Guest post by Katja Franko, Professor at the department of criminology and sociology of law, University of Oslo. Katja has published widely in globalization, migration control, security and surveillance of everyday life. From 2011 to 2016 she headed a research project about the intersections of migration control and penal power, entitled Crime Control in the Borderlands of Europe, funded by the European Research Council (ERC). Together with Helene O. I. Gundhus, she is conducting research on the European agency for the management of external borders, Frontex. This is the second post of Border Criminologies' Book Discussion Week Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State.

The arguments presented in Vanessa Barker’s new book Nordic Nationalism and Penal Order: Walling the Welfare State may come as a surprise to observers among progressive circles in Europe and the rest of the world, which have come to see Scandinavian societies as ideals of social democracy. The arguments, however, may not come as a surprise to many Scandinavians who have in recent years seen a marked turn to the right when it comes to immigration policy, particularly in countries such as Denmark and Norway. Barker’s book addresses these developments in Sweden and forcefully argues that one of the most praised achievements of Scandinavian societies – the welfare state – is a driving force behind entrenched social exclusion and the growing use of penal power.

The book shows in great detail how welfare states are installing coercive penal measures for sorting out unwanted migrants. The ideals of equality and social inclusion that are most commonly associated with Nordic welfare states are, therefore, values which are preserved only for insiders. However, Barker goes a step further and argues that the ‘social security promised by the welfare state is dependent upon the exclusion and insecurity of others, an asymmetrical relationship that may be unsustainable in democratic societies’ (p. 13, italics added). The statement runs contrary not only to what is commonly believed about Scandinavian societies, but is also one of the most forceful critiques of Scandinavian exceptionalism and common criminological wisdom that welfare societies are less punitive. It is likely to raise many debates in the years to come.

The book is a commendable achievement on many levels. While there exists by now a wealth of empirical studies on immigration and border controls in Sweden and in Scandinavia, few contributions manage to provide such as succinct and clear analysis of the social and political forces behind these developments. Barker’s intimate knowledge of the internal logic of the welfare state enables her to develop an original and conceptually rigorous understanding of the functioning of contemporary penal power and state power more generally. By further developing Lynne Haney’s concept of penal nationalism – in my view, the book’s most enduring contribution – she is able to pull together a common thread behind a series of coercive practices such as deportation, imprisonment and penalization of migrants. Their animating purpose is, she argues, the protection of membership.

While unable to explain considerable differences among Scandinavian countries in terms of immigration policies - Sweden seems to be by far the most lenient, with Denmark and Norway the most restrictive ones - the concept of penal nationalism, nevertheless, caries powerful resonance. I expect that it will be a source of inspiration to many scholars working in the field of border criminology and beyond.

From internal to external walls: the protective belt of coercion

Barker’s book offers an extremely valuable description of the coercive belly of the welfare state, where migrant populations are processed and then spit out through what Nicolay Johansen has termed the ‘funnel of expulsion’. The book’s opening narrative is situated in the dramatic months following the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’. Now, two years later, we are able to assess its chilling epilogue. According to preliminary data produced by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, there were some 204,300 irregular border-crossings in the EU in 2017, which is a 60% reduction from the previous year. While, at the peak of the crisis, Sweden had over 10.000 arrivals per week, it received just above 25.000 applications for asylum in the entire 2017. The number in Norway (a country with about half of the Swedish population size) was 3.546, which is the lowest number since 1995.

Europe has surrounded itself with an invisible wall, the human costs of which can be seen in the inhumane conditions for migrants stranded in Libya, Turkey and Greece, as well as border deaths which despite fewer arrivals rose dramatically from 3,785 in 2015 to 5,143 in 2016. In such a context, the coercive belly of the welfare state may be doing less work because violence and coercion have been outsourced into a protective belt consisting of Europe’s border zones and distant processing centres. The developments in the Nordic welfare states are thus situated within a broader geopolitical system of global power relations. At the moment, this system is doing the lion share of walling up and guarding the boundaries of membership. This by no means diminishes the salience of Barker’s findings, yet is shows the limits of her explanatory frame which is, as Barker acknowledges, distinctly national. Its focus is on Sweden. The approach enables the author to provide an in-depth analysis of her subject matter but it, nevertheless, obscures from sight the global and (neo)colonial aspects of penal power.

Moreover, the focus on the global North – South dimension uncovers yet another paradox of the Nordics. The societies which have been until recently branded, and have branded themselves, as the ‘moral superpowers’ are now openly challenging the international human rights regimes, particularly when it comes to migration. The Norwegian minister of immigration has just returned from a trip to Eastern African countries (Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya), where one of the objectives was to achieve return agreements and more efficient returns to these countries. European countries, including the Nordic ones, are essentially exporting penal power to the outskirts of Europe and thus hiding its most brutal aspects from our immediate sight. It is a task for future research to discover how the external walls and the internal walls described in Barker’s remarkable book are connected. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Franko, K. (2018) In the Coercive Belly of the Welfare State. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/01/coercive-belly (Accessed [date]).