2015 was a hard year for liberal Europe, and 2016 will be harder. The Syrian Civil War continues to escalate with United Nations reports detailing starvation in Syrian cities around the country. As more people try and escape this fate there are still refugees trying to find a new home in Europe. Of the 10.5 million displaced Syrians, 4 million have left the country, seeking safety for themselves and their loved ones. The number has slowed in recent months due to the wintery weather conditions making it much more difficult to make the already treacherous voyage to Europe. Despite this crisis, some countries have continued to intensify their border security to stop refugees from entering.
Recently Sweden has enforced stricter passport checks in an effort to keep refugees out. In Copenhagen’s Kastrup Station, new identity checks add another 45 minutes to a trip that would normally take only 36 minutes. Commuters going to trains heading to Sweden from Denmark will be required to disembark at the airport to have papers checked by security before being allowed to catch other trains headings north. Sweden has told (threatened) travel companies such as Danish train operator DSB that there will be heavy fines if they allow “irregular passengers to venture past the border.” Note that according to the new rules, “irregular passengers” refers to refugees. These changes and the increase in the time has meant commuters have started looking for new jobs. In addition there have been problems on which photo ID is acceptable with officials not accepting ID from the Swedish tax department.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven from the Social Democrat Party justified his reasoning for these changes, stating that the country has become “naïve”. He explained, “It has been hard for us to accept that in our midst there are people sympathizing with the ISIS killers.” Many researchers have become worried that this will result in the start of the many other European countries closing their borders, effectively stopping Syrians from entering Europe. Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, from the centre-right Venstre party, is angry with the move as it might encourage refugees to seek asylum in Denmark and has implemented a number of new measures to discourage refugees. Leading a minority government, Rasmussen needs the support of the DPP (Danish People Party), a nationalist anti-refugee party along with other conservative parties to pass legislation.
In 2015 Sweden had 200,000 refugees – twice what they intended, and as a result have been struggling to provide housing, education and other services for them. With the country struggling to house more refugees and tensions rising, one can understand why border protection policies are gaining popularity. The problem with the reforms is it breaks the Schengen Agreement, which allows Europeans and others to travel freely between countries. This agreement is a key and distinguishing factor in Europe and a fundamental tenet of the European Union. Many scholars and people in the community are continuing to call for other countries in Europe to help with this crisis to ensure that not just a few countries have to deal with the majority of refugees if they are simply unable to house them. Currently no changes have been made to general European policy, and this will continue to be the case if there is not a drastic change in European leadership.
Sweden has always been a progressive country and popularly considered to have of the ‘nicest’ citizen populations in Europe – I mean they brought us ABBA! However, this latest hardening in policy is giving experts cause for concern. Germany has already tightened border controls, as have Hungary and Slovenia. Worryingly, Denmark seems to be building on Sweden’s changes, putting in place restrictions for immigrants to find work and the amount of money they receive. At the time of writing, Sweden’s policy has not yet moved beyond border checks and strict deterrence measures – issuing only temporary resident visas for refugees from April. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the Schengen is in danger with policy such as these. However, Merkel is facing increasing criticism within her own country regarding refugees, with the recent spate of sexual assaults in Cologne creating fear and uncertainty.
I have talked to many friends here when were I’m currently based in Europe, and two in particular, from Denmark and Sweden, disagree with their respective nations’ tightening of border controls. Sadly though, media portrayals of refugees have growing increasingly negative, suggesting refugee links with ISIS supporters or sympathisers, or that refugees will arrive in substantial enough numbers to significantly affect the political process.
The strain placed on Swedish society has led the government to announce that it will deport up to 80,000 asylum seekers “in the coming years.” This comes immediately in the wake of the tragic stabbing death of a 22-year-old female who worked in a refugee centre by a 15-year-old refugee. There is growing worry about these types of attacks. The family of the victim blames the Swedish government for not doing enough to prevent such attacks. The weight of refugees that are unaccompanied minors continues to be a serious problem.
As a global community, a solution must be found. The nations of Europe must share the burden of refugee arrivals from the Mediterranean, and set a framework to facilitate this. Additionally, there must be Europe-wide agreements on how to provide for refugees once they have arrived, giving them housing, education and employment, so that they do not become disenfranchised, and are able to contribute to the community that welcomes them. There will no doubt be growing pains associated with this demographic transition, but much greater long-term troubles if these issues are not faced and dealt with now. If nothing is resolved soon, the crisis will continue to worsen.
Words By Leah Roberts