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Migration crisis slams shut Sweden’s open door to refugees

17 May 20160 comments

Sweden’s reputation as an international paragon of openness and humanitarianism has been sorely tested by the European migrant crisis, according to the head of Sweden’s Migration Agency, Oskar Ekblad.

Speaking at last week’s Settlement Council of Australia (SCOA) triennial conference, Mr Ekblad said that Sweden had experienced a humanitarian crisis situation in the northern autumn.

He told the conference that in an unprecedented move, Sweden had introduced border controls when the number of arrivals topped 11,000 a month.

“We had 163,000 applicants last year – in a country of nine million people. That obviously strained our resources, stretched our capacity to the limit,” Mr Ekblad told the conference.

“In fact there was a week in 2015 in November where people had to basically sleep in the streets because we just couldn’t find housing quickly enough,” he said.

Mr Ekblad said although the Swedish Government was willing to stump up money to tackle the influx, appropriate resources on the ground were scarce.

“We received 35,000 unaccompanied minors. You can imagine 35,000 young boys and girls that all need some appraisal by government about their best interests,” he said.

“That requires an interview, a full set of determinations about everything. Many organisations are just out of staff. We also lack good housing, we also lack some transportation, but it’s coming together now but at the height of the crisis this problem existed,” Mr Ekblad told the conference.

Since Sweden imposed border controls the flood of migrants has abated, Mr Ekblad said.

“Since Sweden introduced border controls and obviously since people stopped arriving in Greece we are now at about 500 persons a week which is still a lot but is a lot, lot less than the 11,000 a week that we had in mid-November,” he said.

Mr Ekblad said Sweden’s introduction of border controls was a watershed step for a country that has long prided itself on openness and its reputation a leading humanitarian nation.

“Sweden has been very open to refugees and gave out permanent residency to many groups. The Syrians and Eritreans for example were given residency in Sweden when they arrived and created a situation in Europe where there was a particular preference to go to Sweden,” he said.

“That I think hit Sweden very brutally in the fall and politicians had to instigate some sort of measures to basically cull the arrivals.

“That was the only way to keep the crisis from escalating. So they’ve introduced border controls and ID checks and those controls have obviously diminished the flows, and we are now at levels where the migrant agencies and other agencies are able to handle the flow,” Mr Ekblad told the conference.

He said it was difficult to know what would happen with the resettlement of refugees into the future as European Union nations struggled to agree on a comprehensive plan to deal with the influx of migrants.

Recently, the European Union closed the border with Greece and Macedonia with thousands of refugees who cross the Mediterranean stuck in Greece. A separate deal with Turkey has stopped the flow on the overland route.

“Legally and technically the persons who arrived before I think it’s the fourth of April, are going to be redistributed according to the plan but that’s going extremely slow within the European Union.

“The ones that arrived afterwards are being returned to Turkey and Syrians are correspondingly being resettled in Europe.

“Now what Europe needs is basically an internal solidarity mechanism. So that is a migration policy within Europe which can show solidarity between countries. That is what Sweden and Germany have talked about.

“This is because Sweden with 9 million is receiving 160,000, and Germany is receiving 600,000 while other countries have had almost no arrivals,” he said.

Mr Ekblad said Europe could learn from Australia’s migration and settlement programs and that a global effort was needed given the scale of the refugees crisis, which has seen more than 60 million people displaced worldwide.

“We also need an external migration policy. And I think we need one that’s well invested in large-scale resettlement, much like what Australia is doing,” he said.

“So this means the introduction of many more places in the European Union and in Turkey.

“The 76,000 places that are being planned are obviously great news but the fact is there are thousands more and all of these people, whether they’re inside in Greece or outside in Turkey, or elsewhere in the world, need to find places to resettle. So that’s why we need a global effort.

He said that Australia’s model of resettlement should be looked at closely by the rest of the world.

“There’s definitely something that Europe, Sweden and Scandinavia can learn from Australia. I think one thing is that Europeans and Nordic countries in particular are very heavy on the government side,” Mr Ekblad said.

“So that means that the public agencies, whether local, regional or state agencies, they are service providers. And what I see here is the number of altruistic, non-profit, but professional agencies that carry out services here,” he said.

“Obviously they are procured and paid for by government, but I think their contribution is very important. The government needs to maintain the role as providing the resources but I think where Sweden could learn a lot is to institute a system of tapping into the resources of ordinary citizens.

“So transforming Sweden and other countries into a system, into this fabric of voluntary or not-for-profit agencies that you have here is really something that I would wish for Sweden to do and I think that would increase out capacity a lot. I think that’s also what underlies Australia’s capacity,” Mr Ekblad said.