How Sweden Treats Refugees

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In recent years, Federal Governments from both major parties have adopted asylum seeker policies that emphasise deterrence, resulting in the current system of cruel, collective punishment in prisons on faraway islands.

The counterpoint to this approach is Sweden, where there is no mandatory detention of asylum seekers and where these days they are not just welcomed when they arrive, but encouraged to come, as are their families.

Last September, in response to the flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war — 2.4 million at last count — the Swedish government announced that all Syrians who made it to their country, and passed the normal security checks, would be given permanent residency, along with their family members.

According to the director of operations at the Swedish Migration Board, Mikael Ribbenvik, there is nothing complicated about the Swedish approach to asylum seekers.

“What we are doing is following international law, European law and the national law," Ribbenvik told me by phone last week. "The law is very clear on this. You should give protection to people in need of protection."

“We did this with the Balkans in the 1990s, Iraq 10 years ago and we are doing it now with Syria. This is just what we are expected to do when people are seeking protection.”

He said the country had already taken thousands of refugees from the Syrian war and was gearing up for a lot more. About 5500 Syrians arrived in the first three months of the new offer.

“We’ve received around 30,000 Syrians and stateless Palestinians from Syria in the three years since the conflict began. We are expecting more and more to come. We now have about 600 in total each week,” he said.

The offer of permanent residency to all Syrians came after a Swedish government re-assessment of the Syrian war.

“We had temporary permits to a great extent in the past in short conflicts but we are assessing this to be a very long conflict. We are talking about 10 years. Living in those (temporary) conditions for a long time would be very difficult,” said Ribbenvik.

Unlike the Australian government, which wants to re-introduce temporary protection visas for all boat arrivals and disallow family re-unification, Sweden emphasises the benefits of permanence.

“In giving permanent residence permits from the start, you have an incentive to learn the language and get to work. When you have temporary permits we see people most of the time just being ‘kept’. They are not included in society, which is not very helpful for integration,” said Ribbenvik.

“Then you have the issue of family. In many countries where you have temporary permits you are not allowed to bring your family. If you have family and children of our own, just imagine being far from them for that amount of time.”

Sweden's processing times for all refugees — not just Syrians — are much quicker than Australia's. “When you arrive in Sweden you will be registered and have a lawyer appointed for you," Ribbenvik said. "You will get an interview with us within two or three weeks and we will make a decision within three or four months.”

“In the meantime you will be living in our accommodation, or you can live with friends or relatives if you can find your own accommodation. You get a small daily allowance of 24 kronas ($4) if you are living with us, 60 kronas ($10) if you are living on your own. You can get any healthcare that cannot wait. Children get normal healthcare and get schooling after a month."

“If you get a permit you take your place in Sweden as an equal, with everybody else. Normally, after five years, you can get citizenship, if you have no criminal activities and pay your taxes.”

Asked whether there was much community resistance to the open-door policies, Ribbenvik told New Matilda that “I think there is a great understanding in Sweden for giving people shelter who are in need of protection."

"We have a xenophobic party that got five per cent of the vote at the last election, and they are bigger now. Whenever there are a lot of people coming it seems to drive up this kind of party. But, in general, when people are talking facts, there is a great understanding of the need for protection."

“There is less understanding of the lack of international solidarity. Many people ask why aren’t there more countries coming together to help. Why are we so alone? Why, in Europe, are Sweden and Germany doing most of this? These are valid questions.”

Sweden, which has a population of nine million, now chairs a working committee of UN nations trying to encourage more countries to re-settle Syrian refugees. About 97 per cent of the 2.4 million refugees have fled to camps in neighbouring countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Australia, which has cut its annual refugee intake to 13,500, has offered 500 places as part of an international objective to re-settle 30,000 by the end of 2014. Only 10 European countries initially offered help, with Germany topping the list with 11,000 places.

Ribbenvik said the UN was now asking for an additional 100,000 places. “We are talking about the most vulnerable people in the refugee camps in the region, the people who will not survive the camps,” he said.

“We will work with European countries, North America and other countries such as Australia to talk about sharing responsibility and reaching out to those people in the most dire condition.”

New Matilda

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