Current policy holds that, after four years of no contact with authorities, the asylum claim case is closed and a new one can be opened (Sweden 2005). In a revolving process of seeking asylum, receiving refusal, living in hiding and seeking asylum again, children and families establish links within local communities in relation to which their invisibility is partial (Khosravi 2010). Third, one of the main difficulties in being anonymous in Sweden is that virtually every kind of public or other service in which a child needs to register to participate (school, leisure, sports, cultural activities, libraries, etc.) requires formal identification. This is linked to the Swedish national population register, in which every citizen is given a personnummer (civic registration number) at birth (Swedish Tax Agency 2017). Undocumented refugee children have no formal identification. For them, the civic registration number functions as a surveillance mechanism if refugees are apprehended without it at the wrong place and time, together with the more formal internal border controls under the Schengen agreement and the Swedish policy developments in its aftermath (Sigvardsdotter 2012). Fourth, increased police efforts to find and deport undocumented refugees have made it increasingly difficult to hide away from authorities (Lind and Persdotter 2017). There is evidence of new and increasingly effective methods by the police to track and find rejected asylum seekers, such as requests of contact details of undocumented migrants to social services and landlords (Lind and Persdotter 2017). Officially, the police policy is not to arrest children in schools and shadow them on their way to school, but there is no law prohibiting them to do so, and schools and children’s rights organizations report that this has taken place (Stockholms Stadsmission 2014). Five, to maintain social invisibility in many instances involves dimensions of racialized identity. Passing as ‘Swedish’—a definition that may differ between individuals, but may include identity markers associated with ‘foreignness’, inequality and segregation—has become increasingly important (Hübinette and Lundström 2014). The difference between the physical concept of ‘race’ and the cultural concept of ethnicity has become conflated and white privilege is maintained despite deeply rooted social democratic values, official anti-racism and progressive policies of gender equality (Hübinette and Lundström 2014). Persons who belong to a ‘non-Swedish’ minority, look non-European, talk with a foreign accent and have a non-Swedish name are likely to be treated with suspicion in public places, in shops, in contact with the police and when applying for a job (Hällgren 2005). In relation to the context outlined above, to maintain social invisibility, children must work out whom to reveal their undocumented refugee status to, in both close and distant social relationships. To not draw attention to the ways in which they differ, they participate in social activities, but only partially so. Methodology and Ethical Issues The article is based on anthropological research and thematic analysis, using ethnographic research techniques of long-term fieldwork, participatory observation, informal conversations and interviewing (Robben & Sluka 2006; Okely 2011). I also used participatory and child-led research techniques to adjust methodology to the individual child’s preferences of expression and to approach the research topic with caution and sensitivity (Hart 1997). These included children’s drawings, writing, children’s own short films that illustrated and narrated their situations and participatory photo interviewing (Jorgensen and Sullivan 2010). I invited children to take photographs of various aspects of their lives that made them feel happy, sad, angry and safe. The photographs were used in interviews to explore children’s subjective meaning of the images (Svensson et al. 2009; Jorgensen and Sullivan 2010). The article is based on 18 months’ fieldwork among undocumented refugee children living in west Sweden, between September 2012 and July 2013 and intermittently in 2014. Participants and Data Access to research participants was entirely dependable on voluntary and informal networks and inevitably affected the sample size and demographics. Therefore, participants were recruited during the entire fieldwork period. The research includes nine families, 29 individuals in total, of whom 19 where children between 6 and 17 years of age. There were 11 boys and eight girls. Ten informants were parents or guardians. Research participants came from Kosovo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Sri Lanka. During fieldwork, the families had lived in Sweden between three to eight years. I conducted individual interviews and informal conversations with 16 of the children and eight adults (parents or guardians). Over time, I built up case studies of 10 children whom I pursued in greater depth. I stayed in contact with these individuals during the whole fieldwork period, visiting their homes several times. There were 53 interviews in total (46 child interviews and seven parent interviews) in separate sets. The interviews lasted between 30 minutes to 1.5 hours and were recorded when participants gave consent, and transcribed verbatim. In most cases, the research participants preferred not to be recorded on tape. This was an issue I did not question or pursue, out of respect for that individual’s choice (AAA 1986). However, it was likely to relate to the individuals’ subjective risk assessment and strategies. In most cases, therefore, detailed notes were taken during the interview and transcribed as closely as possible afterwards. Children and adults in the present article self-reported fluency and comfort in spoken Swedish and did not require interpreters. The initial ‘inclusion criteria’ and recruitment related to children who were accompanied by their parents and had overstayed their right to remain in Sweden and the EU following a ‘return decision’ by the Swedish Migration Agency (Sweden 2005). However, rigid reliance on formal categorization quickly became redundant in the field (Bakewell 2008) since participants’ migration status changed over time. At the point of first contact, all participating children lived in hiding. Since fieldwork took place over a relatively long period of time, some families ended their time in hiding (after a four-year period) during the research, to seek asylum again. Ethical Concerns The central research question concerned children’s experiences of ‘deportability’ and daily strategies in response to their situation. These are extremely sensitive issues to research (Hugman et al. 2011). Issues of trust, ensuring safety and minimizing risks are central to both methodology and ethical concerns and influence the nature and kind of data that can be gathered and presented (AAA 1986). The study obtained ethical approval by the regional ethical review board. Given the precarious situation of participants, it was important to go beyond the minimum, universal ethical requirements (Düvell et al. 2009). Researching and presenting people who have chosen (or are rather forced to) ‘disappear’ involve risks of alerting authorities to ways in which rules are circumvented, and thereby reducing ‘the space for life-saving creativity and flexibility in remaining invisible’ (Polzer and Hammond 2008: 418). Considering these potential yet serious risks, undocumented refugees may have more to lose than gain in taking part of research. Though I approached participants through trusted contacts, I was a stranger and only gradually, through our unfolding relationship and dialogue, could they come to trust that I would conduct and disseminate the research in ways that did not expose them. Informed consent, therefore, was not a finite, one-off instance beginning and ending with a signed form, but an unfolding process based on mutual understanding and trust. It was necessary to hold continuous dialogues with both adults and children around ethical conduct in/of the research (Hugman et al. 2011) and what constituted the most inconspicuous manners and places to meet. I paid special attention to children’s social position of (in)visibility, which was inherently different to adults’, regarding both assessment of risk and power relative to the researcher (Punch 2002). In collecting data, I did not press for identifying details around a person, the trajectory into undocumented migration, life-history events or significant historical events and places if respondents