The refugee problem might be the most complicated question in post-war Sweden.
Eighty thousand refugees, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, have made it to Sweden in the past few months alone. Over 64 per cent of the refugees are unaccompanied children. By now, approximately 120,000 people have applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015 and the number is growing daily.
Sweden has accepted the largest number of refugees per capita in the European Union during the current refugee crisis. Only six months ago, Swedish politicians invited people to open their hearts and Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén calmed the nation by saying that the Swedish population is ageing and there is a need for new people, whereas now, the discussion is solely about the crisis and it sounds increasingly like a cry for help. According to Swedish politicians, the situation in Sweden caused by the refugee crisis is one of the most complex domestic issues in the entire post-war period. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén admits that accepting the influx of refugees is an “extraordinarily difficult task” for the country and has called on the state and its people to make a “national effort”. Every month, the Swedish media publishes news stories on how school classes are brimming with children, teaching is disrupted, there is a lack of teachers as well as Arab, Somali and Persian interpreters, and the housing crisis is deepening. Renting homes for refugees has become a lucrative business nationwide with turnover reaching billions. There is talk of the need to change laws so that schools and social services would not feel obliged to maintain work quality, because it is simply not feasible. In their address to the government, the Swedish Construction Agency draws attention to local governments being forced to violate the building code in order to house refugees and begin construction works before receiving the respective permit, which in the long term could lead to the society losing its confidence in legislation completely. Representatives of local governments have warned about social discontent. Doctors’ waiting lists are becoming longer and most of the work falls on psychologists, as an estimated 30 per cent of the refugees have experienced mental trauma, which requires long-term treatment. Doctors warn that psychological problems complicate social integration, language learning and generate conflicts with the surroundings. For a long time, the authorities did not have control over the number of refugees arriving in Sweden and how many of them crossed the Swedish border without applying for asylum or registering themselves. Consequently, many unaccompanied children were lost.
All this has resulted in drastic changes in Swedish immigration policy, the direction of debates as well as the views of the Swedish people in only six months.
Only half a year ago, Western countries were irritated about Eastern Europe’s stubbornness and hostility towards Mediterranean boat refugees. Why are the former communist countries more opposed to refugees than the old European countries, asked the influential Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter in an article published on 10 October. The newspaper’s correspondents travelled to Estonia, which came to represent the entire Eastern bloc in this question. This resulted in a lengthy article with several examples of the critical atmosphere with regard to accepting refugees in Estonia.
The newspaper quotes the words of the Estonian Minister of the Interior Hanno Pevkur on Estonia’s preference for women and Christians when accepting refugees. “It is difficult to interpret these words in any other way than that the fear of Muslim men is justified. Christians are better,” the newspaper interprets the minister’s words.
The newspaper is aware of a case where a CEO of a large Estonian property broker advised their clients not to rent flats to Muslim refugees, because of their “different culture, religion and lifestyle”. The leader of the Riigikogu (Estonian parliamentary) faction of the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), Martin Helme, is also cited in the paper, telling Swedish correspondents about his worries regarding the abundance of African and Mediterranean-looking individuals on the streets of Tallinn. As a more radical example, Dagens Nyheter highlights a Facebook post written by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kristiina Ojuland, that “the white race is under threat” and immigration is “a question of niggers”.
The newspaper describes the arson attack on the refugee centre in the town of Vao and the fear felt by the refugees in great detail. “If European borders were open, we would all be gone from here within a few hours,” said one Vao resident (refugee) Abdul. Another, 27-year-old Sator from Pakistan, however, comments calmly: “Nobody likes refugees anywhere in the world. Why would Estonia be any different?”.
The article asks where the Estonian and Eastern European hostility against foreigners originates. It concludes that the most significant reason lies in the lack of substantial experience with immigration since World War II and the Soviet occupation, as opposed to, for instance, France or the United Kingdom, which accepted millions of immigrants, who gradually adapted to their new homeland after the end of the colonial period.
Mass emigration or immigration to one’s native country was not possible under socialism. For decades, communist regimes instilled in their people that foreigners are dangerous and untrustworthy, says the paper.
The newspaper delves into Estonian history and finds another explanation for the hostility towards foreigners in the centuries of foreign power and the painful experience under the Soviet population policy, as Estonians were deported to distant regions of the Soviet Union, while the gap they left was filled by Russians. Soviet mistrust of Islamic nations as well as mistrust and fear in general—a Soviet inheritance, which still appears to be part of people—have also a role in the current atmosphere. One Swedish-Estonian lawyer who lives and works in Tallinn offers an example: it is rare to find a name tag on people’s doors in Estonia and instead of answering the phone with their name, people usually say “hello” or “yes”. The paper also makes a point of mentioning the status of Jews during World War II and the continued reluctance among Estonians to be open about this topic.
Dagens Nyheter has also talked to the former European Commissioner for refugees Cecilia Malmström, who tore her hair out over Estonia in her day. How is it possible that a country where tens of thousands of people fled in the 1940s refuses to accept a couple of hundred war refugees? Dagens Nyheter points out that Western countries are also infuriated by the fact that persecuted individuals from the former satellite states of the Soviet Union found refuge in the West during the Cold War, and that the West has helped these countries with billions after the expansion of the European Union. Is this the gratitude they receive?
