Aishwarya Sahai Aleksi Korpela Busra H. Karasu Editors' Forum Eimi Harris Fadi Dawood Michael Kang

Anti–Refugee Policies in Scandinavia and the Great Effect on the Global Refugee Crisis

In Denmark, a recent bill passed by Parliament authorizes the confiscation of refugees’ assets. Meanwhile in Sweden, the government has announced plans to expel approximately 80 000 asylum seekers. These types of policies, and the rhetoric surrounding them have come at a time when the global refugee crisis is still ongoing. Our Program Editors and Research Analysts debate the greater effects of these recent changes in domestic refugee policy by these Scandinavian states.

How can the recent anti-refugee policies in Sweden and Denmark, countries with a reputation for international justice and human rights, affect the global humanitarian response to the ongoing refugee crisis?

Aleksi Korpela: Oh How the Virtuous Have Fallen — Or Have They?

Program Editor, Procurement

Fennoscandian countries are often described as ideal-typical examples of the welfare model, liberal-egalitarian values, and respect for human rights. However, when these states digress into unseemly xenophobia, it is easy to conclude that the global humanitarian effort to solve the refugee crisis hangs in the balance. After all, if the Swedes lose heart, won’t everyone?

No, not really. Linking recent developments in these countries to the global effort would be a mistake, at least in terms of causation.

First off, Denmark has always had exclusionary policies on immigration and refugees. During the refugee crisis, there has been more continuity than change in existing Danish policies. As there is no change, there should be no alteration to current global efforts. Besides, Denmark is hardly a model state for welcoming refugees anyway.

Okay, what about Sweden? Sweden is a very generous country in terms of accepting refugees. Due to the inability of Sweden’s capacity to take in refugees, certain limitations needed to be in place: hence the suspension of semi-automatic asylum. While Sweden will deport 60,000-80,000 refugees, they are still accepting the remaining 80,000-100,000 asylum seekers. Besides, Sweden has received the third highest number of asylum applications in the EU, although it has only the 14th largest population.

Finland functions on an existing policy that stipulated asylum criteria. On the basis of these criteria, 20,000 of the 32,000 refugees were excluded. As one official noted, generally around half of all asylum applications are rejected—even before the current crisis.

Now the big picture: nearly one million asylum seekers entered the European Union in 2015. The UN estimates that there are 4.3 million refugees from Syria alone. The problem is much larger than the policies or the capacity of any given country. Moreover, accepting asylum seekers does not solve the crisis. The problem needs to be addressed at its source, rather than merely treating its symptoms. Maybe this is the wake-up call that actually generates a solution.

Fadi Dawood: The Nation-State: Preservation of Home and Identity

Program Editor, Canada’s NATO

Sweden and Denmark have accepted countless number of refugees from both Syria and Iraq. Södertälje’s Assyrian or Syriac, Gothenburg’s Iraqi diaspora population, is a testament to the diversity that refugees have brought to both countries. But one can’t lose sight of the protective measures that nation-states take to preserve what they see as the sanctity and laws that govern their populations. I believe that the measures taken by both countries are not surprising, in fact they are a response to preserve and protect what is believed by governments of both countries to be the core of Swedish and Danish societies, despite the violations of Human Rights.

Hostility towards the refugees streaming into Europe will continue to cause friction between the various political factions in particular those seeking to support refugees and those looking to stop refugees from entering the small countries in northern Europe. This issue will continue to dominate political discourse in the near future.

Michael Kang: Keeping Up Appearances

Research Analyst

Sweden and Denmark have long had reputations as champions of humanitarian laws and rights that preceded them, however, recent laws perceived as anti-immigration have without a doubt damaged this reputation.  Plans to deport large numbers of asylum applicants, to appropriate certain amounts of assets from refugees in order to fund their accommodations and anti-refugee vigilante activities do not take away from the relatively large contributions these countries have already made, but they set a dangerous precedent for the future handling of refugees across Europe. Though Sweden and Denmark have some of the largest refugee populations per capita, recent trends towards policies meant to discourage incoming refugees might justify similar policies across Europe with the most traditionally accepting humanitarian countries doing so.

