To Make Room for Syrians, Sweden Blocks Path to Asylum for Others

Changes in Swedish immigration policies no longer allow Afghans to apply for residency while the government mulls over whether to deport some 70 Lebanese families.

People protest in front of Sweden's parliament after lawmakers approved legislation to tighten regulations for asylum and family reunification, Stockholm, June 21, 2016.
Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency, Reuters

The Swedish government is acting to change its immigration and refugee absorption policies in order to make room for more Syrian asylum seekers — at the expense of refugees from other Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Under the new Swedish policy, asylum seekers from countries in which certain regions are defined as “safe,” including Afghanistan, would no longer be entitled to apply for residency in Sweden. In addition, Sweden will decide soon whether to deport some 70 families whose temporary residency permits have expired to Lebanon. The announcement prompted an angry response from the Lebanese government.

Earlier this year, Sweden announced it intended to deport up to 100,000 immigrants and asylum seekers in order to grant preference to asylum seekers arriving from Syria. The authorities have taken a number of steps to tighten the conditions for receiving asylum in Sweden. From now on, most asylum seekers will only receive temporary residency permits, not permanent residency, as many received in the past, according to a recent statement issued by the government on the matter. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said the right to family reunification would also be limited.

The Swedish Migration Council has also decided that if asylum seekers face no threat to their lives in certain regions of their countries of origin, they are no longer entitled to apply for residency in Sweden. For example, it has deemed parts of Afghanistan, such as areas around the Kabul, the capital, as safe — an independent decision of the Swedes which contradicts the UN’s Refugee Convention, which defines all Afghans who fled the conflict in their homeland as asylum seekers.

The Swedes have announced the deportation of over 1,000 Afghan asylum seekers in the first half of 2016, compared to the 246 who were deported in all of 2015. The decision was made after discovering that many of the young Afghans who applied for asylum never even lived in Afghanistan, but are the children of Afghan refugees who had fled to Iran or Pakistan.

The Swedish Migration Council has yet to make a concrete decision on safe areas in Iraq because of the spreading terrorism there, but it is likely that even Iraqi asylum seekers will face much harsher conditions for receiving residency permits and permanent resident status.

Another step the authorities have taken is conducting more in-depth investigations of asylum seekers and trying to find “holes” in their testimony. One of the Lebanese families expected to receive deportation orders complained that although their children lived in Aleppo, Syria, most of their lives, the government has defined them as citizens of Lebanon because their father has Lebanese citizenship. They said that many other families that received Swedish residency permits lied to the authorities, claiming they were Syrian citizens even though they never lived in Syria.

The main reason behind the changes and the new immigration policies is the economic burden caused by the sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers applying for residency in Sweden. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the number of asylum seekers who have received the Swedish residency permits has climbed about 120 percent since the 1990s.

The UN Refugee Agency says that compared to other European nations, Sweden has absorbed the greatest number of asylum seekers relative to its population over the past five years. Sweden is seen as the nicest country in the world for refugees; today, some 1.6 million foreigners live in Sweden — including both those who have already received Swedish citizenship and those with residency permits — and make up some 16 percent of the population.

Anders Danielsson, the director general of the Swedish Migration Agency, says his organization needs an additional budget of $8 billion over the next two years, while Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson said the state budget has a forecast deficit, partly due to the world refugee crisis, which will require Sweden to take out loans.

In response to the Swedish intention to deport Lebanese families, Lebanon’s Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said that if they are sent back to Lebanon, then Swedes working in Lebanon would also be deported. Lebanese authorities announced they have already begun collecting information on Swedish citizens employed in the country. The Lebanese government press office said the anticipated deportations are illegal and unjustified. Even Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil sent a combative message to his Swedish counterpart, Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, warning that the deportation of the Lebanese families would have a negative influence on relations between the two nations.

In Stockholm, the Lebanese anger has been perceived as hypocritical and self-righteous: Azzi called on all Lebanese citizens living outside the country to respect the laws and regulations of their country of residence after Lebanese workers were expelled from Gulf states over ties with Hezbollah in recent years.

The expected decision on deporting the Lebanese families is meant to signal that the country will focus on aiding refugees and not migrant workers. The Swedes are of the opinion that given the region saturated with violence, they must take a more careful and responsible line that will benefit the neediest groups.

The new trend in Sweden aims to help asylum seekers who need humanitarian aid and rehabilitation; in the end, the authorities hope, they will be able to return to their homelands. As for the Lebanese threats, Sweden has not given in and will soon order the deportations.

The writer is a PhD student at Bar-Ilan University in the conflict resolution, management and negotiation program.