did not volunteer them. Similarly, in presenting the research material, I have omitted and/or altered identifying details and descriptions around individual respondents. I chose children’s pseudonyms and asked for the children’s approval of them. The research was funded by the Children’s Welfare Foundation Sweden and the Public health committee of Region Västra Götaland. Findings From Rejected Asylum Seeker to Undocumented Refugee The first theme I want to discuss is how children experienced the transition from being an asylum seeker, and as such ‘visible’ and ‘in the system’, to going into hiding and entering social invisibility. Most of the research participants described the period of going into hiding as extremely fearful and dramatic, and depending on the goodwill of civilian ‘helpers’ to find housing and sustain their livelihood. On the one hand, and for some children, going into hiding meant literally ‘hiding away’. This was especially true for parents and children who moved from the place where they had lived during the asylum-determination process, to other areas or parts of Sweden where they had a contact who would help them go ‘underground’. Often, children of these families did not initially go to school and, since school is ordinarily the place where children in Sweden spend their day, these undocumented children stayed indoors in the home to not raise suspicion from outsiders. Lena, mother of two children, related how her children used to watch other children go to school through the window: ‘They would ask me, “mum why can’t we go to school”, and I replied, “Our situation is different, people will wonder who we are”.’ On the other hand, and for other children, the transition from ‘refused asylum seeker’ to an undocumented refugee meant entering an acute state of poverty and loss of protection under the law, rather than change in place. Both categories of children, however, described that becoming undocumented meant the loss of grant money from the Migration Agency and subsequently entering a life into poverty. Ali, a 17-year-old boy, explained the transition in these terms: ‘It is not that we went into “hiding” …. Rather, we no longer had money. We lived in the same place though and we kept doing the same things.’ Some children also explained how becoming undocumented meant they themselves were forced to work to support the family. Sofia, 13 years of age, said: ‘Because we had no money I too had to work. I worked for people who treated me like an animal.’ Sofia also talked about the sense of shame of living in overcrowded and poor conditions: We live in a house of twenty square meters and the problems of living with many people are you can’t move about very much and it is almost never quiet. You can’t bring a friend home as you would like because you feel shame that the house is so small. Mehmed, 15 years of age, also talked about a sense of shame to show his poverty to friends: My friends have been to my house, but I feel ashamed of what it looks like. We go to their places instead, but I can’t do that all the time. They treat me to things, but I don’t always let them, since I can’t give back. I make up excuses for why we can’t go to my place. ‘Let’s go to his place instead’, I say. To those who do not know me very well I say: ‘I’ve got that game and stuff’, even though I don’t. Over time, parents often drew on personal contacts to find ways to send their children to school. At school, the nature of their invisibility became social rather than ‘physical’. They became preoccupied with daily strategies to manage exposure. Fear became central to these interactions, and whether or not, and the extent to which, they engaged in social life. ‘Embodied’ Fear and Anonymity among Strangers Children were acutely aware of their ‘deportability’ in the sense that they identified multiple situations every day that led to a risk of being identified as undocumented refugees. On closer review, children described a range of risks and fears. Children talked about an ongoing, ‘embodied’ unease that was integral to the undocumented status. Willen (2007) describes how undocumented migrants in Israel applied ‘bodily vigilance’ and ‘somatic modes of attention’ (Csordas 1993) in relation to the threat of discovery by authorities. These terms are apt also to describe children’s sense of constant fear in the present research. Fia, 11 years old, described this sense of threat in terms of ‘clothes you cannot take off. You always wear them’. As children often lived in overcrowded places and on informal rental contracts, this sense of risk also related to the home. Douglas, 11 years of age, described a sense of being on ‘constant alert’ in the home and that his parents reminded him to be calm and quiet: If my brother and I fight or something, mum and dad will tell us to keep quiet and not make noise. The woman who lives above us might alert the landlord or the police if she thinks something is wrong. The strategies children used were to ‘check themselves’ to behave in ways that would make them as unremarkable as possible. This could be to greet people briefly in the housing estate’s flight of stairs, but not in encounters close to the home, where they would look to the ground and try to pass unnoticed. Thus, a level of anonymity appeared to be possible and desirable in relation to the fears children carried in and around their homes. Similar to Wells’s (2005) analysis of children’s constructions of strangers in their urban local area, children in this research identified strangers who were unknown and not incorporated into their networks of trusted neighbours and friends. At school, however, children often sustained long-running social relationships with class mates, which meant they had to develop different strategies altogether. Maintaining absolute anonymity became impossible. Here, they became carriers of big secrets. Children’s Unique Position—Carriers of Secrets In Malkki’s (1995) research among Hutu refugees in Tanzania, individuals applied ‘strategies of invisibility’ to hide their migration status from people in the local population. Such strategies entailed constructing multiple identities to circumvent official declaration of personal legal status and avoiding involvement with strangers (Malkki 1995). Children in the present research conducted themselves in a similar manner, but their childhood status placed them in a unique position in contrast to adults. They were expected to make friends and do the same things as other children did. Such expectations and conduct gave rise to a more intense sense of risk than the ‘embodied’ fear children carried in relation to strangers. It also required ever more creative strategies. Since they could not be entirely anonymous with friends, they sought to hide the secret of their undocumented identity instead. While they attempted to keep this secret, peers would ask them why their names did not appear on the class register or why they did not attend school-photo day. On the question of how he managed such questions, Douglas said: When they ask why I am not on the class register, I usually try to laugh and make a joke of it. Like, I say I’m anonymous. Then they say, ‘oh’ and laugh. Older children (from 14 years or so) sometimes let their closest friends in on their secret migration status. Mehmed described his closest friendships as based on mutual trust and understanding: ‘I have three best friends. We help and trust each other. Those three are the only ones who know that I don’t have a permit.’ Anticipated and Unanticipated Risks Children talked about anticipated risks such as the questions from peers above. To these questions, children tried to have ready-made and prepared answers. Sometimes, however, questions or events took them by surprise and were unforeseeable. On such occasions, children sometimes succeeded in averting risks by making split-second choices. Elsa, for instance, was six years of age when she noticed that a man was shadowing her on her way home from school. Elsa instantly changed her route to go to her friend’s house instead. A distinction between strategies and tactics is helpful here (Boyd and Mitchell 2016). Strategies denote acts children carry out to handle predictable risks, while tactics refer to children’s efforts to deal with the unforeseen. The latter situations demand a heightened level of creativity and tactical agency (Honwana 2005). Children’s instantaneous judgement calls did not, of course, always work out. In unguarded moments, children could reveal things about themselves that put them at risk. Douglas and his family once decided that it was safe enough for him to take part in school-photo day. In the event, Douglas felt relaxed and, when the photographer asked him about his home address, Douglas stated the address out loud without thinking. He then felt fearful and panicky, worrying that he had jeopardized his family’s safety. Douglas’s and his family’s worst fear did not transpire as a result of his action, but payment slips for the class photographs were posted to their home address on a few occasions, all of which led to much worry and anxiety. Herein lies a third level of fear yet more acute and serious than the ‘embodied’ fear and the ‘intense’ fears in social relations above. The most acute sense of fear concerned situations in which children and adults felt so near to being discovered and/or arrested by police that they were convinced ‘all was lost’. In such situations, no strategy could be resorted to, except hoping for the best. For example, Nicklas, seven years of age, related that, when he was five years old and went to preschool, a policeman came walking towards the school. He quickly locked himself in the toilets, where he cried and dreaded that the police had come to take him and his family. Douglas related also how he once cut his head badly whilst at a swimming pool. He had to go to the emergency unit in an ambulance. Upon the question of what he most dreaded in that situation, he said: My worst fear was not the pain, the bleeding or that they would stitch me up, but that the doctors would ask me about my civic registration number, and that they would report us to the police. Children’s ability to achieve anonymity and invisibility differed between larger towns and small-scale communities, and at which point in the undocumented refugee process they arrived in a new town, residential area or school. Hannah lived in a village in which she said everybody knew each other. Her family had moved to the town simply because a helper had found the family a place to live. Hannah had told the villagers that her family had moved there because of her father’s employment, but he now had a long-term illness and therefore stayed at home. This story, Hannah said, was one that she ‘lived by’. But, one evening, upholding this story came to a sudden and real test. After a get-together with friends, a girlfriend, whose father was a police officer, insisted on visiting Hannah’s house. Hannah decided that, if she kept saying no to the friend, this would only raise more suspicion and curiosity. ‘And that is exactly what happened,’ Hannah explained to me. ‘She visited, saw how we lived, and there were no more questions asked.’ However, a contact of the family, Hugo, did not trust Hannah’s risk assessment and the way she dealt with it. Rather, he believed that it was ‘natural’ in Sweden that people kept to themselves and there was no duty on anyone to invite people if they did not want to. He was of the view that Hannah risked everything in inviting the policeman’s daughter home. Hannah’s analysis was different—she needed to disappear in plain sight. Passing for a ‘Swede’ The perception of risks differed between families, depending on the residence area in which they lived. Children often expressed that they felt safer in culturally diverse areas and schools because they felt they did not stick out as much as ‘non-Swedes’. While all children in the research went to school, and learned Swedish, parents often spent time at home or in cash-in-hand servile work and had fewer opportunities to learn Swedish well. Children thus became socially integrated, while parents often remained outside social environments. Parents maintained that it was harder for them to pass as ‘Swedes’ than their children. This became a particular concern to adults in 2013 when the border police stepped up efforts to find undocumented refugees. Rumours about the police’s whereabouts spread on social media forums and within networks. At the time of fieldwork, the helper to a family from Kosovo suggested that the family could almost ‘pass for being Swedish’ since they were ‘white’. But he was concerned that the mother put some more effort into ‘looking Swedish’ to diminish the risk of detection in public places. The mother said: To look more Swedish, I make sure I always look smart, wear makeup and fashionable clothes. I tell my children not to talk Albanian to me in public and I don’t talk to them in Swedish outside the home because of my accent and not in Albanian either if I feel we are being watched. Though the idea of being white is a primary signifier of ‘Swedishness’ (Hübinette and Lundström 2014), there is a hierarchy of whiteness in the present context in which affluence, accent and southern or eastern European looks are also markers of difference. In the aggressive search for undocumented refugees described above, fear and perceived markers of ‘non-Swedishness’ become increasingly current in the daily lives of undocumented refugees in Sweden. Discussion and Implications Why is it that undocumented refugee children can often succeed in hiding in plain sight within their communities? To answer this question, I suggest that children hide their real-life circumstances in relation to several regimes of ‘visibility’ (Brighenti 2010) that are current in the Swedish political and cultural context. Invisibility is in this article a question of power relations between the ‘seer’ and the ‘seen’, but also of the partiality of any perspective of enquiry (Polzer 2008). The most powerful ‘seer’ is the deportability regime—the state power to remove undocumented migrants from the territory (Peutz and de Genova 2010). To avoid this type of voyeurism, children carve out non-descript identities of themselves that are not part of the ‘border spectacle’ (de Genova 2015) or ‘child abandonment’ interventions and ideologies (Panter-Brick 2000). Rather, children position themselves in relation to ordinary urban childhoods that take place in family homes and local schools. The second regime of invisibility thus concerns Sweden’s self-image of a ‘child-friendly state’, in which the social democratic welfare system takes care of poor, oppressed and abused children (Eastmond and Ascher 2011; Fernqvist 2011). Accessing their right to education, however, is as much a possibility for children as a source of threat and (sense of) deportability. The childhoods in the present research are not ‘safe’, but presenting themselves as such becomes a key strategy. Without their active participation and ‘maintenance’ activities, deceiving neighbours, peers and others becomes difficult. In this way, undocumented refugee children sustain and transform the undocumented situation and are not mere ‘hangers-on’ to adults who hide them. A third regime of invisibility concerns the Swedish self-perception that racism takes place elsewhere (Pred 2000). However, as we have seen, undocumented refugee children and families are at pains to position themselves as ‘assimilated’ and to appear to be as ‘Swedish as possible’, washing away any trace of a foreign accent and markers of deprived material conditions. Thus, consequences of a latent racial belonging of the nation play out in violent and disconcerting ways in the undocumented refugee children’s lives (Sharma 2015). As Sharma (2015: 98) asserts, ‘the ideological practices of racism and nationalism carve the world into separate state territories within which some people are seen to belong while others are not’. ‘Swedishness’ has become the unquestionable representation of the citizen that belong in the Swedish imagined national community, and the margin of error ‘allowed for’ of falling outside that political identity is miniscule (Leinonen and Toivanen 2014). I suggest also that this is diminishing in concert with the up-scaled internal border controls that occur. While research attention on asylum-seeker and refugee children has shed much light on the ‘migration cycle’ (Watters 2008; Koser 2016), this focus is out of proportion in relation to the many children the asylum-determination system excludes (Lundberg and Lind 2017). Children’s access to rights and resources is becoming an ever more pertinent issue that cannot be taken for granted even in so-called ‘child-friendly states’. Children’s own strategies need to be understood and supported, while the forces that produce undocumented populations must be critically examined (de Genova 2015). To conclude, more research is needed to unravel conceptual frameworks of ‘safe’ versus ‘unsafe’ childhoods in welfare states where stateless and urban poor children hide their