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Destitution as a new phenomenon in Switzerland? Towards a theoretical understanding and empirical relevance

June 30, 2021 9:00
June 30, 2021 10:30

Matthias Drilling; Sabrina Roduit; Zsolt Temesvary

FHNW University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland


Sabrina Roduit; Zsolt Temesvary

FHNW University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland

Katalin Szoboszlai, University of Debrecen (Hungary)

Iulia Hasdeu, University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland (HETS & HEAD), Geneva

The term destitution was first used in early studies on poverty (see Booth 1889 and Rowntree 1922) to describe the multidimensional nature of deprivation and extreme urban poverty. Lately more and more novel studies (e.g. Fitzpatrick et al 2018, Scott et al 2018) and political agendas (e.g. The World Bank 2013, European Commission 2014) rediscovered destitution to explain existential poverty and severe social exclusion. In this modern context destitution refers to the multidimensional and intersectional characteristics of social deprivation and regards to people who are ‘the poorest among the poor’ and forming the ‘new underclass’. Thus, from a conceptional point of view destitution means much more than the once dominant neoliberal approach that primarily originates poverty from the lack of income. Destitution simultaneously considers the structural and individual features of deprivation and severe vulnerability in the time of social uncertainties that characterise postmodern welfare states. Doing so the reconceptualization of social justice and the deprivation of certain groups from fundamental social rights are immanent determinants of destitution. 

In wealthy countries like Switzerland the term destitution is mostly applied in the analysis of social exclusion and deprivation of two highly vulnerable social groups: homeless people and undocumented migrants. Destitution in Switzerland mostly describes the plight of ‘sans papiers’ with severe housing needs and multiple social deprivations. Destitute people cope with extreme forms of deprivation in the housing sector, labour market and in the area of public services, as well. As they are often unseen for both the scholars and social institutions, their general living conditions and needs, including the nature of their vulnerabilities and potential resources are uncharted.

Our international and interdisciplinary session will first explain the importance and novelty of the notion destitution in modern poverty studies carried out in Europe. Doing so, we will examine the development and current characteristics of urban poverty and deprivation with particular regard on the structural, socio-political determinants. After that we will introduce empirical experiences with mobile Central and Eastern European citizens living in Switzerland in order to illustrate the structural characteristic of destitution from the viewpoint of social services and social rights. The discussion in the session will focus on conceptual similarities (esp. between destitution, vulnerability, and poverty) and break the floor for a theoretical foundation of destitution.

The presentations will be held by Swiss and Hungarian researchers working on the topic in the field of sociology, social work, social policy and social geography. The SEMI-PLENARY SESSIONS will be hosted and moderated by Prof. Dr. Matthias Drilling (FHNW - University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland). Further presenters of the session are Dr. Sabrina Roduit (University of Geneva, FHNW), Dr. Zsolt Temesváry (FHNW) and Dr. Katalin Szoboszlai (University of Debrecen, Hungary).

Keywords: Destitution, migration, homelessness, Switzerland, Central and Eastern Europe

Conceptualizing Destitution: Theoretical Understanding and Practical Relevance 

Sabrina Roduit; Zsolt Temesvary
FHNW University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland

With the development of modern Welfare States, absolute poverty seemed to be disappearing in the rich Western European countries. In the last few decades, contemporary social policy measures were indeed designed to alleviate the relative poverty of specific target groups. However, after the ‘golden age’ of the western Welfare States new and transnational social problems appeared, and the national social policies were less effective in handling new challenges through their traditional welfare measures (see Gaisbauer et al. 2019, Bradshaw and Movshuk 2019). In the area of poverty and social exclusion a solid stratification can be observed among the poor, and people living in extreme poverty build a novel and steadily growing layer of the society: the destitute. Absolute poverty, ultra-poverty and existential poverty are twin notions of destitution, and they are often applied by social scientists (see Alkire et al 2014, Dominelli 2019, Walker 2019), although these terms rather express the financial and material dimensions of poverty and often neglect other important domains of social vulnerability.  

The notion ‘destitution’ refers to the poorest among the poor who live under particularly precarious and disadvantaged living conditions even compared to the ‘regular poor’ (Dasgupta 1993, Harris-White 2005). Besides their severe economic poverty, destitute people experience social exclusion and marginalization in the areas of housing sector, labor market as well as in the systems of education and health care (Fitzpatrick et al. 2016). Considering the socio-political context of the phenomenon, destitute people are abandoned by the State and excluded from state-run social services and transfers, thus their social rights and eligibilities are strictly limited in comparison with other social groups (Coddington et al. 2020). The novel concept of destitution emerged in the social sciences to challenge the dominant neoliberal, income-based approach of poverty studies. It aims to scrutinize poverty and social deprivation in a multi-layered dimension considering the lack of resources in various domains (Harris-White 2005, Ferraro 2011). Our presentation explores destitution as a new and expressive notion in describing the multifaceted nature of essential poverty and severe social exclusion. 

Although destitution can also be described as the lack of individual biological and psychological resources, our session primarily examines the socio-political, structural reasons lying behind this notion. Doing so, we primarily focus on two areas: the social rights and entitlements of homeless people and undocumented migrants. Street homelessness and undocumented migration (and particularly their combination) are probably the most precarious living conditions in which the affected people experience not only absolute financial poverty, but a vicious circle of social marginalization and deprivation, too (Isaac 2016, Freeman and Mirilovic 2016, Allen et al. 2020). Our presentation primarily applies the theoretical and practical approaches of social work and social policy in conceptualizing the notion. 

Keywords: Destitution, migration, homelessness, existential poverty, absolute poverty 

Sabrina Roduit holds a PhD in sociology and currently works as a research associate at the FHNW. She works also as Doctoral Programme Officer (ad interim) at the Centre LIVES. Her primary research areas are the social health inequalities, the non-take-up of medical care and the vulnerability of destitute undocumented CEE citizens living in Switzerland.

