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    Sweden’s U-turn in asylum policy sends strong signal to EU

    In recent years Sweden has received hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers – more than any other EU member state per capita. In 2015 the number almost doubled to 163 000 people out of total of more than a million for EU as a whole. No wonder that Sweden feels that it is too much for its capacity and that is has been too generous in accepting migrants, especially in view of the unwelcoming attitude and restrictive policy of other member states.

    Last November the Swedish government announced that it could not cope any longer with the influx of migrants. Only in September – November 2015 around 100 000 people had applied for asylum. The coalition government, made up of social-democrats and environmentalists, stated that it needed a respite from the flow of refugees and would adapt the asylum rules to the EU’s “minimum level”, only issuing temporary residence permits to asylum seekers.

    Besides acute problems in catering for the needs of newly-arrived migrants, Sweden has largely failed in integrating its “new-Swedes” into the labor market. Migration facilities and mosques have been attacked and put on fire. In a backlash against immigration, the far right-wing nationalist Sweden Democrats party received 13% of the votes in the elections in 2014.

    In order to stem the flow of migrants, Sweden this week (4 January) introduced for the first time temporary controls on its border with Denmark. Travelers coming from Denmark will have to show a valid identity card with a photo. Denmark, which has been much less forthcoming in receiving refugees, followed suit and imposed new border controls on people travelling over its border from Germany. This might result in a snow-ball effect on the migration route all the way from Greece though the Balkans to the north of Europe.

    “Forcing operators to control ID on public transport going to Sweden is a major concern,” Christian Ernhede, lawyer at the Swedish law firm Prudens, told The Brussels Times. “It may be a de facto infringement of international law by effectively preventing access to the border control and thus limiting the right to apply for asylum.”

    The European Commission is obviously concerned and Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos met on 6 January his counterparts from Denmark, Germany and Sweden. At a press conference in Brussels, he stated that there is agreement between them that ID-controls are exceptional measures which should be kept to a minimum and that the situation should return to normal as soon as possible, i.e. when the migration flows will slow down.

    According to a press officer at the European Commission, the Schengen Borders Code provides member states with the possibility to temporarily reintroduce border control at internal borders where there is a serious threat to public policy or internal security.

    “The reintroduction of border control at internal borders should remain exceptional and proportional,” the press officer told The Brussels Times. “The Commission is constantly following the situation regarding the proportionality of the measures taken. Regarding the measures introduced by Sweden on 4 January, the Commission is currently examining the legal provisions of the Swedish law in question.”

    Morgan Johansson, the Swedish Minister for Justice and Migration, said at the press conference that his country was forced to act to get control of the situation. “Sweden has taken most refugees per capita, not only last year, but for a number of years. We can do a lot, but we cannot do everything. That’s why we need the relocation system.”

    The Brussels Times followed-up the press conference by asking Morgan Johansson how he sees the current border controls between Denmark and Sweden in the context of EUs common asylum policy.

    Q: To which level does the migration flow have to be reduced to allow Sweden to abolish the ID controls?

    A: We have been obliged to take difficult decisions to regain control of an urgent situation but the measures taken are supposed to be temporary. The number of asylum seekers must be reduced to a sustainable level in the long term but at exact which level is difficult to say.

    Q: Considering that so many as 60 % of the asylum seekers lack valid ID cards, do you know how many people have been rejected because of the ID controls?

    A: The controls take place on Danish territory and work smoothly thanks to our good cooperation with the Danish railway company. It’s too early to tell exactly how many people who have been denied entry into Sweden because of lack of IDs. 

    Q: According to reports in Swedish media, Swedish security companies have refused to carry out the ID-controls because they feel that they lack competence for it. How have you solved this problem?

    A: Our perception is that the Swedish bus- and railway companies have resolved the issue and are handling the controls in a competent way. Before the controls were introduced the companies indeed had some queries but today the controls are carried out as intended.

    Q: Is the Swedish government convinced that the controls are legal and consistent with asylum legislation? Which legal assessment was made before the decision and is the report available?

    A: The issue of ID-controls has been handled according to the normal procedures, though during a shorter period because of the emergency situation. The government has carried out a judicial assessment and doesn’t see any obstacles as regards asylum law.

    Q: How do you see the Commission’s position on the ID-controls?

    A: The European Commission always examines new measures launched by the member states. However, EU law doesn’t prevent a member state from taking measures which are required to maintain law and order and to protect internal security if there is a real and serious threat which affects basic interests in society.

    Q: According to the Geneva Convention concerning refugees, an asylum seeker cannot be rejected because of lack of ID. Don’t the new ID-controls imply in practice that refugees are prevented from applying for asylum?

    A: ID-controls are a difficult but necessary decision to enable Sweden to take better care of all those people who already are in Sweden. During the two last years, 250 000 people have applied for asylum in Sweden. To offer housing, education and employment, Sweden cannot cope to continue receiving so many persons. The EU asylum rules are based on the idea that an asylum seeker shall apply for asylum in the first safe country he/she arrives to. The new legislation doesn’t prevent a person who already is in Sweden from applying for asylum.”

    Morgan Johansson underlines that the new policy is solely based on the fact that Sweden has reached a limit in its capacity to receive refugees. “More countries in EU should take more responsibility. Refugees need to apply for asylum in other member states. EUs common asylum policy isn’t performing well and needs to be reformed. EU needs to introduce a permanent system for reallocation of asylum seekers at its external borders.”

    M. Apelblat
    The Brussels Times