If the article had been published only a few months later, the reactions to the photograph of the charred corner of the Vao refugee centre would have been very different. During the course of a year, more than twenty Swedish refugee centres have been set on fire. The police suspect arson, but the culprits are yet to be found. The police assume that the arsonists are inspired by the support their actions receive online. The Swedish Migration Agency tries to keep the locations of refugee centres a secret, while large posters on houses in the larger cities display information on planned refugee centres. After the case in Västerås, where an Eritrean who, after receiving a negative response to his application for asylum, stabbed two random “Swedish-looking” people to death, many people do not hide their feelings of uncertainty towards the existence of a refugee centre near their home.
What are people saying among themselves? Young Swedes who have many schoolmates and friends who have their roots in every possible corner of the world do not see a problem or the refugees as a threat. The opinion of older Swedes, however, is as follows: immigration should have been discouraged long ago, the government is always ten years behind the times and reacts only when the damage has been done, skadan har skedd. According to public opinion, the Swedish immigration policy is hypocritical and refuses to face the truth. This is the reason for the rise in crime rates, honour killings, segregation, the growing popularity of the far-right Swedish Democrats and the burning of refugee centres. People complain that the newcomers have rights, but who will defend us and our established way of life? People’s sense of justice is also offended by those who have never worked in Sweden nor paid taxes having the same right to free education, healthcare and financial support as those who have a long working life behind them. Swedes complain among themselves that there is no money for schools and care for the elderly, but now 11 billion have somehow been found for refugees.
Initial estimates indicate that 140,000–160,000 war refugees will have arrived in Sweden by the end of the year. The Swedish Riksdag and the government are facing a dilemma—to allow a drop in the quality of education, healthcare and care system, or to allow refugees to live in worse conditions than other citizens. Both solutions create tensions.
The Swedish investigative television programme Uppdrag granskning visited a Swedish refugee camp where the residents complained about cramped spaces, dirty toilets, the lack of toilet paper and children’s toys. One refugee mother told of how she is afraid of letting her daughter out of the room because there are “mentally unstable individuals” living in the refugee centre. The reporter asked the woman what Sweden should do in this situation. “Close the borders! Take care of those who are already here, do not accept any new ones,” was her quick response.
In mid-November, the Swedish government made a historic decision to drastically tighten the immigration and asylum policy and stop the stream of refugees, which had begun to threaten the functioning of the society as a whole. According to new rules, the refugees will now receive a temporary residence permit instead of a permanent one, with the exception of quota refugees.
Limits will be imposed on admitting the relatives of refugees. Only the families of those refugees whose status complies with the UN Geneva Convention can reunite with them in Sweden. In that respect, Sweden has become one of the strictest countries in the European Union. The maintenance obligation shall become firmer as well, which means that a refugee’s family can be brought into the country only if they manage to feed themselves. Medical verification will be imposed to determine the ages of the asylum seekers, so that no 20-year-olds can claim to be child refugees.
ID checks are being introduced in all means of Swedish public transport. Passport control is already tightened in the harbours of South and Eastern Sweden and on the Öresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark, which is currently the entry point for the majority of the refugees. Border controls were imposed on the bridge when the number of refugees arriving in Sweden reached around 10,000 per week. A bill is being prepared which would allow the government to quickly close all transport connections to the country, such as bridges and highways, if the need should arise. A new agreement has been concluded with Afghanistan concerning the readmission of individuals whose asylum applications have been rejected. All this is a sign to the world and the European Union that there is no use fleeing to Sweden anymore, Sweden’s boat is full, and a calming sign to the Swedish people that the government is not just sitting and twiddling its thumbs. “The situation has become unbearable, Sweden has to take a break,” admits Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén.
Nobody is talking about the enriching influence of immigration anymore. On the contrary, in an article Cracks on Sweden’s Facade published in the Swedish financial newspaper Dagens Industri, Henrik Mitelman points out that people often emphasise the positive long-term effect of immigration on the country’s economy – that more people equals greater gross domestic product (GDP). He stresses that GDP per capita should also be considered. GDP growth is possible when the people arriving in the country contribute to its economy as much as the local population. That is to say that the newcomers’ employment and education are at the same level as those of the receiving country. However, there are not many people with high education among the current influx of refugees; it will take years for the newly arrived to enter the country’s labour market. This is not only a human tragedy but also an economic disaster, he writes. The author highlights the first accounting figures, which indicate that the refugee crisis will cost Sweden 270 billion Swedish kronor in the next three years. The author of the article is worried that his acquaintance, a pension fund trustee in Boston, is afraid that Sweden will become a risky country for foreign investors.
Nobody is satisfied with the current situation. Europe is racking its brain and countries are fighting each other to find a solution to the refugee crisis. Population scientist Joakim Ruist from the University of Gothenburg suggests that the UN refugee convention be demolished in order to create a working refugee policy for the European Union. As he discusses in an article published in Svenska Dagbladet and on his blog, the current UN refugee convention was written in 1951, focusing on the people who had become refugees due to events that happened in Europe before 1951, and who were in danger of persecution if they should return to their homeland. Ruist points out that all refugees were already in new asylum countries when the convention was composed and their approximate number was known. However, the 1967 protocol added that all war refugees have the right to asylum, without amending or updating the provisions in any other way. Joakim Ruist suggests that the principle that all war refugees with the right to asylum must be granted refuge in the countries they have reached cannot be applied in the case of the current numbers of refugees. The European Union countries should have realised 30 years ago that there are too many refugees in the world for that to work. Yet nobody dares to reject the beautiful principles, instead, barriers are being erected to stop the influx of refugees. In turn, this has led to human trafficking and fatal sea crossings in the hope of success, writes Ruist. He calls for a change in the refugee convention and the whole asylum system so that each country could determine the limit of how many refugees they are able to receive and share it with the world, without making promises they cannot keep.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.