real-life circumstances in plain sight. In relation to the context above, a final note on limitations to the study is required. First, it should be noted that the children and adults in the study were those ‘well enough’ to take part and who had access to local social and voluntary networks. These factors potentially limit the representability of the study population, many of whom cannot avoid deportation, access schooling and basic livelihood, nor create social strategies to ‘hide’. Second, at the time of research, undocumented refugee children could be granted permanent residence status on grounds other than protection (e.g. exceptionally or particularly distressing circumstances)—regulations that were removed during the political changes in 2015 after which Sweden adopted the minimum level of EU asylum law and international conventions (see Lind and Persdotter 2017). A replication of the study is likely to find the effects of a harsher political climate in which more refugee children become undocumented and deported, and a resurgence of exploitative networks capitalizing on an increasingly desperate political situation. Despite these limitations, or rather because of them, the study’s application to practice and utility of findings concern the ‘bare minimum factors’ for undocumented refugee children’s endurance in highly surveilled welfare states: the unnegotiable access to social rights independently of their migration status. 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‘Hiding in Plain Sight’: Daily Strategies and Fear Management among Undocumented Refugee Children in Sweden

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Abstract

Abstract Undocumented refugee children live a paradoxical existence, excluded from the right to remain in Sweden while at the same time holding formal rights to education and health. Building on long-term ethnographic research with 19 undocumented children aged 6 to 17, my analysis shows that children carry a pivotal role in hiding their own and the family’s whereabouts and migration status. The concept of invisibility is used to explain the political and social forces at play in relation to which undocumented refugee children attempt to hide ‘in plain sight’. To maintain social invisibility, I suggest, children must work out whom to reveal their undocumented refugee status to, in both close and distant social relationships. The issue of undocumented migrant children’s access to human rights within the local authority is discussed, as well as children’s active role in contributing to and transforming the undocumented migration situation. Introduction This article examines the paradoxical existence of undocumented refugee children who are excluded from the right to remain in Sweden while at the same time holding formal rights to education and health. ‘Undocumented refugee children’ in this article refers to rejected asylum seekers who reside unlawfully on the territory and hide from authorities to avoid deportation. They were accompanied by their parents and had lived several years without contact with authorities and welfare services, maintaining livelihoods through informal networks and labour (to whom they were highly visible). The difference between a rejected asylum seeker and an undocumented refugee is that a refused asylum seeker is permitted to remain on the territory in which he or she claimed asylum until the migration authorities have declared the stay illegal under the EU returns directive (EU Dir 2008/115). The latter case refers to study participants. In view of the increasing criminalization of ‘illegal migrants’ in the EU, it should be noted that, juridically and ethically, an act can be legal or illegal but not the person. Moreover, residing in the EU on an undocumented basis is not a criminal offence, but an infraction of administrative regulations (EC 2006, Resolution 1509). Nonetheless, undocumented refugees’ everyday lives are shaped by ‘deportability’—the constant threat of deportation, even if not immediate or acute (de Genova 2002). For many undocumented migrants, invisibility constitutes a survival resource—a ‘weapon of the weak’ (Scott 1985) in the attempt to hide and obscure identities and activities outlawed by the state or other powerful institutions (Polzer and Hammond 2008). Based on social anthropological research, I analyse the complex nature of refugee children’s efforts to remain invisible in their communities, while their everyday survival depends on the good will of others. I seek to contribute to a wider understanding of the ‘shrinking space of asylum’ (Eastmond and Ascher 2011) and human rights issues affecting undocumented refugee children, as well as help attune responses from the practitioners and voluntary actors who encounter them. I use the concept of invisibility to explain the political and social forces at play in relation to which undocumented refugee children attempt to hide ‘in plain sight’ (see Carter 2010). I begin by positioning my argument within the ethnographic literature on undocumented migrant children and discussing in more detail the extent to which children know about, disclose and seek to change and maintain their hidden and marginal situations. Thereafter, I outline a theoretical framework of political and social invisibility, arguing that the deportability regime and the construction of childhoods in ‘child-friendly states’ constitute two political spaces (Durham 2000) that reify and obscure undocumented childhoods. I then place these political spaces in relation to the Swedish political and social context. After a brief presentation of methodological and ethical issues, I present the ethnographic material illustrating how children’s unique position often entails added fears and risks to those experienced by adult undocumented migrants. Earlier Research on Undocumented Migrant Childhoods The existence of undocumented migrant children within nation states is well established (PICUM 2008; Meloni et al. 2014); however, there is little research evidence on what the undocumented migration status entails for children in their day-to-day life (Sigona and Hughes 2012; Lind 2016). Based on the view of children as active social agents who ‘contribute to, transform and influence the situation and environments in which they find themselves’ (Eyber and Ager 2004: 190), it becomes essential to put children’s own responses to their vulnerable situations firmly at the centre of the research inquiry. In this way, questions of ‘what is power’ and how children are included or excluded from rights can be examined in relation to children’s lives ‘on the ground’ (Durham 2000). However, the bulk of research with undocumented migrants has concerned adults (e.g. McNevin 2006; Willen 2007; de Genova 2010; Khosravi 2010; Anderson 2014), or has focused on the level of legal and policy analysis (Ruiz-Caseres 2010; Meloni et al. 2014). In the latter area of research, children are described as ‘invisible victims of immigration restrictions’ (PICUM 2008) who hold an indefinite position between legality and illegality, citizenship and non-citizenship, with little power of leverage to claim the ‘right to have rights’ (Meloni et al. 2014). But, given their precarious status and limited access to goods and services, how do children survive? One answer is that, to sustain livelihood, children and their families must expose themselves to certain persons in the local community (Malkki 1995). Ethnographic studies show that (in)visibility of undocumented migrant children is highly dependent on national and local contexts (Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Mann 2010) and is often a matter of who undocumented migrants are invisible to and in what situations (Polzer 2008; Sigvardsdotter 2012). In the United States and the United Kingdom, undocumented migrant children appear to be largely unaware of the condition of illegality as long as their parents are working in the irregular economy (Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Sigona and Hughes 2012; Lind 2016). In some contexts, therefore, the undocumented migration status can sometimes be hidden to children themselves. However, there are variations within federal states and local communities; children may also be aware of their unauthorized status and attempt to conceal it to others (Dreby 2015). Lind (2016) maintains that children assert political agency in taking direct action to find out the full extent of their undocumented migration status and, as they become aware of their deportability, they reject this subject position. In