Refugee policy in Scandinavia: paradigm shift in liberal Sweden?

Geflüchtete an der mazedonischen Grenze

The Nordic countries have traditionally been attractive for refugees. Given the large number of refugees that arrived last year, these countries have introduced an increasingly restrictive asylum policy, however.


For many refugees, the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Norway and, above all, Sweden – have been popular destinations. One of the main reasons for this is that the Nordic countries – despite recent cuts – continue to have comprehensive and generous social welfare systems. Moreover, they avail of structures that have been established by preceding immigrants (especially those from Syria and Iraq). On the one hand, the Nordic countries exhibit many commonalities, most notably on a socio-economic and cultural level. They work very closely in numerous policy areas. In terms of migration and refugee policy, however, they have no uniform models, but, in part, very grave differences. In 2015, the large number of refugees and the divergent refugee reception practices even led to tensions among the Nordic countries and, for the first time in 60 years, to the reintroduction of passport controls at the common inner-Nordic borders.

Denmark, Finland and Norway have pursued a restrictive refugee policy as far back as the 1990s, including a gradual tightening of asylum legislation in the 2000s. By contrast, Sweden long stood out as the Nordic country embracing the most generous refugee policy. Of all EU Member States, it is the country that receives the highest number of applications for asylum based on its total population. Since 2011, Sweden has recognized 80,000 Syrians alone as civil war refugees. During the large influx of those seeking refuge in 2015, the number of incoming refugees and those applying for asylum has risen drastically in all Nordic countries. At 163,000, Sweden, for its part, recorded the largest number of asylum seekers in 2015. A total of 32,000 people applied for asylum in Finland – the largest number ever. By contrast, only 21,000 did so in Denmark, a country that has acted more as a transition country and undertook measures in summer in order to look less appealing for refugees. Norway, which, unlike the first three cited countries, is not an EU member state, had a total of 31,000 applicant refugees.

New restrictions reflecting the rise of right-wing populist parties

Due to the massive increase in numbers of applicants, all four countries swiftly introduced new restrictions: limited family reunification, shorter residence permits, along with benefit cuts. This harder line is also connected with the rise in right-wing populist parties, which have been part of the coalition governments in Norway and Finland since 2013 and 2015 respectively. In Denmark, as a result of the last elections in 2015, the Danish People’s Party has for the second time provided the parliamentary majority for the conservative-liberal minority government. It has, for many years, exerted considerable influence on Denmark’s migration policy.

The generous, humanitarian-based, open refugee and reception policies, which Sweden has pursued to date, have been founded on a broad consensus across all political spectrums – both conservatives and left-wing politicians alike. Even the ousted conservative Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, had propounded a “policy of open hearts” in 2014 that was initially further continued by the Social Democratic/Green government under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and also long supported by a majority of the population. Sweden was thus considered to be a key ally of Germany on the refugee issue and also argued the case for European solutions and binding distribution quotas. Only the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats opposed this consensus. Whilst remaining largely politically isolated, they continue to enjoy growing approval, currently at 20 percent, as well as political influence. Sweden’s pronounced culture of consensus began to make way for increasing polarization and division. Fuelled by the rising refugee count, the number of xenophobic demonstrations and extreme right-wing attacks on refugees and refugee centres has risen sharply since 2015.

Reaching limits of reception capacities

Mid November 2015, the Swedish government felt unable to withstand the pressure and publicly admitted that the country had reached its reception capacities and that it needed a “breather”. The higher the number of incoming refugees, the greater the difficulties for agencies to accommodate them appropriately. Given the latent lack of housing prevalent in the major cities to begin with, many refugees were required to stay in very isolated areas, e.g. in the northern regions of the country. Further confounding the situation, difficulties had long since become apparent as far as integrating new arrivals was concerned. Asylum procedures are often long and drawn out. These make it especially difficult to integrate refugees into the labour market.

At the beginning of 2016, the government therefore opted to introduce border controls at the Öresund Bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden in order to control how many people enter the country. Shortly thereafter, the government decided to tighten the country’s asylum law, i.e. by limiting its residence permits to three years and making it more difficult for families to reunite, and also by making it easier to deport people faster. As an interim solution, the Swedish government adapted its country’s asylum law to that of the minimum standards of the EU, the aim being to have more people apply for asylum in other EU Member States. June 2016 will see a package of laws passed in Sweden’s parliament. Prior to this, in February 2016, the country’s Minister of the Interior, Anders Ygeman, announced that between 50 and 60 percent of all asylum seekers arriving in the country in 2015 – equating to a total of up to 80,000 people – would be deported. He also announced that, in doing so, he wanted to cooperate with other countries, like Germany.

The left-wing government clearly did not find this hard change easy, and only saw it through in response to excessive demands forced upon it, rather than as a matter of conviction. By contrast, critical voices countered that Sweden most definitely had the capacities if the country were able to distribute the refugees across the country more efficiently. Sweden is thus caught between humanitarian tradition, on the one hand, and limited capacities as well as an ambivalent atmosphere among the population, on the other.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".

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