In Belgium, depending on their immigration status, foreigners may be entitled to different forms of social assistance, ranging from emergency medical care to financial benefits. In a context where residence permits are constantly updated, re-examined or withdrawn by the administration, this article explores the ways in which welfare bureaucrats deal with irregular migrants. Based on ethnographic fieldwork at welfare offices in French-speaking Belgium, this article shows that documentary practices in welfare bureaucracies have the effect of both restricting access to social assistance and aiding irregular migrants in bringing cases against the administration. This article thus also delves into the double-edged relationship of the social workers to the state by focusing on the competing norms and interpretations of law they encounter on a daily basis.
Social workers, irregular migrants and fragmented statehood in Belgian welfare bureaucracies
Governing migration through paperwork
Lisa Marie Borrelli and Sophie Andreetta
In order to better understand migration governance and the concrete, daily practices of civil servants tasked to enforce state laws and policies, this special issue focuses on the core artefact of bureaucratic work: documents, in their diverse manifestations, including certificates, letters, reports, case files, decisions, internal guidelines and judgements. Based on ethnographic studies in various contexts, we show how civil servants produce statehood, restrict migrants’ movements, and engage with migrants’ strategies to make themselves legible. State actors simultaneously limit access to legal statutes and benefits, question their own practices, and use their discretion in order to help themselves as well as migrant individuals. We also highlight organisational and professional differences in the way civil servants deal with migrants, relate to the state and its policies and define their obligations towards both, migrants and the state. This special issue therefore contributes to the study of the state as documentary practice and highlights the role of paperwork as serious practice of migration control.