Media often portray so-called hidden refugees as individuals who spend their days hiding behind closed curtains, and this leads to false perceptions of these people living underground and outside society. A doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, explores how the hidden refugees, the non-citizens, navigate in the city environment.
‘The interviewed individuals taught me that “hiding” is rather a matter of passing unnoticed on the streets of a busy city. They talked about the public environment as a mine field that they must learn how to navigate through safely,’ says the author of the thesis Helena Holgersson. In her study she shows how hidden refugees create a life in the intersection between national regulations and the opportunities that the city has to offer.
Holgersson for example analyses maps drawn by interviewed asylum seekers and finds a distinct division between the ‘official’ Gothenburg and the city as experienced by non-citizens. One example of this is that only one person included the water off the coast of Gothenburg whereas the marine features and archipelago of Gothenburg are clearly at the centre of the official, mainstream perception of the city.
Gothenburg is a great city of events and knowledge. However, it is also a city that is becoming more and more segregated. At the same time as the city has a clear ambition to attract new inhabitants and to become a metropolitan landmark on the map of Europe, it is making efforts to restrict the inflow of asylum seekers. Holgersson discusses the different versions of the city and in so doing points to a community that is falling apart.
‘All cities are trying to put themselves on the map. That’s how they promote themselves. Politicians want to attract events, tourists and capital to their cities. Yet there is more than one map, and they don’t want to be on all of them – for example, they don’t want to be on an asylum seeker’s map,’ says Holgersson.
Holgersson’s point of departure is that questions concerning how the welfare state ought to deal with the presence of non-citizens come to a head in large cities. At the same time as the city of Gothenburg is urging the Swedish government to assign asylum seekers ‘home’ communities in order to ease the pressure on large cities, it is clear that the local routines used in health care and schooling are more generous than the national regulations.
‘When individuals who have been refused asylum stay in Sweden and make a home for themselves in the city, they also change their position in society at large,’ says Holgersson.
Holgersson sheds light both on concrete aspects of the lives of non-citizens and on the spectrum of national and global factors that make up the nature of the Swedish non-citizenship.
The thesis was successfully defended on Friday 20 May 2011.
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