We are already seeing signs of other countries’ adopting similar policies in efforts to one-up each other on what is the minimum acceptable refugee policy, with Switzerland and some provinces in Southern Germany also enacting policies of limited asset seizures from migrants. The large per capita refugee populations in Sweden and Denmark might also be used to justify anti-migrant policies with far-right politics often highlighting the problems that arise from these groups due to their views that refugees lack the ability to properly integrate and thus contribute to deteriorating social cohesion. These policies not only set negative precedents for the the future treatment of refugees but also give ammunition for far right groups to legitimize their own anti-immigrant policies by citing the steps taken by Sweden and Denmark.

Eimi Harris: Shifting Focus to the Long Term

Program Editor, Women in Security

When many European states opened their countries to refugees, I don’t think very much was prioritized outside of managing the crisis as it was. These refugees were escaping atrocities happening in their own homeland, and European countries were making the responsible humanitarian choice by taking those people in. Part of the problem, however, was that the refugee crisis was happening so fast that there wasn’t much time to consider the most efficient plan to support the refugee population in the long term.

There are two major impacts Sweden and Denmark’s anti-refugee policies could have on global humanitarian responses. Negatively, they may provide states with precedent to adopt similar policies. Positively, they may encourage European states to develop better strategies to handle the refugee crisis in the long term.

Sweden and Denmark are not going to be the only countries facing a refugee capacity issue; this is happening to them sooner because the ratio of refugee to domestic population is much larger. As other countries reach the threshold at which its domestic population believes refugees are burdening the government’s ability to support citizens, enacting anti-refugee policies to seriously slow and reduce the number of refugees accepted seem like a less-condemnable option than outright closing of their borders to all refugees. This compromise, however, will push many refugees right back into the conditions they were trying to escape.

Busra H. Karasu: Existential Crisis in Europe’s Social Welfare States

Program Editor, Canadian Armed Forces

The anti-immigrant rhetoric in Denmark and Sweden is increasingly becoming part of the mainstream politics. In reality, EU states are shifting the onus of welcoming refugees onto Syria’s neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Led by Germany’s diplomatic efforts, Europe urges these states to keep their borders open to Syrian refugees, all the while negotiating deals and readmission agreements with these countries to convince them in keeping unwanted refugees outside the Fortress of Europe.

In such a context, Scandinavian countries are concerned neither about relieving the burden on countries which expect a larger influx of refugees, nor in finding a solution to end the conflict in the region, but to prevent the ‘contamination’ of the Scandinavian social democracy. Fueled by the fear that the refugees will likely become permanent settlers thereby increasing the costs of resettlement and social welfare expenditures, policy makers believe that this will put a strain on the country’s ability to integrate these refugees into their society. However, Sweden and Denmark both spend the highest proportion of their GDP on welfare achieving low imprisonment and unemployment rates.

These aspects of the successful Scandinavian model will not be threatened by the influx of refugees for two reasons. First, due to strict identification processes and background checks, security will not be the main cause of concern. Secondly, both Sweden and Denmark still rank high in providing active and passive labor market policies aimed at increasing employment rate by directly targeting the unemployed. Their integration into labor market will be facilitated through these policies. In this way, this growing anti-immigrant rhetoric in Scandinavian politics is unfounded in their own model of society, nor in global politics as a whole.

Aishwarya Sahai: The Dire Need for Refuge and Peace

Research Analyst

The refugee crisis has received considerable attention around the world. It has evoked questions on immigration policies, economics, refugee status and benefits. But, it has also ignited a debate on ethics. Sweden has now decided to reject up to 80,000 people who have applied for asylum – many of whom will be forced to leave against their will. Sweden has also approached other EU states for assistance in relieving the pressure of incoming refugees.

Sweden and Denmark have a strong reputation of holding up international human rights and humanitarian values, so this action is strikingly against their political foundation. It shows that perhaps hosting refugees has become a burden and that the damage in Syria is far worse than we could have imagined. The fact that it takes almost all of the EU to work together, as well as Canada and the US, it cannot be understated how dire the need for refuge is.

This could also create a sense of fear and exacerbate the feelings of burden over the various communities that are hosting these refugees. Perhaps these changes in policy could ignite a positive effect on the crisis by creating a greater need for peace in Syria. If tensions would calm in Syria or if a safe zone within the state were to be created, the influx of refugees to the EU could also decrease.


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    The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.

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NATO Association of Canada
The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.