Guest post by Hanna Scott. Hanna is a lawyer and PhD student in welfare law at Linköping university in Sweden. Her research focuses on access to in/formal protection for young people with precarious migration status who are victims of crime or exploitation. This post is part of our new themed series on border control and Covid-19.

The pandemic, like other disasters, does not strike indiscriminately, but rather makes visible patterns of harm and discrimination already present in our societies. The precarity that many young people who have sought asylum experience is, therefore, currently exacerbated as a result of Covid-19. How is Covid-19 affecting young people living with precarious immigration status in Sweden and the community organisations working to support them? What are the potential legal implications of the pandemic on the possibilities for these young people to regularise or to make their immigration status more secure? This post attempts to address these questions by sketching out some of the dimensions of this situation, from the point of view of two community-based organisations working to support young people, many of whom fled to Sweden alone as children to claim asylum in 2015.    

The city mission in Skåne is a non-governmental organisation that runs a support centre for children and young people in Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. The centre is one of only a handful of places in Sweden where children and young people with precarious immigration status can receive free legal advice, as well as practical and social support. In April, the organization reluctantly decided to shut down its regular indoor social activities in line with Swedish public health authority guidance that prohibits public gatherings of more than 50 people, which was introduced at the end of March. In a recent interview with one of the lawyers who works at the centre, he commented: “we had to close down indoor social activities at the centre earlier this spring, because we did not want to risk contributing to the spreading of the virus, as many of our visitors are at high risk”. The lawyer added, “there is often a wariness amongst many young people about seeking medical help, due to fear that such contact could result in deportation, or a fear that if you have no papers, you may be turned away from the hospital without being able to get the treatment you need”. This evidence is not new, as previous research has demonstrated that living with precarious immigration status often has a negative impact on health and wellbeing, and that this impact can be exacerbated by fear of accessing healthcare due to being deportable.

I also spoke with staff at Mötesplats Otto, part of the national Association of unaccompanied children, a community centre in Malmö for young people, many of whom have come to Sweden to seek asylum. The centre is often described as a ‘home away from home’ by many of those who come here to receive practical support, participate in workshops, make food and eat together, or just to hang out and play Fifa. As opposed to the city mission in Skåne, this community centre has remained open throughout the pandemic. The strategy has been to offer continued support while restricting visitor numbers and introducing stricter hygiene measures with hand sanitizers available for all. For staff, the need to continue to provide a meeting place for young people with nowhere else to go has been paramount, as homelessness and precarious living conditions are not uncommon amongst the centre’s visitors. Notably, staff members have previously reported that some undocumented young people are living in unsafe circumstances where they are being forced to sell sex in exchange for shelter and survival.

During our conversation, staff pointed out that the pandemic may be putting some of the young people who visit the meeting place at risk of homelessness: “many have been taken in by elderly people and some have been told to self-isolate or move out”. At the same time, homelessness and crowded living conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, for many young people with precarious immigration status to self-isolate in accordance with public health guidelines.

An information poster on the wall inside the city mission support centre about "how to talk to children about Covid-19", among drawings by the children who visit the centre

Covid-19 has a potentially devastating impact on the possibilities of young people with precarious immigration status to support themselves. In 2013, Malmö was the first city in Sweden to enable access to basic statutory welfare support for people in an undocumented situation and to date the city is one of few places in Sweden where it is possible to receive such assistance. This support offers a fragile lifeline in an undocumented situation, but must be applied for in a face-to-face meeting with social services. According to the lawyer at the city mission, one young person with undocumented immigration status recently recounted how he had been turned away by social services as he was showing flu-like symptoms. He was forced to leave social service premises without an opportunity to receive his welfare benefits, thus being left without any means to support himself whilst ill. For undocumented young people who support themselves by working, falling ill similarly means no money for food, rent or medication.

So, what are some of the potential legal implications of this pandemic?

Many of the young people who visit Mötesplats Otto and the Skåne city mission have been granted temporary residence permits through Sweden’s new ‘study law’, the Upper Secondary School Act (“gymnasielagen”). At first glance, the study law offers a pathway to regularisation for more than 7,500 young people. Upon closer scrutiny, the law is more likely to present only a temporary reprieve to deportation, due to the fact that many of its requirements are turning out to be impossible to meet in practice, especially under the current cirucumstances.

