From Open Hearts to Closed Doors: Refugees Stir Sweden Shift

  • Moderates' push for stricter rules drives wedge in government
  • Government may lack internal support to further limit inflow

Refugees at Hyllie station in Malmo, Sweden, on Nov. 19, 2015.

Photographer: Johan Nilsson/AFP via Getty Images

While in power Sweden’s Moderate party urged voters to “open their hearts” to the waves of refugees flowing out of the world’s trouble spots. A year later -- and now in opposition -- the party is driving a wedge through the ruling coalition with calls for the borders to be closed.

QuickTake Europe’s Refugee Crisis

The minority government of Social Democrats and Greens is split on how to cope with a record inflows of migrants. The Green Party, whose leader shed tears at a press conference in which stricter rules were announced, has vowed to quit the coalition should the screws be tightened further.

“Swedish politics is extremely turbulent right now,” said Peter Santesson, head of opinion analysis at pollster Demoskop. “The questions is whether they can handle these problems and remain in government.”

The country of 9.8 million people at Europe’s northern edge is finding itself at the center of a refugee crisis that’s threatening economies and free movement across the European Union. The government has been forced to impose border checks and backtrack on giving out permanent residencies as 80,000 people arrived in the course of just two months, overwhelming its reception services.

While Sweden is now facing rising unemployment and deepening deficits, the government says that, if handled correctly, the influx could help ease the demographic challenges that lay ahead. But discontent is reflected in the surging support for the far-right Sweden Democrats, and in more violent manifestations such as the burning of refugee centers and a deadly knife-attack at an immigrant-heavy school in the industrial town of Trollhaettan.

While the Moderates won’t seek a ceiling on immigration, Sweden needs a pause in the inflow, according to party secretary Tomas Tobe.

Big Reforms

“It’s obvious that we are driving the government ahead of us and that they have big internal problems, which they themselves need to handle,” he said in a telephone interview. “We don’t only need to solve the immediate refugee situation, we also need big reforms in the housing and labor market if we’re going to succeed with integration.”

The Social Democrats are slowly following the Moderates’ u-turn on refugees. The government recently went as far as asking parliament for a mandate to close the Oeresund bridge link to Denmark. It was forced to back down after the move’s legality was called into question.

Too Little

Prime Minister Stefan Loefven has said the country was naive in its open-door policy and that the inflow needs to be reduced sharply. He has already proposed border identification checks, stricter rules for residence permits and family reunions.

Aasa Romson, the leader of the Greens who also acts as deputy premier, has called the proposals “awful.” The Social Democrats say that even stricter laws may be needed in order to limit the inflow of refugees further. 

While unpopular with the Greens and the Left Party, which backs the government, the changes that have already been proposed may be too little, too late for voters, according to Torbjoern Sjoestrom, chief executive of pollster Novus. “Collective trust for politicians is very low, and we’re moving into some kind of state of emergency.”  

Some Green party parliamentarians say they will be voting against the new legislation and their party leaders stress that any further tightening needs to comply with international rules and conventions. That would be breached if the Social Democrats were to decide to go where the Moderates are pushing them. 

“We may be approaching another government crisis,” Sjoestrom said.  “At the same time, no one wants a snap election.” 

Amid all the turmoil, the Sweden Democrats reached nearly 20 percent in the latest poll by Statistics Sweden, while the right-wing and left-wing blocs are deadlocked at 39 percent each. 

The division into two main blocs has reached a “dead end,” said Peter Santesson, head of opinion at Demoskop.

And with neither side willing to collaborate with the Sweden Democrats, it may force the kind of cross-bloc collaboration seen in nation’s such as Germany, especially on migration issues. 

While the Social Democrats and Moderates are relatively close to each other when it comes to asylum policy, Santesson said it’s “very unlikely” that the two parties could join forces in a coalition government. 

“That’s something that we haven’t seen since World War II and it’s probably a crisis of that size that would be required,” he said.

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