Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Sweden's U-Turn on Asylum

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Sweden's U-Turn on Asylum

Article excerpt

Sweden has long been one of the main destination countries within the European Union (EU) for people seeking protection, and almost 163,000 people - mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq - applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015. The country's good reputation among asylum seekers is not without foundation. Sweden has had one of the highest protection rates in Europe for many years; refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection were granted permanent residence; asylum seekers had access to the labour market directly after lodging their application; and the standards of accommodation and of legal and social assistance during the asylum procedure were comparatively fair. Many new arrivals had heard from relatives, friends or smugglers that Sweden was a good place to start a new life in safety, and that - regardless of whether refugee status or subsidiary protection was granted - beneficiaries of protection had a right to reunite with their families in Sweden. After four years, recognised refugees could become Swedish citizens.

By the end of 2015, much of this had radically and suddenly changed. While in 2014 there had already been serious bottlenecks in the reception and accommodation provision for asylum seekers, when asylum seeker numbers climbed to record highs during the late summer and autumn of 2015 Sweden could no longer guarantee new arrivals a roof over their head. Municipalities were unable to provide social services and schooling as required by law, and the processing times for asylum applications stretched longer and longer.

In October, the central government suddenly started reacting. A plethora of draconian restrictions was announced to provide 'respite' for the Swedish asylum reception system. The number of asylum seekers had to be drastically reduced, it was argued. Beneficiaries of protection would in the future only be granted temporary stay, and their right to family reunification would be limited to the minimum required by international and EU law.1 At Sweden's Schengen borders, border checks were temporarily reintroduced and, since January 2016, bus, train and ferry companies are no longer allowed to carry passengers without identity documents from neighbouring Denmark or Germany to Sweden. Even the approach towards unaccompanied minors was soon to become tougher, according to the government.

After these announcements, and probably also as a result of seasonal variations and the closure of the irregular migration routes across the Western Balkans, the number of asylum seekers decreased almost at once. In March 2016, weekly arrivals were only about 5% of those recorded in early November 2015. And while many Swedes probably felt relieved at reduced immigration pressure, others were taken aback by Sweden's new restrictive stance.

The government continues to state that its turnaround on asylum is temporary, and that Sweden will return to openness as soon as the reception situation is under control again. Yet any normalisation of the situation will inevitably take a long time: many thousands of affordable rental apartments will need to be built, steps will need to be taken to improve the ability of new arrivals to integrate into the labour market, and a large number of teachers and medical staff will need to be recruited to keep the education and welfare systems functioning. …

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