Beyond biopolitics: the importance of the later work of Foucault to understand care practices of healthcare workers caring for undocumented migrants

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Undocumented migrants experience multiple institutional and legal barriers when trying to access healthcare services. Due to such limitations, healthcare workers often experience ethical dilemmas when caring for undocumented migrants. This article aims to understand how individual healthcare workers who regularly take care of undocumented migrants deal with these dilemmas in practice. So far, the role of healthcare workers in this context has mainly been theorized through the lens of biopolitics, conceiving of healthcare workers as merely obedient instruments of humanitarian government or gatekeeping.

Based on semi-structured, in-depth interviews and ethnographic observations with healthcare workers in Belgium, we explore how they ascribe meaning, reflect upon and give shape to care practices in relation to undocumented migrants. We use Foucault’s later work on care of the self to interpret the accounts given by the healthcare workers.

Healthcare workers in clinical roles exercise a certain degree of freedom in relation to the existing limitations to healthcare access of undocumented migrants. They developed techniques such as purposefully being inattentive to the undocumented status of the migrants. They also try to master their affective responses and transform their bodily attitude towards undocumented patients. They perform practical mental exercises to remind themselves of their role or position in the wider healthcare system and about their commitment to treat all patients equally. These techniques and exercises are inspired by colleagues who function as role models, inspiring them to relate in an ethical way to limitations in healthcare access. The developed care practices sometimes reproduce, sometimes transform the legal and institutional limitations to care for undocumented migrants.

The findings nuance the biopolitical analysis regarding the role of healthcare workers in healthcare delivery to undocumented migrants that has been dominant so far. Theoretically this article provides a reconceptualization of healthcare ethics as care of the self, an ethical practice that is somewhat independent of the traditional professional ethics.
Original languageEnglish
Article number157
Pages (from-to)157
Number of pages13
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 Nov 2021

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