Sweden’s Refugee Dilemma

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At the height of the Refugee Crisis in 2015, Sweden was considered to be the biggest safe haven in all of Europe. In 2015 alone, Sweden took in nearly 163,000 refugees, including 35,000 unaccompanied minors. At its peak, refugees were arriving at a rate of 10,000 a week. This made them the largest per capita recipient of refugees in all of Europe.

Background

Advert for the Sweden Democrats at a subway station in Stockholm. In a series of signs arranged along the ceiling of the escalator as commuters descend, it reads : "Sorry about the mess here in Sweden. We have a serious problem with forced begging! International gangs profit from people's desperation. Our government won't do what's needed. But we will! And we're growing at record speed. =)"
Advertisement for the Sweden Democrats at a subway station in Stockholm

Like Canada, Sweden has been able to have a friendly attitude towards immigrants as it is located so far north and far away from hot spots of migration. However, as the Syrian Civil War greatly expanded the number of refugees coming to Europe, many turned to Sweden due to its generous permit policy. The city of Malmö, located within half an hour of Copenhagen, was filled with refugees coming up from Denmark. At its peak, refugees were left to sleep outside the city due to overcrowding. Beggars became more visible on the streets, implying that authorities were losing control over the country. Though Sweden used to be able to handle waves of migrants, the situation has changed as the amount of incoming foreigners has increased to numbers never previously imagined. A sense of injustice began rising among citizens as the pressure of the new arrivals has greatly strained Sweden’s social welfare system. This frustration has also translated to the polls, as the Sweden Democrats, once a fringe group, have been gaining more support. The Sweden Democrats are a far right, neo-Nazi, and anti-immigration party. In August 2015, a YouGov poll revealed that the Sweden Democrats had a support of 25.2% of voters, making them the most popular political party in the country. This is not surprising, due to the growing disquiet over the country’s generous migration policies. Series of arson attacks against refugees and anti-Semitic incidents have also been on the rise. For example, there were over 90 arson attacks on asylum seekers’ housing in 2016, and more and more Jews are leaving the city of Malmö due to attacks on Jewish cemeteries and synagogues.

The Change

In November 2015, Sweden announced an end to its open-door migration policy. Sweden now follows the European Union’s (EU) minimum requirement for refugees, meaning that it is nearly impossible for refugees to receive permanent asylum in Sweden or bring their families. The Öresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark used to be free of border controls and passport checks; it now requires both. Instead, the best most refugees can hope for is a three-year residence permit. If arrivals are not given the status of refugees but still fall under the EU requirement for subsidiary protection, they may be granted a thirteen-month residence permit. The EU defines a refugee is defined as “an individual fleeing targeted persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, or affiliation to a particular group“. However, fleeing your country because you have no family left and you fear for your survival does not necessarily classify as you as a refugee in the eyes of the law. Rather, you are classified as seeking subsidiary protection status.

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Map illustrating total number of refugees coming into Europe in 2015. At a population of under 10 million, Sweden was receiving by far the most per capita.

An Issue of Age

The situation is further complicated by Sweden’s Migration Agency Office not deciding asylum cases by the applicants’ ages when they arrive. Rather, it is based on when their cases are adjudicated. As the average waiting time for a deciding a case is nearly 500 days, many foreigners arrive as minors and are judged as adults. This is significant as there are no obstacles preventing Sweden’s Migration Agency from deporting adults. This leads to many refugees being forced back to their home countries and having to stay on the streets as they no longer have friends or family to stay with. However, the agency is required to place minors in the care of another family member or a suitable organization in the destination country to care for the child. Some countries, like Afghanistan, do not have those types of organizations so locating a family member is the only option available. Due to the heavy weight placed on age in determining the fate of the migrants, the Swedish government has been accused of intentionally stalling so people who initially arrive as minors are not adjudicated until they are over the age of eighteen.

In March 2017, the Migration Agency Office introduced forensic exams to approximate a person’s age. The exam relies on dental x-rays and an MRI of the knee joint to prevent adults from claiming to be minors. It has sparked outrage from many who claim that the results are not reliable, and can lead to minors being treated as adults. In some cases, an individual will be judged as being two weeks past eighteen, despite the exam being unable to achieve such high levels of specificity accurately. Therefore, the United Nations Refugee Agency in Sweden has advocated for the use of such exams only as a last resort. However, there is fear that the results are given more weight if they indicate that the asylum seeker is an adult, rather than results that illustrate the contrary. Nonetheless, the extent to which these results influence deportation decisions is still unclear.

Today

Sweden’s more restrictive immigration policies have already begun to show effect. In 2016, the country accepted fewer than 30,000 asylum seekers, and accepted even fewer in 2017 (quite the fall from the 163,000 who entered the country in 2015). With other Scandinavian countries such as Denmark and Norway and the rest of Europe also tightening their border security, refugees and asylum seekers are left with fewer places to go and are stuck in a legal limbo. As the crisis enters its third year, Europe continues to struggle with the mass influx of refugees. The decrease in refugees and asylum seekers accepted into Sweden is not a reflection of improved conditions in unstable countries like Iraq and Syria. Rather, it is a result of policy changes at both the EU and national levels. Sweden’s traditional parties are now torn between ignoring radical groups like the Sweden Democrats and risk losing votes or fending them off by accepting their anti-immigration views.