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By Damaso Reyes
When Sweden announced that it was granting automatic permanent residency to Syrian refugees two years ago, it was hailed as a progressive leader, an example for the rest of Europe to emulate. As the Syrian civil war and the resultant refugee crisis continued escalated, more and more people began risking their lives to try to reach Europe. Germany was hit with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict, and Sweden, already taking the most number of asylum seekers per capita in Europe, welcomed even more. But as the tens of thousands of refugees arrived, attitudes began to change. The normally tolerant Swedes were shocked when arson was suspected at two homes for asylum seekers this year. Budgets exploded, and, in a surprising reversal of policy, Sweden's center-right government announced last month that it would now be offering only temporary residence permits to some asylum seekers while their status was determined.
Sweden’s backtracking on its commitment to refugees does not portend well for refugees throughout the continent. Conservatives and the far right, who are hostile to legal immigration let alone asylum seekers may now point to the Nordic country as an example of the failure of a progressive refugee policy.
Back in 2010, I spent several months in Austria examining that country's asylum system and writing about it for World Policy Journal. What I found was a system that had once generously welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees after World War II, had opened its doors during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, and yet had begun to close those same doors to African and Middle Eastern refugees in the early 21st century. From that 2010 World Policy Journal article: “From 2004 through 2007, the acceptance rate ranged from 40 percent to 50 percent; last year it dropped to less than 20 percent. The policy of the government as expressed by its political leaders is to control and curb asylum at the source—namely, the border.”
Germany recently announced that it too was tightening already strict asylum laws in response to the growing numbers of applicants. Yet Germany, along with other European nations, has made claims of its willingness to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees. How can they have it both ways?
To paraphrase a former American President, it depends on what the definition of “accept” is. As I noted in the pages of WPJ, asylum in Europe is regulated by the Dublin Treaty. As I also mentioned in my 2010 article: “Under the new regulation, passed just before a group of East European nations joined the EU, the first country asylum seekers enter is responsible for their asylum applications—a boon to Austria. As a country surrounded by other EU members, Austria can only receive refugees that first pass through another nation.”
Until recently, countries like Germany were simply deporting asylum seekers, virtually on arrival, “back” to countries like Greece and Italy, where the refugees had entered Europe. When this summer's influx became too much for nations bordering the Mediterranean, they revolted, claiming that Northern Europe, where most of these refugees were actually headed, was abdicating its responsibility for handling the refugees.
When the optics and the reality of the situation became impossible to ignore, Germany led the recalcitrant Europeans into a quota system that promised to spread the burden. But the quota system is not as promising as German leaders purport it to be. Instead, many asylum seekers will find only a temporary reprieve before being sent back, at least as far as the original nation they landed in.
The shift announced in Sweden, usually regarded as the most progressive country in Europe on asylum issues, is important because when Sweden announces they are “accepting” asylum seekers what they mean is they are allowing them to stay temporarily, usually with limited access to housing, benefits and the labor market. Then refugee cases are reviewed by the government to establish that those applying are, in their eyes, “legitimate” refugees and not economic migrants who would not be eligible for protection. Sweden was one of the few countries where this was not true, at least for one group of refugees. After this change there is little chance of other nations in Europe adopting more liberal asylum policies.
It is during this review process that the difficulties lie. Most European asylum systems were designed to handle tens, not hundreds of thousands, of applicants. When a conflict breaks out, national asylum systems are swamped (as I discovered during my time in Austria) where some of the people I spoke with had been waiting for a decision in their case for nearly a decade. In these situations, asylum requests are simply registered and refugees are told that their cases will be adjudicated at some point in the future. Years pass, children are born, and the person who was once a refugee becomes integrated into a new society—until their number comes up.
They are then hurried into a small office or courtroom, mostly without any representation, where the details of their case are reviewed. Can you provide a transcript from your elementary school? Can you name all the countries you passed through on your way here and the dates? Do you have any records that you have been persecuted? These are some of the questions asylum seekers, years after their arrival, might be asked. A decision is made quickly, and the decision is often negative. The asylum seeker then must navigate the appeals process, which might again take years. Once appeals (whose number varies from country to country) are exhausted, the refugee can then be forcibly removed. In the case of a child it might be to a country in which they hardly remember and might not speak the language.
Even if an asylum seeker can prove that they had been persecuted the insidious nature of the process means that once a conflict is deemed “over” by the media or politicians then the threat the refugee faces when they return is also “over.” America has learned that this is rarely the case as an investigation by The Guardian on deported Central American migrants shows.
This is why Sweden's policy, and its subsequent change, is so important. In Sweden, Syrian asylum seekers didn't have to worry about being deported at some unspecified date in the future. They could feel safe, put down roots and begin the long struggle on integrating into their new country. Now they may face the same uncertainty that migrants discover once they finally make it into Fortress Europe. Many people, refugees included, believe that making across the border means making it to safety. The truth of European asylum law is that the safe haven so many risk their lives for may end up just being a temporary reprieve.
Update on Monday, Nov. 9, 11:25 a.m.:
Shortly before this article was published on Friday, Nov. 6, the German Interior Ministry announced that future Syrian asylum seekers would not be categorized as refugees but instead would be given “subsidary protection.” In other words, they would be allowed to stay for only a year and not bring family to join them. They would also be restricted in the benefits they would be able to receive from the state. However, members of the coalition government reacted swiftly to the announcement and the proposal was quickly rolled back.
The awkward exchange suggests that the government's initial gesture was a trial balloon, as no ministry would make such a specific proposal without the consent of the Chancellor. Two days later, Reuters reported that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is now drawing a line in the sand. "We need to send a clear message to the world: we are very much prepared to help, we've shown that we are, but our possibilities are also limited," Schaeuble said in an interview with ARD television. It seems like the window is indeed shrinking for refugees seeking haven in Europe, and it's shrinking fast.
Damaso Reyes is a journalist, photographer, and World Policy Institute Senior Fellow. His work has appeared in numerous publications like the Wall Street Journal, Der Spiegel, and Time.
[Photos by Damaso Reyes]