Tanzania, Mann (2010) shows that both adults and children employ ‘strategies of invisibility’ to live as unobtrusively as possible. Congolese refugee children are ‘hyper-visible’ as camp refugees in Tanzania, but strive to be invisible as self-settled refugees in towns to access necessities such as food, safe water, shelter, health care and schooling. Some children sell sex to bribe teachers to keep their secret identity and to pay for tuition fees (Mann 2010). Thus, these studies show that some undocumented migrant children live in extremely volatile situations and with an acute sense of threat of discovery, while, in other national contexts, the exclusion from rights can come suddenly when children reach adulthood or the family’s economic circumstances change (Gonzales and Chavez 2012). This brief overview on research about undocumented migrant childhoods points towards a recurrent theme of power relations, inclusion and exclusion in nation states. I suggest that the concept of invisibility is at the core of such dynamics of power. Theorizing (In)Visibility As a theoretical starting point, I position my discussion in relation to existing literature on (in)visibility, since, as I will show later, this concept catches the central observations I made of children’s everyday lives. Brighenti’s (2010) assertion that ‘the visible is not one of nature but of degree’ is fruitful in the analysis of undocumented migrant children who are visible to some sectors of society, but not others. The analysis of social and political invisibility is thus concerned with the partiality of perspectives in research, policy and sociological constructs (Polzer and Hammond 2008). One such issue relates to sites and categories that become reified and ‘spectacular’ areas of concern both on a global scale and within the welfare state. Sites of border policing and the categorization of refugees on the ‘migration cycle’ from departure to journey to settlement (Koser 2016) are well-known examples that have diverted attention away from an informal workforce within the nation state (Anderson 2014; de Genova 2015) and urban destitute, stateless children in the richer nations of the world (Fernqvist 2011; Montgomery 2013). Other issues of partial analysis regard the interpretations and framing of refugee children’s vulnerabilities in relation to mental health and psycho-social wellbeing (Watters 2008), to the exclusion (or limited analysis) of children’s social status as a determinant of childhood survival and wellbeing (Boyden 1994). Categorizations and statistical presentations of ‘people of concern’ on a global scale divert attention away from the vast majority of displaced persons who are not officially accounted for (Vollmer 2008). To understand the paradox of invisibility, we need to look at the kinds of political spaces children participate in, and how that participation comes to challenge, defer or even disrupt other political or social spaces (Durham 2000). We need also to understand changes over time and the ethnographic context and setting. For discussion, the political spaces refer here to the ‘deportation regime’, state governance and legal production of undocumented migrants and constructions of ‘safe’ childhoods in ‘child-friendly’ states. Below, I account for these political spaces in turn, suggesting that they bring certain characteristics of undocumented migrant children out of, or partially into, view. The ‘Deportation Regime’ and ‘Child-Friendly States’ The state and its administrative institutions have powers to manifest a ‘state of invisibility for specific categories of persons in a given space, location, time or position’ (Carter 2010: xxvi). The most obvious way in which this takes place in the present article and in the lives of undocumented migrants is the immigrant-receiving nation’s project of defining who belongs in terms of residence permit and according to what criteria (Shachar 2011). The asylum-determination process at its core ‘is part of the exclusion of the many through the inclusion of the few’ (Lundberg and Lind 2017: 17). Research shows that children’s rights come at the expense of upholding the violent system of the ‘deportation regime’, such as state practices aiming to separate out children who should be deported (Peutz and de Genova 2010; Lundberg and Lind 2017). Rather than presenting a story of an increasing population of ‘illegal’ migrants as a result of increased ‘migration flows’, and a ‘sorting’ of the deserving and righteous migrants from the non-deserving (Shachar 2011), the phenomenon of undocumented migration is a consequence of the power of the state to ‘create’ such groups (de Genova 2015). In Sweden as well as in many other richer nations, the poor, the homeless and the stateless child is often thought to be taken care of by an imagined ‘child-friendly state’ (Giner 2007; Fernqvist 2011), because of the comparatively generous welfare benefits to children and families, and its international reputation of championing children’s rights in general and refugee children’s rights in particular (Eastmond and Ascher 2011). Less is known about the shrinking space of asylum rights and the lower welfare benefits that asylum-seeker families are granted compared to the general population (Abiri 2000). Moreover, the asylum-determination system can be biased towards ‘rejecting’ asylum-seeker children (Lundberg 2011), and often fails to hear and consider refugee children themselves (Ottosson and Lundberg 2013). The domestic sphere of the family home and the school are commonly perceived as given and safe places for children to spend their childhood (Ennew 2001). Adults are seen as the unequivocal providers of a suitable upbringing for children (Panter-Brick 2000). Thus, certain groups of children and childhood issues come to be ‘spectacular’ and obvious areas of intervention, including ‘street children’, orphans and refugees, while other groups of disadvantaged children, such as stateless children and children living in poverty in rich countries, come to receive less attention (Wells and Montgomery 2014). Below, I expand on the Swedish sociopolitical context that further have a bearing on the (in)visibility of undocumented refugee children’s lives. The Swedish Sociopolitical Context I suggest that there are five aspects specific to the Swedish sociopolitical context that impinge on undocumented migrant children’s everyday lives. First, the law specifies that undocumented migrant children have the right to education, health and medical care (Sweden 2012a, 2012b). While these formal rights present a more favourable position than undocumented migrant children have in many other countries, children access these rights at the risk of discovery of their undocumented status (Jönsson 2014). Second, children can spend the better part of their childhood with an unresolved migration status that limits the extent to which they can remain anonymous within the local community. Current policy holds that, after four years of no contact with authorities, the asylum claim case is closed and a new one can be opened (Sweden 2005). In a revolving process of seeking asylum, receiving refusal, living in hiding and seeking asylum again, children and families establish links within local communities in relation to which their invisibility is partial (Khosravi 2010). Third, one of the main difficulties in being anonymous in Sweden is that virtually every kind of public or other service in which a child needs to register to participate (school, leisure, sports, cultural activities, libraries, etc.) requires formal identification. This is linked to the Swedish national population register, in which every citizen is given a personnummer (civic registration number) at birth (Swedish Tax Agency 2017). Undocumented refugee children have no formal identification. For them, the civic registration number functions as a surveillance mechanism if refugees are apprehended without it at the wrong place and time, together with the more formal internal border controls under the Schengen agreement and the Swedish policy developments in its aftermath (Sigvardsdotter 2012). Fourth, increased police efforts to find and deport undocumented refugees have made it increasingly difficult to hide away from authorities (Lind and Persdotter 2017). There is evidence of new and increasingly effective methods by the police to track and find rejected asylum seekers, such as requests of contact details of undocumented migrants to social services and landlords (Lind and Persdotter 2017). Officially, the police policy is not to arrest