The law stipulates that continued stay for the thousands of young people who initially regularised under the law is dependent on the completion of studies at upper secondary school level. In addition, the law requires permanent employment within six months upon completion of their studies, otherwise they risk deportation. The study law has been referred to by the legislator as a “new opportunity” for some of the young people who fled alone to Sweden in 2015 when they were children, in order to compensate them for having their asylum applications negatively impacted by long waiting times, unreliable and unscientific medical age assessments, and restrictive changes to the policy and practice of the Swedish Migration Agency (the agency that determines first instance asylum claims). Many of these children have been pushed into irregularity as a result of these key failings in the asylum system. The law has received much criticism for its poor drafting, as well as for the lack of available guidance on how its obtuse provisions are to be interpreted. In practice, young people are also failing to meet the requirements of the law simply due to lack of available study programs that qualify under the law itself.

Schools, and teachers, have a key role in the implementation of the study law. However, on the 18th of March, all upper secondary schools and colleges in Sweden were required to close due to the pandemic. Instead, schools transitioned to distance learning mode.

Many young people who currently hold residence permits under the study law have a patchy history of formal education in Sweden, sometimes due to having been transferred between asylum accommodations – and schools – in different parts of Sweden, and due to limitations to the right to education for undocumented persons over 18. Speaking about the impact of Covid-19 on the young people who have been granted residence permits under this law, the city mission lawyer explained: “Those who were struggling with school before the pandemic are having an even harder time now, since schools are closed. Many are in need of teacher-led education and struggle to make use of distance learning support. Some young people do not have access to computers or a good enough internet connection and cannot keep up with their studies”. During our conversation, the member of staff at Mötesplats Otto commented similarly: “Many of the young people we meet share one-bedroom flats and live in crowded conditions. If several people are having online teaching in the same room at the same time, it is impossible to focus on what the teacher is saying”.

Furthermore, the rise in unemployment in Sweden as a result of the pandemic risks having particularly devastating consequences for this group of people. According to the lawyer at the city mission: “It has always been extremely hard to find a permanent position in six months, even before the pandemic. Now it is pretty much impossible, especially for those not studying nursing or care work. One young person literally had an offer of a permanent job, but it was withdrawn just before he was due to sign the contract, as the company started laying people off”. These examples indicate that the pandemic is likely to have a severe impact on the possibilities of extending, or securing permanent, residence permits under the study law. For many young people, the race against the clock to find a permanent position is now more likely than before, in pre-pandemic times, to turn into a slow-motion deportation.

Mötesplats Otto, a meeting place for children and young people in southern Sweden run by the Association of unaccompanied minors

The pandemic is calling out the study law with the lie of presenting a “new opportunity” for regularisation for thousands of young people. Although the full negative impacts of Covid-19 are yet to be revealed, the current situation has already shown up the study law as a political instrument of Social Darwinist immigration control that allows only the survival of the fittest, forcing those who fail to complete their studies or to find a permanent job back into undocumentedness and deportability.

So, how can the negative effects of Covid-19 be navigated or resisted?

Back in April, the city mission started up an additional study support service for young people several times a week with volunteer tutors, hot meals and access to wifi and computers. Social activities were reorganised to be held outside. “We hand out food outside instead and we started to deliver food parcels to those unable to collect the food themselves. We also continue to offer legal advice”, said the lawyer I interviewed at the city mission. He has provided legal support and assistance to hundreds of young people since the implementation of the study law in the summer of 2018. Such support is crucial, as access to free, professional legal advice in an undocumented situation is very limited. Alongside this work, efforts to address the problems posed by the study law are also ecing undertaken on a more structural level, such as awareness raising in the media and the preparation of appeals on points of law to attempt to gain more clarity are also being undertaken. 

Meanwhile, the member of staff at Möteplats Otto commented: “Many of the volunteer tutors who used to help the young people with their homework are retired and at high risk, so we had to cancel tutoring and driving theory lessons. Instead, social work students who had their placements cancelled due to the pandemic started volunteering with us and with their help study support resumed”. Mötesplats Otto has managed to stay open to offer a safe space in times when many other places, such as libraries and schools, have shut their doors.

The community perspectives represented in this blog post reveal some of the ways in which Covid-19 hits harder at people at the margins of society welfare state, exacerbating underlying inequalities and pre-existing social harms caused by the law. They also suggest that community organisations play a crucial yet piecemeal role in alleviating at least some of these harms. Above all, the sum of these experiences presents a compelling argument for more inclusive and sustainable regularisation measures in post-pandemic politics.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Scott, H. (2020). Calling Out the Law with a Lie: Community Perspectives on Precarity, Welfare and Law in Times of Covid-19 in Sweden. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/calling-out-law [date]