Irregular, undocumented, illegal, sans-papier, papperslös – these are terms designating people who live where they lack the documents to officially reside. The negation built into these words constitutes a key factor in all dimensions of undocumentedness. Officially absent, they leave no traces of their presence – work is undertaken, apartments and rooms are inhabited, but by whom?
I started my PhD studies at the Department of Social and Economic Geography at Uppsala University in February 2007 and the title of my thesis is Presenting the Absent – An account of undocumentedness in Sweden. It provides an ethnography and critical phenomenology of undocumentedness in the Swedish context. By attending to the forces and processes that circumscribe the life-worlds of undocumented persons, as well as the phenomenology and essential experiences of their condition, a complex and multi-layered illustration of what undocumentedness is and means is successively presented. Employing a dual conceptualization of the state, as a juridico-political construct as well as a practiced and embodied set of institutions, the undocumented position emerges as a legal category defined only through omission, produced and reproduced through administrative routine and practice. The health care sector provides empirical examples of state-undocumented interaction where the physical and corporeal presence of the officially absent becomes irrefutable. This research suggests that the Swedish welfare state – universalistic, comprehensive and with digitized administrative routines – becomes a particularly austere environment in which to be undocumented.
Drawing on interviews with regional and local health care administrators, NGO-clinics’ representatives and health professionals, as well as extensive participatory observation and interviews with undocumented persons, I argue that the undocumented condition is characterized by simultaneous absence and presence, and a correspondingly paradoxical spatiality. I suggest that the official absence and deportability of undocumented persons deprives them of the capacity to define space and, in an Arendtian sense, appear as themselves to others. There are, however, some opportunities for embodied political protest and dissensus. The paradoxical qualities of the absent-present condition manipulate the undocumented mode of being-in-the-world and I argue that alienation and disorientation are essential experiences of the undocumented situation.