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20 July marks the day when Sweden will adapt its asylum law to that of the minimum standards of the EU. The law will make it more difficult for families to reunite and easier to deport asylum seekers faster. Criticised by many as being inhuman, MPs nevertheless passed the bill on 21 June with a large majority.
The generous, humanitarian-based asylum policy, which Sweden has pursued to date, will come to a temporary halt on 20 July. The sharp turn in policy is a response to the record number of refugees that arrived at Sweden’s doorstep last year. At the height of the refugee influx last autumn, the Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, said that Sweden had reached its asylum reception capacity and that it needed a ‘respite’ from the tens of thousands of refugees seeking asylum. Shortly thereafter, the government and the Alliance parties agreed that pressure on the Swedish asylum system was too high and the country had taken more than its share of responsibility in the global refugee crisis. At the beginning of 2016, the government opted to introduce border controls at the Öresund Bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden in order to control the number of refugees arriving at the country’s doorstep. Meanwhile, the government presented a bill to adjust the asylum law to that of the minimum standards of the EU, with the aim of sharply reducing the number of asylum seekers over a three-year period. According to the government, it was necessary to cut the number of people applying for asylum in Sweden and to improve the capacity of the Swedish refugee reception system, which last year saw over 160,000 people applying for asylum in the country. This year has seen a sharp drop in the number of asylum seekers. So far this year, fewer than 14,000 have applied.
Tightening the system
On 28 April, the government decided on a bill proposing that Swedish asylum regulations be temporarily brought into line with the minimum level in EU law and international conventions. The bill, 2015/16:174, proposed that Sweden introduce a temporary residence permit, limit the right to family member immigration and tighten maintenance requirements. The bill also eliminates a special protection category that exists only in Swedish law, which can be granted in light of so-called particularly distressing circumstances (särskilt ömmande omständigheter).
The Social Democrats did not find the change easy, and only agreed to it in response to the excessive demands on the system, rather than as a matter of conviction. When the Riksdag debated the bill on 20 June, the Minister for Migration, Morgan Johansson (S), emotionally discussed the necessity of approving the new legislative changes saying the country’s “system would completely collapse” if 200,000 asylum-seekers came to Sweden this year. “What do we do when other counties do not take their responsibility, and when other countries tighten their laws, can we stand by our laws, when we know that we will not be able to manage the same influx (of refugees) one more time? … This is the hardest piece of legislating that I have experienced in my 20 years in national politics, but it is a necessary decision to avoid Sweden finding itself in the same situation as during the autumn of 2015,” Mr Johansson said.
Prior to the vote, the Alliance parties said that they would have liked a bill less restrictive and in line with the cross-bloc agreement on immigration struck last autumn. The Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats had tabled amendments, inter alia, to ease the rules on family reunion, which they feared would force more families out on dangerous trips on the Mediterranean and make integration for those in Sweden more difficult. The Centre Party had announced prior to the vote that they would oppose the bill. During the Riksdag debate, Johanna Jönsson (C), called the bill inhumane: “To stop very vulnerable families from living together is nothing less than inhumane. We in the Centre Party are not alone in being critical of Sweden now taking steps to become one of the countries – next to Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Malta – that gives the worst protection to people who are fleeing,” she said. Meanwhile, the Moderate Party and the Sweden Democrats are in favour of the new law, but would like to make it permanent. In an interview with Sveriges Radio, Johan Forssell (M), said: “When this temporary law has expired in two, or three years, then it is important that Sweden does not return to the permissive migration policy that was in place before and that have contributed to the problems that Sweden has felt over the past two years.”
When it came to the vote, the bill to tighten Sweden’s asylum policy was passed by a large majority of the Riksdag. 240 members voted yes, 45 voted no, 30 abstained, and 34 were not present for the vote. The Social Democrats, Greens, Moderates and the Sweden Democrats made up the majority of the yes votes. Four Green Party rebels broke party ranks and voted against the proposal: Jabar Amin, Valter Mutt, Carl Schlyter and Annika Lillemets. The Liberals and Christian Democrats abstained from voting – apart from Birgitta Ohlsson (L) who voted No. The Centre Party and the Left Party voted No.
According to the new law, a person who is assessed as being a refugee will be granted a residency permit that applies for three years, and a person who is assessed as being eligible for subsidiary protection will be granted a permit for 13 months. Furthermore, the law makes it harder for people who get asylum, but who are not classified as refugees, to bring in family members. It also replaces permanent residence permits with temporary ones, which must be renewed every 13 months. The new law will take effect on July 20th and will apply to all asylum seekers who entered Sweden after November 24, 2015. The law will be in effect for a maximum of 3 years. At the same time, the Riksdag directed an announcement to the Government concerning the selection of quota refugees. Quota refugees are a certain number of people that Sweden receives every year as proposed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The selection of these people should be made in the same way as it is done today.
‘A race to the bottom’
While the MPs voted on the bill in the Riksdag, hundreds of people were gathered outside to protest against the bill. The demonstrators carried posters and sang “Our borders – other people’s deaths” and “Don’t break up families” and “Protect the right to asylum”. The proposed legislation quickly came under criticism from human rights groups, which accused the country of passing rules harmful to children as a way to deter refugees. During the consultation phase, the proposal was criticised by all 36 stakeholder organisations consulted in the legislative process, including UNHCR, Amnesty, the Church of Sweden, Save the Children and the Red Cross, as well as the Swedish Migration Agency, which will have to enforce the changes to the law. Save the Children said the law negated the UN declaration on the rights of the child, which is on its way to becoming legally binding in Swedish law. The UNHCR said it was regrettable that EU Member States appear to be competing to restrict their national asylum systems in a ‘race to the bottom’ and noted with concern that the Swedish government, “due to the continued inability of the European countries to respond to the current refugee situation with unity and solidarity”, is finding itself compelled to restrict its asylum laws. The UNHCR warned the measures Sweden was looking to implement could conflict with the best interests of unaccompanied children in Sweden, noting that separation from their families and extended periods of uncertainty can have a ‘detrimental effect’. “Long a leader in promoting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, Sweden is now joining the race to the bottom,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a press release. While all organisations highlighted deep flaws in the bill, the Council on Legislation (Lagrådet) finally gave its lukewarm approval.
But what will happen to the temporary law in three years? According to the plan, a review will be conducted after two years. The Green Party, which agreed to the stricter rules under strong political convulsions, hopes that the review will lead to Sweden returning to a more generous asylum policy. The two year review will, however, be conducted in the midst of the 2018 election campaign. In the current political climate, chances are most political parties would opt to keep the temporary law for the agreed three-year term and a less restrictive policy after the elections. When the temporary law expires on 20 July 2019, the elections will have taken place and the new government will have to deal with the issue. In the meantime, the government hopes that the EU will have agreed on a new asylum system leading to a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers between countries – and that countries actually apply it. An initial proposal has been presented by the European Commission, which will now be reviewed by the EU Council and the European Parliament. But ultimately, much will be dependent on factors beyond Sweden’s borders – the war in Syria, the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia – or if new crises occur with new flows of refugees to Europe. In the coming years, Sweden will be confronted with trying to maintain its citizens trust in the democratic social welfare system in addition to upholding their willingness to provide humanitarian ideals to populations suffering from war and poverty. Despite the radical changes in the asylum law, Sweden will continue to be caught between its humanitarian beliefs and traditions on the one hand and limited capacities and an increasingly ambivalent population on the other.