In a European perspective, the impacts of the refugee crisis in Sweden were dramatic. Only Germany could match Sweden in the number of refugees arriving relative to population size. Ultimately, the strong increase in refugee arrivals led to path-breaking decisions on the regulation of refugee immigration to Sweden, as well as a reorientation of the political discourse on the issue. In the 2018 election campaign, immigration was an important issue. Contrary to both Norway and Denmark however, the strong representation of a right-wing populist anti-immigration party in parliament (since 2010) has not led to any kind of political coalition formation.
Throughout the summer and early autumn of 2015, Swedish authorities took at strong humanitarian position on welcoming the refugees. This is also reflected in the print media, as when an editorial in Aftonbladet says:
We cannot solve everything at once. But we can do one thing today. Give the correct answer to the question: Shall we save humans’ lives – or let them drown? (Aftonbladet 21.4.2015)
The question was whether politicians, Swedish and European, were doing enough to assist refugees, and not so much whether they did enough to regulate migration.
As numbers grew, the gap between the number of arrivals and the capacity of the reception apparatus began to appear unmanageable. Reports of refugees who slept under the open sky and of municipalities that struggled to provide schooling, health and social services to swelling numbers of refugees emerged.
The political turning point was dramatically staged. In November 2015 the government called a press conference. Prime minister Stefan Löfven and his deputy Åsa Romson, the latter in tears, announced that they had made the hard decision to restrict entry for new arrivals. The government introduced tightened border controls, and curtailed the residence rights of refugees, shifting from permanent to temporary residence for protection beneficiaries. Furthermore, stricter self-sufficiency and maintenance requirements were introduced for those seeking permanent residence or family reunification. The changes introduced during the fall (some of them before the November press conference) also had a soft side in the shape of measures to improve municipalities’ ability to cope with the newcomers. This included extra funds, e.g. for housing projects, but also changes in governance structures where all municipalities were required to settle a certain number of the newcomers and gained new responsibilities for coordinating language and orientation programmes for newcomers (previously the responsibility of the Migration Agency).
None of the changes directly affected the social rights of refugees with legal residency.Footnote 3 However, indirectly the introduction of self-sufficiency and maintenance requirements as a condition for obtaining permanent residence or family reunification, means that the residential rights of refugees are made conditional on their ability to succeed in the labour market. Furthermore, when the right to temporary protection expired, the new regulations entitled protection beneficiaries to permanent residency if they had succeeded in obtaining work and thus become self-sufficient. In this sense, the new regulations had a re-commodifying effect for refugees, as their dependence on the market and on employers in order to secure residence for themselves and/or their families, increased.
Some of the changes definitely appeared path-breaking in a Swedish context, although they were moderate if compared to e.g. Danish policies. While both Denmark and Norway had long practiced that refugees were granted temporary protection in the first round, Sweden had in the main granted all protection beneficiaries permanent residency. When this was now reversed, Sweden let go of its image as a humanitarian frontrunner and international exception on immigration policy, and instead accepted that it had to (temporarily at least) lower its standards. How did policy actors legitimize this U-turn discursively?
At the November press conference, the changes were presented as an undesirable, but unavoidable response to extreme pressure. On the front page of Dagens Nyheter, Löfven was quoted «We cannot cope anymore» (Nu klarar vi inte mer). Inside the paper it continued:
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven says that the decision has been heavy and painful to make, but that it has been necessary. – We have to act to safeguard that people trust the society and the welfare to work, he says (Dagens Nyheter 25.11.2018).
The new regulations were temporary. They were presented as necessary to acquire “a breather” (andrum) to cope with extraordinary challenges. The government admitted that the restrictions could have negative consequences. At the press conference Åsa Romson called it “a horrible decision which the government feels forced to make” (Dagens Nyheter 25.11.15). Still, the government also maintained that it was necessary that Sweden placed itself at “a minimum level according to EU-law and international conventions” in order to “gain breathing space for Swedish reception of refugees, more of EU’s member states must take their [share of the] responsibility” (Swedish government, 2016, p. 30). This was grounded in an analysis that the favourable conditions offered to asylum-seekers in Sweden led fewer refugees to seek asylum in other member states, thus making it easier for other states to dodge their share of the burden (Swedish government, 2016, p. 30). In this way of reasoning, the point was not so much to discourage refugees from coming to Sweden, as to put pressure on other states to take their part of the responsibility.
The most prominent cognitive arguments for the changes were thus grounded in a causal narrative about asylum magnets, according to which favourable conditions in receiving countries work to attract more asylum seekers to the countries that offer good conditions and thus allow countries with restrictive policies to dodge their rightful part of the responsibility. In other words, to promote the goal of a more equitable and fair sharing of the burden of receiving refugees, Sweden could not offer better conditions and prospects than other countries.
Another cognitive argument for the necessity of changes was based in the analysis of overstretched capacities in the Swedish welfare system. In the media, reports about refugees sleeping rough and about the burst capacities of local education and health services emerged. Aftonbladet’s commentator Lena Melin wrote: «Life and health and vital social functions are at stake following the refugee disaster» (Aftonbladet 19.11.2015). This is very close to the argument of the prime minister, as quoted above, legitimising the government’s u-turn by assuring that they were acting to safeguard people’s trust in society and the welfare system.
Normatively, the authorities’ argumentation appealed to values of international collaboration and shared responsibility, as well as the protection of established institutions for protecting refugees’ rights. Policy actors emphasised that none of the restrictions went beyond the limits established by EU-law and international conventions. Furthermore, they were motivated by the need to make all European countries take their share of the responsibility for the world’s refugees – to promote international solidarity and collaboration.
There is an emphasis on both urgency and continuity in the government’s efforts to communicate the legitimacy of the changes. The changes respond to a dramatic situation, they are ultimately undesirable, but yet necessary given the urgency of the problem. On the other hand, the changes do not represent a change of heart, merely of methods. The values appealed to are the same values of international solidarity, institutionalized rights for refugees and humanitarian ideals that would also motivate a liberal refugee policy.
The press coverage paid little attention to efforts at constructing a coordinative discourse between policy actors to cope with the refugee crisis. Instead, it seems like the most pressing concern was to create legitimacy for the policy changes in the wider public. The sense of urgency created by the refugee crisis was sufficient to establish political agreement on new measures. The challenge was rather to establish a normative foundation for a reorientation of policy.
The temporary measures chosen in an extreme moment in time has so far proved to be of a more permanent character. Three years later, the new red-green government declared an extension of the temporary measures from 2015, but with extension of rights to family reunification also for non-convention protectionaries. The argumentation was the same: “More countries have to take a greater responsibility. Swedish reception of refugees have to be sustainable long-term” (Löfven, 2019). Also in the area of integration, the government declaration shows signs of on-going path change: Enforced activation measures and, not least, the introduction of compulsory language and social knowledge requirements for citizenship – thus making an end to Swedish exceptionalism in yet another field (Midtbøen, 2015).