Sweden and Norway – two of Europe’s most popular destinations countries for asylum seekers – have recently decided to tighten border controls and asylum rules in an effort to reduce the number of incoming asylum seekers, and to force other EU Member States to take in more refugees. On the 17th of November, the Swedish Primer Minister, head of a left-wing government, announced a drastic tightening of their asylum rules. The Prime Minister said he was pained to announce the measures but that given the current influx of asylum seekers – predicted at 190,000 for this year alone – the current situation was “untenable”. Norway followed with a similar announcement later the same day, with the Primer Minister citing Sweden’s policy turn as a further reason for strengthening Norway’s borders.
In Sweden, several measures had already been introduced to control and limit the number of incoming of asylum seekers, including the reinstatement of border controls earlier in November. However, the country’s public services are still struggling to cope with the influx, a factor that has certainly contributed to fuelling anti-immigrant sentiments, which in turn explain the exponential growth of the nationalist Sweden Democrat Party, now Sweden’s third largest political movement. Part of their popularity is linked to the refugee crisis and to the outrage of many politically moderate Swedes towards the lack of political will on the part of the EU to redistribute asylum seekers, making Sweden’s asylum seeker per capita ratio higher than in any other European state.
The new measures in Sweden include changing permanent residency – previously given automatically to all those who were granted asylum – to temporary residence permits. Rules on family reunification have also been tightened, and medical checks to determine the age of youths seeking asylum and ID checks on public transport will also be introduced. It was announced that these new measures would be maintained for three years, even though passport controls at the border and time-limited visas will not be brought in until April next year.
The Swedish Prime Minister declared that the temporary legislation was implemented “so that more people choose to seek asylum in other countries”, criticising the EU for failing to agree to distribute refugees more evenly between Member States.
Norway is not a Member of the EU but is part of the Schengen Agreement. It has also started implementing measures to deal with the influx of asylum seekers this year, which, even though relatively low compared to neighbouring Sweden, is still triple from last year with around 35,000 people expected to seek asylum.
One of the recent measures taken by Norway has been to target one of the largest groups of asylum seekers: Afghans. This new strategy included publishing ads on the front pages of the Afghanistan Times and the Hasht-e-subh newspapers titled “Stricter immigration regulations in Norway – important information!“, and containing a warning that those failing to qualify for asylum will be forcibly removed to Kabul without the right to appeal. A Justice Ministry spokesman said that Norway was considering the implementation of similar campaigns in other countries.
The new legislation – similarly to the Swedish case – is only temporary and is designed to face the emergency over a period of two years. Other measures will allow foreign nationals to be arrested and detained in cases where it is strongly believed that their asylum applications will not be processed, or to impose a duty to report to the authorities and stay in specific places. Furthermore, the fast-track deportation of asylum seekers with a criminal record was discussed and agreed by a majority of parliamentarians.
It is alarming that these Scandinavian countries, traditionally known to be world-class leaders in refugee protection, have been affected by the migration crisis to such an extent that they have felt it necessary to drastically shift their policies. The shift from relatively “open-door” policies towards stricter asylum rules and regulations marks a historic change in political sentiment, and could signal the end of an era where Scandinavian states were perceived as oases guaranteeing shelter, jobs and generous benefits for those entitled to asylum.