Zsolt Temesvary holds a PhD in sociology and social policy and currently works as a visiting professor at the FHNW. His primary research areas are the vulnerability of destitute CEE citizens living in Switzerland and the postmodern theoretical development of social work.

Migration of Destitute Hungarian Female Sex Workers to Zürich

Katalin Szoboszlai, University of Debrecen (Hungary)

The migration of Central and Eastern European (CEE) female sex workers toward the Western European cities has been significantly intensified since the EU membership of the CEE countries (Munk 2017). Thousands of Eastern European women are working currently in the red-light districts and brothels of Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Switzerland become one of the most popular target countries of migrating sex workers due to the country’s liberal regulation on commercial sex work and the free movement of sex workers within the EU/EFTA region (see Rathgeb 2013). The number of Hungarian female sex workers working in Swiss cities steadily increased in the last decade. As a result of a long-term collaboration established by Swiss and Hungarian social workers in 2010, a project called ‘IRIS 2012’ was dedicated to explore the migration and living conditions of Hungarian female sex workers living and working in Switzerland. During this project, field studies were carried out with the target group in Zürich and Basel. The exploratory study focused on the individual perceptions of female sex workers regarding the social supports and social service providers in both Switzerland and Hungary. The research sample incorporated 33 Hungarian female sex workers who were identified by Swiss social workers and then interviewed by Hungarian professionals. The data collection covered the sex workers’ socio-demographic and economic conditions, the reasons for being involved into prostitution as well as their perceptions regarding social supports in both the home and the host countries. The analysis of socio-economic data showed that most of the women lived in extreme poverty in their home environment. Furthermore, they could be characterized by poor education, the lack of qualifications and unemployment. They were also in a rather vulnerable situation and often exploited by family members or other people who promised them work and money abroad. The study also collected information on available social supports and networks by analyzing the Hungarian Street Work Interpersonal Support Evaluation List (HSW-ISEL) that is a modified database of Coen’s ISEL. The HSW-ISEL database was supplemented by short interviews during the data development. To explore the relationships between social supports and vulnerability a socio-metric concept was applied and respondents were asked to identify people they can rely on, who support them and who can be mentioned in relationship with the dimensions of HSW-ISEL (with the exception of the category ‘self-esteem’). As a result, home matrix and abroad matrix showed significant differences. The analysis of spatial social support matrix proved that the social networks of sex workers steadily determined the supports they used. Besides the empirical results above, the presentation also reflects on the field experiences of Periféria Association where the author works as a practical social worker in supporting vulnerable social groups living in extreme poverty, homelessness and social exclusion. Periféria works in the most disadvantaged Northeastern region of Hungary, near the Ukrainian border area.

Keywords: Migration, sex work, destitution, poverty, vulnerability, HSW-ISEL test  

Katalin Szoboszlai holds a PhD in sociology and social policy and works as a habilitated associate professor as well as the head of the Department of Social Work at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Her primary research areas are the homelessness of women and the transnational migration of sex workers.

Underclassed, deprived or in/ex-cluded? “Bottom-up” Analysis of the Social Citizenship of the Roma migrants in two Western European cities.

Iulia Hasdeu, University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland (HETS & HEAD), Geneva

The present contribution highlights two different contexts of severe deprivation of Roma migrants in Europe after 2010 and two different programmatic actions to fight against it. 

First, we take a look at the Romanian Roma back- and-forth migrants who live in Geneva and are penalized and imprisoned for begging or illegal sex work. They live in the non-tolerated shantytown or settlement in the extended city area (like in other European metropolis). The ethnic boundary between Roma and non-Roma is recreated through the interaction between the moral and symbolic violence relating to police repression, the high visibility of Roma poverty in public place and their privileged intra-group relations. As a specific form of response, the Roma, originated in rural and peri-urban places, use their “village making” practices to perform their own symbolic and social appropriation of the town. Since 2015, initiated by a social worker, an intercultural mediation and social work oriented programme (Pôle de médiation Roms CARITAS) supports the Romanian speaking Roma migrants to cope with the legal constraints and to get access to basic needs-fulfillment on a fundamental rights basis.

Second, we describe another social work practice on the example of an  NGO called Chi rom e chi no… that supports the ex-Yugoslavian Roma camp of Cupaperillo (Naples), which spatially includes the well-known peripheral ghetto Scampia, considered the main mafia seat of crimes in Europe. The Roma camp is abutted to a waste large area. CRCN grew in the beginning of 2000’s on the roots of a former anarchist squatters’ group and further evolved towards children and youth educational skills training and interactive cultural pedagogy within a strong local network including « historical » political activist inhabitants, religious settings and other civil society actors. 

We will emphasize differences and similarities between these two cases. We attempt to explain them in their respective political and social specific context. Our aim is to challenge the classical definition of citizenship (Marshall, 1950; Ong, 1999 et 2006; Lazar & Nuijten, 2013; Lee, 2016; Gonzales & Sigona, 2017). If both cases are parts of a wider European punishing-the-poor urban governance model, if both emphasize the forms of severe poverty and marginalization, those contexts don’t express « destitution » in a similar way. In order to argue this statement, we’ll propose to critically examine notions like « underclass » (Stewart, 2002) and «in/ex-clusion ».      

Keywords: Roma people, citizenship, social inclusion, social exclusion  

Iulia Hasdeu holds a PhD in anthropology at the University of Neuchâtel. She was senior lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Geneva and is actually working as a senior researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland (HETS & HEAD Geneva). Her main research areas are intersectionality and innovative social work in the integration of vulnerable migrants and the new forms of citizenship.