From Roma to refugees: Sweden’s impossible choices
If ISIL has its wish, Sweden and others will tighten their borders even more, leaving millions at the mercy of fanatics.
It’s 12:30am at Malmo Central Station and there are well over 150 refugees milling around. The southern gate to Sweden, only 40 minutes by train from Copenhagen, Malmo has seen tens of thousands of refugees pass through the city since the explosion of refugees rushing to Europe this summer.
Upwards of 2,000 refugees a day disembarked at the relatively small station during the peak of the crisis, which was almost reached again the beginning of November, when 1,700 came through in one 24-hour period.
Despite the strains such a large influx has caused, Sweden has managed to process far more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe – more in a fortnight than the UK has agreed to take in for the next five years.
But beneath the relative efficiency of the large-scale refugee absorption by Sweden lies a series of political, social and moral inconsistencies that reveals the limits of tolerance and acceptance in one of the world’s, and certainly Europe’s, most proudly welcoming societies.
Threat of persecution
Since World War II international law differentiates between people fleeing the threat of persecution (the original object of the term “refugee” in the 1951 Convention on Refugees) and/or war-related death in their homeland (which was incorporated into the legal definition of refugee, starting with the 1969 OAU Convention), and those leaving their countries because of ostensibly economic motivations.
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Those fleeing war and/or persecution are guaranteed the “right of non-refoulement” – that is, not to be returned to their homeland while the threat persists. This principle has led Sweden to give near-automatic asylum to any Syrian who reaches its soil today.
While Sweden adopted an open borders policy during the height of the crisis, a large share of those entering the country will ultimately be sent back to, or as near as possible to, their home countries.
But this narrow and legalistic reading of the obligation towards refugees generates significant problems, as evidenced by an informal poll of the refugees sitting along the glass walls of the Malmo Central Station.
To begin with, while Sweden adopted an open-borders policy during the height of the crisis, a large share of those entering the country will ultimately be sent back to, or as near as possible to, their home countries.
Thus Iraqi arrivals who aren’t from Mosul or Anbar province today are largely seeing their asylum claims rejected. So are most Eritreans and other sub-Saharan African arrivals, as well as most Afghans, who in fact have made up perhaps the largest group of recent arrivals.
Of course, Afghanistan remains an active war zone, no matter how the Swedish Migration Agency chooses to define it. A large share of the Afghan arrivals in Malmo are ethnic Hazara who are brutally targeted for extermination by extremists. Eritreans who have suffered intense political persecution are also routinely denied asylum.
And not all Syrians left imminent danger. One volunteer at the train station explained that he left one of the “safe cities” under government control, not because he feared for his life but because the economic situation there left very little chance for a future there.
Already a productive member of his adopted society (with functional Swedish and a decent job), should he be returned? Is he any different, he wondered, from the smorgasbord of nationalities and ethnicities comprising the arrivals he tries to help each evening?
The thousands of other sub-Saharan Africans, from Niger to Nigeria, as well as their North African neighbours who have made the sea-borne journey (as he did) for years are characterised as “economic migrants”.
But the reality is that their villages, regions and even countries have been rendered increasingly uninhabitable by decades, even centuries of, colonialism, war, systematic economic exploitation, and environmental degradation for which Western policies bear first and primary responsibility.
The most glaring example of the problem with discriminating between “deserving” refugees and “merely” economic migrants is the untold thousands of Roma who have entered Sweden in the last decade.
Roma have been living in Sweden for half a millennium and, as in almost everywhere else they’ve “travelled” in Europe, they have faced rampant discrimination and worse – forced sterilisations, removal of children and, most recently, police lists – for the entirety of their history here. All this continues to leave them the “last ethnic group … against which it is acceptable to discriminate” and “almost completely excluded from mainstream society“.
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Even as the full weight of Swedish government and civil society moves to help Syrian refugees, a few blocks away from the Central Station an encampment of recent Roma “EU migrants”, largely from Romania and Bulgaria, was forcibly evicted and destroyed, most of its inhabitants forced to sleep on the streets. In protest, some set up an encampment outside of City Hall, an Occupy-style protest that reminds us of the global frame in which their struggles must be situated.
Swedes are no more or less to blame for the intense violence and marginalisation Roma have suffered in Eastern Europe than they are for the violence in Syria or Iraq.
Nader al-Attar, an exiled Egyptian activist and co-founder of the Center for Refugee Solidarity in Malmo, explains it most succinctly: “Poverty can be as deadly as a civil war. There is a certain nastiness in the distinction; both war and poverty are both structural issues, and both can kill. We have to make these connections more clear; the treatment of refugees is a global issue, as is the plight of the Roma.”
To be sure, Swedes are no more or less to blame for the intense violence and marginalisation Roma have suffered in Eastern Europe than they are for the violence in Syria or Iraq.
But they, like all of us, live in a broader world – and indeed are among its greatest beneficiaries – whose systematic violence and imbalances are now being laid bare. The consequences, from mass terrorism to genocidal wars and rapidly melting ice caps, cross borders with far greater ease than the people arriving in Malmo.
On the day before the massive attack in Paris, the government re-established border controls at the first station in Sweden, two stops south of here at Hyllie.
Those refugees who declare their intention to request asylum are now taken to the nearest refugee processing centre; those who don’t are placed on the next train back to Denmark. Once they are processed into the system, it is no longer possible to continue on to other Nordic countries, while their classification, monitoring and possible removal become easier to achieve.
More broadly, across Europe borders are closing as the scope of ISIL’s planned and executed terror attacks becomes apparent. Yet more European countries bombing more of the Middle East and Africa will surely produce more refugees fleeing the violence.
With front-line countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon already bursting with refugees, who will take them in? Will the entire Middle East become one big Gaza Strip?
The entrance to Malmo Station still has a sign saying “Welcome refugees” in several languages, but the station today is largely empty of refugees.
If ISIL has its wish, Sweden and other European countries will tighten their borders even more, leaving millions of people at the mercy of religious fanatics, brutal and murderous governments, racist societies and an international system that quite literally has no place for them. Anyone who thinks this scenario will make them safer isn’t really paying attention.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.