Sweden to pay more asylum seekers to leave

Sweden has decided to expand a programme which gives unsuccessful asylum seekers money to voluntarily return to their homelands, at the same time as the number of refugee applications continues to drop.

For the past two years, citizens from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, as well as from the West Bank and Gaza who have had their asylum claims rejected have been able to apply for funds from the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket) to help pay for the return trip home.

“We’ve had this option for nearly two years and have been reviewing it along the way, and based on that we’ve chosen to go ahead and open it up to more countries,” Caroline Henjered, head of the agency’s division for asylum reception, told the TT news agency.

Since November 1st, an additional 20 countries have been added to the programme. Most of the countries are in Africa, but asylum seekers from parts of Russia and Kosovo can now also apply for the repatriation funds.

Migration authorities estimate that around 18,000 repatriation cases will be carried out in 2009. About 42 percent of cases are expected to end in voluntary return, with Iraqis making up the bulk of those willing to return on their own.

At the same time, about 10,000 cases will likely be handed over to police, who will then be charged with carrying out deportation orders for people who are unwilling to leave Sweden after having their applications for refugee status rejected.

According to a recent report from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 10,000 asylum seekers came to Sweden in the first six months of 2009, down from 12,000 applications during the first half of 2008, Sveriges Radio (SR) reports.

Nevertheless, Sweden still receives the highest number of asylum requests of all the Nordic countries.

The Migration Board hopes expanding the repatriation assistance programme will increase the number of people willing to return to their homelands voluntarily and has set a goal of boosting the number of voluntary repatriation cases to 47 percent.

“We’re doing this because we’ve seen that it brings results,” said Henjered.

According to Henjered, it’s possible that even more countries will be added to the programme.

“We’re not against expanding things further in the future,” he said.

Through August, the agency has handed around 7,000 cases to the police, with about 56 percent of them thought to involve people who have decided to go underground to avoid deportation.

The Migration Board hopes that by allowing unsuccessful asylum seekers from more countries to apply for repatriation funds, it can also lower the number of people who go into hiding.

“Our main objective – and what we’ve already seen from the evaluations we’ve done so far – is to have fewer cases handed over to the police in relation to our total number of cases,” said Henjered.

The cost of the current repatriation assistance programme is calculated to be between 40 and 50 million kronor ($5.7 to 7.2 million).

However, it remains unclear how much costs may increase after more countries are added to the programme, or how the costs would compare with those incurred by having the people remain in Sweden.

“Off the top of my head, I’d guess that it won’t be cheaper or more expensive,” said Henjered.

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‘The idea is to convert permanent residency into Swedish citizenship,’ Migration minister says

Sweden's Migration Minister has responded to criticism of the government's proposal to abolish permanent residency, telling an interviewer that the hope is that holders will gain full citizenship rather than get downgraded to temporary status.

'The idea is to convert permanent residency into Swedish citizenship,' Migration minister says

“The main idea behind the [Tidö] agreement is that we should convert permanent residency to citizenship,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, from the right-wing Moderate Party, told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.”You should not be here forever on a permanent residence permit. A clear path to citizenship is needed.”

I envision that you will receive individual plans for how to achieve this,” she continued. “Learn the language, earn a living, and have knowledge of Swedish society, so that you can fully become a Swedish citizen.” 

Malmer Stenergard said it was still unclear whether a planned government inquiry into the possibility of “converting…existing permanent residence permits” would also open the way for those who have been given a permanent right to live in the country to be downgraded to a temporary residency permit. 

“We’ll have to look at that,” she said. “There is a problem with positive administrative decisions and changing them, which the Migration Agency’s director general Mikael Ribbenvik has been aware of. We also state in the Tidö Agreement that basic principles of administrative law shall continue to apply.” 

READ ALSO: What do we know about Sweden’s plans to withdraw permanent residency?

In the Tidö Agreement, the deal between the far-right Sweden Democrats and the three government parties, it says that “asylum-related residence permits should be temporary and the institution of permanent residence permits should be phased out to be replaced by a new system based on the immigrant’s protection status”.

It further states that “an inquiry will look into the circumstances under which existing permanent residence permits can be converted, for example through giving affected permit holders realistic possibilities to gain citizenship before a specified deadline. These changes should occur within the framework of basic legal principles.”

Malmer Stenergard stressed that the government would only retroactively reverse an administrative decision (over residency) if a way can be found to make such a move compatible with such principles. 

“This is why we state in the Tidö Agreement that basic principles of administrative law must apply,” she said. 

She said the government had not yet come to a conclusion on what should happen to those with permanent residency who either cannot or are unwilling to become Swedish citizens. 

“We’re not there yet, but of course we’re not going to be satisfied with people just having an existing permanent residency, which in many cases has been granted without any particularly clear demands, if they don’t then take the further steps required for citizenship.” 

This did not mean, however, that those with permanent residency permits should be worried, she stressed. 

“If your ambition is to take yourself into Swedish society, learn the language, become self-supporting, and live according to our norms and values, I think that there’s a very good chance that you will be awarded citizenship.” 

She said that even if people couldn’t meet the requirements for citizenship, everyone with permanent residency should at least have “an individual plan for how they are going to become citizens”, if they want to stay in Sweden. 

When it comes to other asylum seekers, however, she said that the government’s aim was for residencies to be recalled more often. 

“We want to find a way to let the Migration Agency regularly reassess whether the grounds for residency remain. The aim is that more residencies should be recalled, for example, if a person who is invoking a need of asylum or other protection then goes back to their home country for a holiday.”