Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Social Workers and Irregular Migrants in the Assistance Circuit: Making Sense of Paradoxical Inclusion

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Abstract:  Despite restrictive policy frameworks, cities sometimes provide support to irregular migrants. Scholars have analysed these forms of inclusion, focusing on policies and tensions between inclusionary approaches by local or urban actors and exclusionary approaches by national or supranational authorities. This article seeks to shift the focus to the street level, examining how support is delivered, how it is experienced by different categories of irregular migrants, and how frontline social workers make sense of their work and foster “paradoxical inclusion.” To this end, the article first analyses the experiences of young North African irregular migrants in Geneva, Switzerland. Based on ethnographic research, we describe their everyday life in the “assistance circuit,” which forces them to follow a daily routine determined by the services offered at fixed times in different places. Over time, the young men develop a sense of entrapment and alienation, as well as escape strategies. Secondly, by examining the perspective of social workers, we show that the constraints associated with the assistance circuit reflect a social work paradigm that aims to keep people on the move, limit dependency and promote autonomy. This paradigm coexists with another, conflicting one, which can be described as palliative, but which also seems paradoxical to the irregular migrants who aspire to full participation in social and economic life. Overall, our study suggests an alternative interpretation of the limitations and paradoxes surrounding irregular migrants’ inclusion that complements policy‐oriented approaches.

Keywords:  Geneva; Harragas; inclusion; irregular migration; local level; social work; Switzerland



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© Maxime Felder, Sahar Fneich, Joan Stavo-Debauge. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.