Sweden’s border controls: the domino effect

Cross-posted from OpenDemocracy 

On 10 January 2016 the inevitable happened. Europe’s shameful and deliberate mishandling of the refugee crisis led Sweden to impose ID controls at the Sweden-Denmark border. While temporary border controls were first introduced in November 2015, this most recent piece of legislation will be valid for three years.

Rail commuters travelling to Sweden now have to change trains at Copenhagen airport and go through ID checkpoints, where “security personnel” dressed in fluorescent jackets take pictures of their photo-ID on government-issued smartphones. Some commuters even laugh and joke with them; scenes which would not be out of place in Orwell’s ‘1984’.

This is the first time since the 1950s that travellers from Denmark to Sweden have to present a valid photo ID in order to complete their journey. The decision also marks a turning point for the Social Democrat and Green coalition in Sweden, which had previously welcomed asylum seekers into the country. While many commentators say that this may be the beginning of the end for Schengen, a more pressing question arises. What does this mean for Europe as a project and for the people coming here in search of safety?

A safe place for some

Travel operators are tasked with carrying out the ID checks on the border and they face penalties if they fail to do so adequately. The lack of training that these people are given in understanding what constitutes a ‘valid’ photo ID, however, is bound to cause confusion and irritation amongst travellers. More importantly, it is intensely distressing for already anxious and exhausted refugees. According to the Swedish Migration Agency, 80% of those seeking asylum in 2015 lacked passports or equivalent IDs at the time of filing their applications.

The ID checks have made sure that Sweden will become a safe place for only a select few. The requirement of valid photo ID has ramifications across nationality, age, and class lines. For example, very few juvenile Afghans have papers. Unaccompanied minors, in general, are the hardest hit as they often travel without documents. In practice this means that children, many of whom have lost their parents on the journey and are entirely alone, will now be denied refuge in Sweden for the sake of more secure borders.

Even for the people whose asylum claims are being processed, the border controls are an added layer of intimidation and yet another sign of Europe’s hostility towards them. The LMA (Lagen om mottagande av asylsökande or Swedish Reception of Asylum Seekers’ Act) cards, that carry a photo of the holder, are not always considered valid photo ID. Those with passports have to hand them over to the Migration board while their claims are being processed, making the LMA card their only form of ID. The reality is that asylum seekers who are already in Sweden have now had their freedom of movement curtailed.

Domino effect

Sweden’s border controls are already beginning to have a domino effect, with the Danes having stepped up their own controls at the German border. Denmark’s move has been caused by its fears that the Swedish ID checks will leave Danish borders vulnerable to large numbers of refugees claiming asylum there, rather than using it as a transit country to reach Sweden or Norway.

Norway has also announced that it will turn back refugees without visas arriving from elsewhere in the Schengen zone, particularly from Sweden, and is currently attempting to deport a group who cycled from Russia. It appears that Scandinavian countries will now be competing amongst themselves for the title of ‘most hostile to asylum seekers’. It is a gift for Europe’s far right, which must be rubbing its hands with glee.

The hostility to refugees, which has been present since the beginning of the crisis, can be seen in the fact that many media outlets, including the BBC, seem to be more concerned about the effect the new border controls have on commuters than on the people attempting to claim asylum.

The fact that direct journeys will no longer be available to Sweden from Copenhagen’s main airport, adding 40 minutes to a 30 minute commute is, of course, irritating. It is, however, a significant marker of how far refugees and migrants have been dehumanised by some sections of the press when the commute of a European citizen is of more importance than the life and safety of a non-European refugee.

Never mind that freedom of movement in the European Union is now in danger – these border controls will result in the deaths of people who were not lucky enough, in the arbitrary lottery that decides to whom and where we are born, to be European passport holders.

Shifting discourse

Sweden’s shift in discourse has been dramatic. It was only on the 6 September 2015 that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven declared, “My Europe takes in people fleeing from war, my Europe does not build walls.” It seems that, 163,000 asylum applications later, Löfven changed his mind about what kind of Europe he lives in.

When Sweden says its system is strained, that is not a lie. Sweden has taken in the highest number of asylum seekers in Europe proportionate to its population. In the autumn of 2015 asylum applications were running at 10,000 weekly. The government wants to decrease this number to 1000 weekly this year. It is clear to everyone that Sweden’s system is under intense pressure.

The situation in Sweden did not have to be like this, however. Europe could and should have shared the responsibility of resettling asylum seekers across its territory. Europe could and should have had quotas based on population size and GDP. Most importantly, Europe could and should have actively managed the crisis, instead of allowing a few states to deal with it – mostly without support.

It comes as no surprise then that Denmark’s Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, wants the EU to take “collective decisions” with regard to the refugee crisis. However, his comments are aimed at protecting Denmark’s borders, rather than facilitating safe routes to Europe. Increasingly, the discourse around the refugee crisis is shifting from the management of a moral duty to a conversation that revolves around protection: protection for “us” from “them”. How do “we” get rid of “them”? How do “we” stop “them” from coming here, to “our” countries?

It would be foolish to conclude that the border controls will prevent refugees from coming to Sweden. They will, instead, lead to people choosing more dangerous routes, such as taking boats across the Oresund Strait. The opening of “illegal” routes will also create conditions for the smuggling trade to increase within the EU, as well as the business of producing falsified documents to flourish.

Yes, the border controls will make it more dangerous for refugees to reach Sweden but, considering what they are running from, they will keep trying. And now, even more of them will die in the process, because, these days, Europe is only a safe haven for some.

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