Back in November, it was like the end of innocence. Deputy Prime Minister Åsa Romson famously broke down in tears as Sweden, the European country that has accepted the most asylum seekers per capita in recent years, announced it was ending its open-door policy.
After being overwhelmed by the daily arrival of up to 10,000 asylum seekers, this was the first indication that the political sands had shifted. Shortly afterwards, temporary border checks were introduced on the Øresund Bridge, linking Copenhagen and Sweden’s third city, Malmo. The border controls extended into Denmark and the police later significantly reinforced border guard deployments in the south of the country.
The measures have significantly dented the number of new arrivals but the government is still preparing to pass a series of major amendments to Sweden’s Aliens Act that will reduce prospective asylum seekers’ access to full refugee status, permanent residency and family reunification.
While all these measures are being called ‘temporary’, they are Europe’s new normal and Sweden’s reputation as one of the few welcoming nations to refugees has taken a hit.
“Sweden has a history of accepting refugees that goes back a long time, and I think this is something a lot of Swedes, on both the left and right, are very proud of,” said Martin Holmquist, foreign editor at the Fria Tidning newspaper. “The decision in November was pivotal in shifting the momentum from the left to the right wing.”
The biggest sign yet that Sweden is in the midst of a sea change on refugee policy came in January when Home Affairs Minister Anders Ygeman declared that the government would deport between 60,000 and 80,000 rejected asylum seekers from last year’s unprecedented influx.
His figures – based on Sweden’s 55 percent approval rate for asylum decisions made in 2015 – fail to take into account the Swedish Migration Agency’s huge backlog of applications. The cost and difficulty of tracking down and deporting tens of thousands of people also make it a wholly unrealistic proposition.
Jenni Stavare, an asylum lawyer with Fridh Advokatbyrå and member of the board of the Swedish Network of Refugee Support Groups (FARR), explains that statements like those made by Ygeman are more about “setting a tone for politics” than about real goals.
“It definitely has a lot to do with the political climate,” Stavare argued. “We haven’t been that country that has been at the forefront of keeping people out, or deporting people by force — that has not been our history — but we’re slowly creeping towards that place.”
Fears of a crackdown
Refugee rights groups fear that more deportations will mean more people being detained in the lead-up to their forced removal.
Sweden has been regarded as more progressive and sparing in its use of immigration detention than many of its EU neighbours, but the numbers of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants being detained has risen in recent years. More than 3,500 people were detained last year in Sweden’s five specialised immigration detention facilities, compared to 1,742 in 2009.
Local and international organisations, including the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, have expressed concerns about at least two detainee deaths.
In March 2015, an Iraqi man died while being moved from a detention facility to Stockholm’s Årlanda Airport. A terminally ill Syrian woman also died in detention last year while awaiting a transfer to Bulgaria under the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that asylum applications must be processed in the first country where they were registered.
The government has not made public any plans to expand on the 255 nationwide detention spaces currently available, but home affairs spokesman Victor Harju told IRIN: “It is part of [our] planning ahead to increase capacity.”
Michael Flynn, executive director of the Geneva-based Global Detention Project, said there was “no way to avoid" higher detention rates if the government was serious about removing large numbers of people. “How many detention spaces does it take to deport 80,000 people in a year?” he asked.
A new blueprint for returns?
Further indications of a changing approach come in two new documents released by the Migration Agency outlining plans to reform how asylum applications are processed and how to handle those rejected.
The first, seen by IRIN, discusses shortening asylum processing times by identifying earlier on “manifestly unfounded” claims that are unlikely to be successful, before fast-tracking them.
“This will make the asylum process more efficient… but it will take some time for the effects to be seen,” the agency noted in a February press release.
A second report deals with how the Migration Agency, the police, the prisons and the parole service hope to increase returns this year. One of the key aims of the plan is to “experiment” with interventions that would create “reduced incentives to remain, or greater incentives to leave the country, after an expulsion decision.”
Police officials have warned about a “substantial increase” in failed asylum seekers who “disappear” after receiving expulsion orders.
“The government has decided that those who get their applications turned down will not be able to get the daily allowance given to asylum seekers, nor be able to stay on in homes provided by the authorities,” said Harju, adding that companies offering work to rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in the so-called ‘black’ economy would also be targeted.
A bill that would reduce rejected asylum seekers’ access to social services, including government-assigned housing and allowances, is expected to reach parliament “very soon,” another home affairs ministry spokesman, Rasmus Lenefors, told IRIN.
If passed the new measures will make life much harder for people like Liridona, an Albanian asylum seeker who asked for her real name to be withheld.
Earlier this year, Liridona and her family came to Sweden after their father, a police officer, became embroiled in a dispute with a local gang. She says they received death threats down the phone and threats of sexual violence in the streets.
After applying for asylum in February, they were interviewed, processed and rejected within the space of just three weeks.
“One interview today, one tomorrow and one after that, and after a few days you get a decision? How is that possible?” Liridona asked. “The people working in migration here don’t understand that people from [the Balkans] have real concerns and that their lives could be in danger.”
While the family appeal the decision, their asylum seeker allowance has been cut, but they are still allowed to live in government accommodation. However, under the new proposals, if the appeal is rejected, they will have to move out.
Whatever happens, Liridona is emphatic that she will not return to Albania. “I don’t want to do anything illegal — you have nothing when you are in a country illegally,” she said. “But I am not thinking about going back to Albania for one second.”