children in schools and shadow them on their way to school, but there is no law prohibiting them to do so, and schools and children’s rights organizations report that this has taken place (Stockholms Stadsmission 2014). Five, to maintain social invisibility in many instances involves dimensions of racialized identity. Passing as ‘Swedish’—a definition that may differ between individuals, but may include identity markers associated with ‘foreignness’, inequality and segregation—has become increasingly important (Hübinette and Lundström 2014). The difference between the physical concept of ‘race’ and the cultural concept of ethnicity has become conflated and white privilege is maintained despite deeply rooted social democratic values, official anti-racism and progressive policies of gender equality (Hübinette and Lundström 2014). Persons who belong to a ‘non-Swedish’ minority, look non-European, talk with a foreign accent and have a non-Swedish name are likely to be treated with suspicion in public places, in shops, in contact with the police and when applying for a job (Hällgren 2005). In relation to the context outlined above, to maintain social invisibility, children must work out whom to reveal their undocumented refugee status to, in both close and distant social relationships. To not draw attention to the ways in which they differ, they participate in social activities, but only partially so. Methodology and Ethical Issues The article is based on anthropological research and thematic analysis, using ethnographic research techniques of long-term fieldwork, participatory observation, informal conversations and interviewing (Robben & Sluka 2006; Okely 2011). I also used participatory and child-led research techniques to adjust methodology to the individual child’s preferences of expression and to approach the research topic with caution and sensitivity (Hart 1997). These included children’s drawings, writing, children’s own short films that illustrated and narrated their situations and participatory photo interviewing (Jorgensen and Sullivan 2010). I invited children to take photographs of various aspects of their lives that made them feel happy, sad, angry and safe. The photographs were used in interviews to explore children’s subjective meaning of the images (Svensson et al. 2009; Jorgensen and Sullivan 2010). The article is based on 18 months’ fieldwork among undocumented refugee children living in west Sweden, between September 2012 and July 2013 and intermittently in 2014. Participants and Data Access to research participants was entirely dependable on voluntary and informal networks and inevitably affected the sample size and demographics. Therefore, participants were recruited during the entire fieldwork period. The research includes nine families, 29 individuals in total, of whom 19 where children between 6 and 17 years of age. There were 11 boys and eight girls. Ten informants were parents or guardians. Research participants came from Kosovo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Sri Lanka. During fieldwork, the families had lived in Sweden between three to eight years. I conducted individual interviews and informal conversations with 16 of the children and eight adults (parents or guardians). Over time, I built up case studies of 10 children whom I pursued in greater depth. I stayed in contact with these individuals during the whole fieldwork period, visiting their homes several times. There were 53 interviews in total (46 child interviews and seven parent interviews) in separate sets. The interviews lasted between 30 minutes to 1.5 hours and were recorded when participants gave consent, and transcribed verbatim. In most cases, the research participants preferred not to be recorded on tape. This was an issue I did not question or pursue, out of respect for that individual’s choice (AAA 1986). However, it was likely to relate to the individuals’ subjective risk assessment and strategies. In most cases, therefore, detailed notes were taken during the interview and transcribed as closely as possible afterwards. Children and adults in the present article self-reported fluency and comfort in spoken Swedish and did not require interpreters. The initial ‘inclusion criteria’ and recruitment related to children who were accompanied by their parents and had overstayed their right to remain in Sweden and the EU following a ‘return decision’ by the Swedish Migration Agency (Sweden 2005). However, rigid reliance on formal categorization quickly became redundant in the field (Bakewell 2008) since participants’ migration status changed over time. At the point of first contact, all participating children lived in hiding. Since fieldwork took place over a relatively long period of time, some families ended their time in hiding (after a four-year period) during the research, to seek asylum again. Ethical Concerns The central research question concerned children’s experiences of ‘deportability’ and daily strategies in response to their situation. These are extremely sensitive issues to research (Hugman et al. 2011). Issues of trust, ensuring safety and minimizing risks are central to both methodology and ethical concerns and influence the nature and kind of data that can be gathered and presented (AAA 1986). The study obtained ethical approval by the regional ethical review board. Given the precarious situation of participants, it was important to go beyond the minimum, universal ethical requirements (Düvell et al. 2009). Researching and presenting people who have chosen (or are rather forced to) ‘disappear’ involve risks of alerting authorities to ways in which rules are circumvented, and thereby reducing ‘the space for life-saving creativity and flexibility in remaining invisible’ (Polzer and Hammond 2008: 418). Considering these potential yet serious risks, undocumented refugees may have more to lose than gain in taking part of research. Though I approached participants through trusted contacts, I was a stranger and only gradually, through our unfolding relationship and dialogue, could they come to trust that I would conduct and disseminate the research in ways that did not expose them. Informed consent, therefore, was not a finite, one-off instance beginning and ending with a signed form, but an unfolding process based on mutual understanding and trust. It was necessary to hold continuous dialogues with both adults and children around ethical conduct in/of the research (Hugman et al. 2011) and what constituted the most inconspicuous manners and places to meet. I paid special attention to children’s social position of (in)visibility, which was inherently different to adults’, regarding both assessment of risk and power relative to the researcher (Punch 2002). In collecting data, I did not press for identifying details around a person, the trajectory into undocumented migration, life-history events or significant historical events and places if respondents did not volunteer them. Similarly, in presenting the research material, I have omitted and/or altered identifying details and descriptions around individual respondents. I chose children’s pseudonyms and asked for the children’s approval of them. The research was funded by the Children’s Welfare Foundation Sweden and the Public health committee of Region Västra Götaland. Findings From Rejected Asylum Seeker to Undocumented Refugee The first theme I want to discuss is how children experienced the transition from being an asylum seeker, and as such ‘visible’ and ‘in the system’, to going into hiding and entering social invisibility. Most of the research participants described the period of going into hiding as extremely fearful and dramatic, and depending on the goodwill of civilian ‘helpers’ to find housing and sustain their livelihood. On the one hand, and for some children, going into hiding meant literally ‘hiding away’. This was especially true for parents and children who moved from the place where they had lived during the asylum-determination process, to other areas or parts of Sweden where they had a contact who would help them go ‘underground’. Often, children of these families did not initially go to school and, since school is ordinarily the place where children in Sweden spend their day, these undocumented children stayed indoors in the home to not raise suspicion from outsiders. Lena, mother of two children, related how her children used to watch other children go to school through the window: ‘They would ask me, “mum why can’t we go to school”, and I replied, “Our situation is different, people will wonder who we are”.’ On the other hand, and for other children, the transition from ‘refused asylum seeker’ to an undocumented refugee meant entering an acute state of poverty and loss of protection under the law, rather than change in place. Both categories of children, however, described that becoming undocumented meant the loss of grant money from the Migration Agency and subsequently entering a life into poverty. Ali, a 17-year-old boy, explained the transition in these terms: ‘It is not that we went into “hiding” …. Rather, we no longer had money. We lived in the same place though and we kept doing the same things.’ Some children also explained how becoming undocumented meant they themselves were forced to work to support the family. Sofia, 13 years of age, said: ‘Because we had no money I too had to work. I worked for people who treated me like an animal.’ Sofia also talked about the sense of shame of living in overcrowded and poor conditions: We live in a house of twenty square meters and the problems of living with many people are you can’t move about very much and it is almost never quiet. You can’t bring a friend home as you would like because you feel shame that the house is so small. Mehmed, 15 years of age, also talked about a sense of shame to show his poverty to friends: My friends have been to my house, but I feel ashamed of what it looks like. We go to their places instead, but I can’t do that all the time. They treat me to things, but I don’t always let them, since I can’t give back. I make up excuses for why we can’t go to my place. ‘Let’s go to his place instead’, I say. To those who do not know me very well I say: ‘I’ve got that game and stuff’, even though I don’t. Over time, parents often drew on personal contacts to find ways to send their children to school. At school, the nature of their invisibility became social rather than ‘physical’. They became preoccupied with daily strategies to manage exposure. Fear became central to these interactions, and whether or not, and the extent to which, they engaged in social life. ‘Embodied’ Fear and Anonymity among Strangers Children were acutely aware of their ‘deportability’ in the sense that they identified multiple situations every day that led to a risk of being identified as undocumented refugees. On closer review, children described a range of risks and fears. Children talked about an ongoing, ‘embodied’ unease that was integral to the undocumented status. Willen (2007) describes how undocumented migrants in Israel applied ‘bodily vigilance’ and ‘somatic modes of attention’ (Csordas 1993) in relation to the threat of discovery by authorities. These terms are apt also to describe children’s sense of constant fear in the present research. Fia, 11 years old, described this sense of threat in terms of ‘clothes you cannot take off. You always wear them’. As children often lived in overcrowded places and on informal rental contracts, this sense of risk also related to the home. Douglas, 11 years of age, described a sense of being on ‘constant alert’ in the home and that his parents reminded him to be calm and quiet: If my brother and I fight or something, mum and dad will tell us to keep quiet and not make noise. The woman who lives above us might alert the landlord or the police if she thinks something is wrong. The strategies children used were to ‘check themselves’ to behave in ways that would make them as unremarkable as possible. This could be to greet people briefly in the housing estate’s flight of stairs, but not in encounters close to the home, where they would look to the ground and try to pass unnoticed. Thus, a level of anonymity appeared to be possible and desirable in relation to the fears children carried in and around their homes. Similar to Wells’s (2005) analysis of children’s constructions of strangers in their urban local area, children in this research identified strangers who were unknown and not incorporated into their networks of trusted neighbours and friends. At school, however, children often sustained long-running social relationships with class mates, which meant they had to develop different strategies altogether. Maintaining absolute anonymity became impossible. Here, they became carriers of big secrets. Children’s Unique Position—Carriers of Secrets In Malkki’s (1995) research among Hutu refugees in Tanzania, individuals applied ‘strategies of invisibility’ to hide their migration status from people in the local population. Such strategies entailed constructing multiple identities to circumvent official declaration of personal legal status and avoiding involvement with strangers (Malkki 1995). Children in the present research conducted themselves in a similar manner, but their childhood status placed them in a unique position in contrast to adults. They were expected to make friends and do the same things as other children did. Such expectations and conduct gave rise to a more intense sense of risk than the ‘embodied’ fear children carried in relation to strangers. It also required ever more creative strategies. Since they could not be entirely anonymous with friends, they sought to hide the secret of their undocumented identity instead. While they attempted to keep this secret, peers would ask them why their names did not appear on the class register or why they did not attend school-photo day. On the question of how he managed such questions, Douglas said: When they ask why I am not on the class register, I usually try to laugh and make a joke of it. Like, I say I’m anonymous. Then they say, ‘oh’ and laugh. Older children (from 14 years or so) sometimes let their closest friends in on their secret migration status. Mehmed described his closest friendships as based on mutual trust and understanding: ‘I have three best friends. We help and trust each other. Those three are the only ones who know that I don’t have a permit.’ Anticipated and Unanticipated Risks Children talked about anticipated risks such as the questions from peers above. To these questions, children tried to have ready-made and prepared answers. Sometimes, however, questions or events took them by surprise and were unforeseeable. On such occasions, children sometimes succeeded in averting risks by making split-second choices. Elsa, for instance, was six years of age when she noticed that a man was shadowing her on her way home from school. Elsa instantly changed her route to go to her friend’s house instead. A distinction between strategies and tactics is helpful here (Boyd and Mitchell 2016). Strategies denote acts children carry out to handle predictable risks, while tactics refer to children’s efforts to deal with the unforeseen. The latter situations demand a heightened level of creativity and tactical agency (Honwana 2005). Children’s instantaneous judgement calls did not, of course, always work out. In unguarded moments, children could reveal things about themselves that put them at risk. Douglas and his family once decided that it was safe enough for him to take part in school-photo day. In the event, Douglas felt relaxed and, when the photographer asked him about his home address, Douglas stated the address out loud without thinking. He then felt fearful and panicky, worrying that he had jeopardized his family’s safety. Douglas’s and his family’s worst fear did not transpire as a result of his action, but payment slips for the class photographs were posted to their home address on a few occasions, all of which led to much worry and anxiety. Herein lies a third level of fear yet more acute and serious than the ‘embodied’ fear and the ‘intense’ fears in social relations above. The most acute sense of fear concerned situations in which children and adults felt so near to being discovered and/or arrested by police that they were convinced ‘all was lost’. In such situations, no strategy could be resorted to, except hoping for the best. For example, Nicklas, seven years of age, related that, when he was five years old and went to preschool, a policeman came walking towards the school. He quickly locked himself in the toilets, where he cried and dreaded that the police had come to take him and his family. Douglas related also how he once cut his head badly whilst at a swimming pool. He had to go to the emergency unit in an ambulance. Upon the question of what he most dreaded in that situation, he said: My worst fear was not the pain, the bleeding or that they would stitch me up, but that the doctors would ask me about my civic registration number, and that they would report us to the police. Children’s ability to achieve anonymity and invisibility differed between larger towns and small-scale communities, and at which point in the undocumented refugee process they arrived in a new town, residential area or school. Hannah lived in a village in which she said everybody knew each other. Her family had moved to the town simply because a helper had found the family a place to live. Hannah had told the villagers that her family had moved there because of her father’s employment, but he now had a long-term illness and therefore stayed at home. This story, Hannah said, was one that she ‘lived by’. But, one evening, upholding this story came to a sudden and real test. After a get-together with friends, a girlfriend, whose father was a police officer, insisted on visiting Hannah’s house. Hannah decided that, if she kept saying no to the friend, this would only raise more suspicion and curiosity. ‘And that is exactly what happened,’ Hannah explained to me. ‘She visited, saw how we lived, and there were no more questions asked.’ However, a contact of the family, Hugo, did not trust Hannah’s risk assessment and the way she dealt with it. Rather, he believed that it was ‘natural’ in Sweden that people kept to themselves and there was no duty on anyone to invite people if they did not want to. He was of the view that Hannah risked everything in inviting the policeman’s daughter home. Hannah’s analysis was different—she needed to disappear in plain sight. Passing for a ‘Swede’ The perception of risks differed between families, depending on the residence area in which they lived. Children often expressed that they felt safer in culturally diverse areas and schools because they felt they did not stick out as much as ‘non-Swedes’. While all children in the research went to school, and learned Swedish, parents often spent time at home or in cash-in-hand servile work and had fewer opportunities to learn Swedish well. Children thus became socially integrated, while parents often remained outside social environments. Parents maintained that it was harder for them to pass as ‘Swedes’ than their children. This became a particular concern to adults in 2013 when the border police stepped up efforts to find undocumented refugees. Rumours about the police’s whereabouts spread on social media forums and within networks. At the time of fieldwork, the helper to a family from Kosovo suggested that the family could almost ‘pass for being Swedish’ since they were ‘white’. But he was concerned that the mother put some more effort into ‘looking Swedish’ to diminish the risk of detection in public places. The mother said: To look more Swedish, I make sure I always look smart, wear makeup and fashionable clothes. I tell my children not to talk Albanian to me in public and I don’t talk to them in Swedish outside the home because of my accent and not in Albanian either if I feel we are being watched. Though the idea of being white is a primary signifier of ‘Swedishness’ (Hübinette and Lundström 2014), there is a hierarchy of whiteness in the present context in which affluence, accent and southern or eastern European looks are also markers of difference. In the aggressive search for undocumented refugees described above, fear and perceived markers of ‘non-Swedishness’ become increasingly current in the daily lives of undocumented refugees in Sweden. Discussion and Implications Why is it that undocumented refugee children can often succeed in hiding in plain sight within their communities? To answer this question, I suggest that children hide their real-life circumstances in relation to several regimes of ‘visibility’ (Brighenti 2010) that are current in the Swedish political and cultural context. Invisibility is in this article a question of power relations between the ‘seer’ and the ‘seen’, but also of the partiality of any perspective of enquiry (Polzer 2008). The most powerful ‘seer’ is the deportability regime—the state power to remove undocumented migrants from the territory (Peutz and de Genova 2010). To avoid this type of voyeurism, children carve out non-descript identities of themselves that are not part of the ‘border spectacle’ (de Genova 2015) or ‘child abandonment’ interventions and ideologies (Panter-Brick 2000). Rather, children position themselves in relation to ordinary urban childhoods that take place in family homes and local schools. The second regime of invisibility thus concerns Sweden’s self-image of a ‘child-friendly state’, in which the social democratic welfare system takes care of poor, oppressed and abused children (Eastmond and Ascher 2011; Fernqvist 2011). Accessing their right to education, however, is as much a possibility for children as a source of threat and (sense of) deportability. The childhoods in the present research are not ‘safe’, but presenting themselves as such becomes a key strategy. Without their active participation and ‘maintenance’ activities, deceiving neighbours, peers and others becomes difficult. In this way, undocumented refugee children sustain and transform the undocumented situation and are not mere ‘hangers-on’ to adults who hide them. A third regime of invisibility concerns the Swedish self-perception that racism takes place elsewhere (Pred 2000). However, as we have seen, undocumented refugee children and families are at pains to position themselves as ‘assimilated’ and to appear to be as ‘Swedish as possible’, washing away any trace of a foreign accent and markers of deprived material conditions. Thus, consequences of a latent racial belonging of the nation play out in violent and disconcerting ways in the undocumented refugee children’s lives (Sharma 2015). As Sharma (2015: 98) asserts, ‘the ideological practices of racism and nationalism carve the world into separate state territories within which some people are seen to belong while others are not’. ‘Swedishness’ has become the unquestionable representation of the citizen that belong in the Swedish imagined national community, and the margin of error ‘allowed for’ of falling outside that political identity is miniscule (Leinonen and Toivanen 2014). I suggest also that this is diminishing in concert with the up-scaled internal border controls that occur. While research attention on asylum-seeker and refugee children has shed much light on the ‘migration cycle’ (Watters 2008; Koser 2016), this focus is out of proportion in relation to the many children the asylum-determination system excludes (Lundberg and Lind 2017). Children’s access to rights and resources is becoming an ever more pertinent issue that cannot be taken for granted even in so-called ‘child-friendly states’. Children’s own strategies need to be understood and supported, while the forces that produce undocumented populations must be critically examined (de Genova 2015). To conclude, more research is needed to unravel conceptual frameworks of ‘safe’ versus ‘unsafe’ childhoods in welfare states where stateless and urban poor children hide their real-life circumstances in plain sight. In relation to the context above, a final note on limitations to the study is required. First, it should be noted that the children and adults in the study were those ‘well enough’ to take part and who had access to local social and voluntary networks. These factors potentially limit the representability of the study population, many of whom cannot avoid deportation, access schooling and basic livelihood, nor create social strategies to ‘hide’. Second, at the time of research, undocumented refugee children could be granted permanent residence status on grounds other than protection (e.g. exceptionally or particularly distressing circumstances)—regulations that were removed during the political changes in 2015 after which Sweden adopted the minimum level of EU asylum law and international conventions (see Lind and Persdotter 2017). A replication of the study is likely to find the effects of a harsher political climate in which more refugee children become undocumented and deported, and a resurgence of exploitative networks capitalizing on an increasingly desperate political situation. Despite these limitations, or rather because of them, the study’s application to practice and utility of findings concern the ‘bare minimum factors’ for undocumented refugee children’s endurance in highly surveilled welfare states: the unnegotiable access to social rights independently of their migration status. 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Journal

Journal of Refugee StudiesOxford University Press

Published: Jan 12, 2018

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