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Sweden sees Ukrainian asylum seeker boom

Sweden saw a huge spike in Ukrainians seeking asylum in 2014, with nearly eight times more applicants than the previous year, according to Eurostat data analyzed by The Local.

Sweden sees Ukrainian asylum seeker boom
The Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Gustav Sjöholm/TT

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1,320 people from Ukraine sought asylum in Sweden last year, compared to 170 applicants in 2013, before the bloody conflict with Russia began.

The jump represents a 770 percent increase.

Overall, the number of Ukrainian asylum seekers in the 28 EU member states ballooned to 14,040 people in 2014 – more than 13 times higher than the number in 2013 at 1,060 applicants, according to data released by Eurostat last week.

That number is even greater when compared to 2008, the beginning of the global economic crisis, when 925 Ukrainians applied for asylum.

“What we have seen from our members working with asylum seekers are those who are fleeing the conflict in the east of Ukraine,” Julia Zelvenska, a senior legal officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, told The Local.

“In the past, it has been for political persecution, like in 2013, or for sexual orientation.”

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said last month that an estimated one million Ukrainians were displaced internally, with many people moving west. Some 600,000 people had sought asylum, many of them in non-EU countries such as Russia, Belarus and Moldova.

But many Ukrainians also applied for asylum in the European Union in 2014, a year that started with a revolution in Kiev and the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Russia then annexed Crimea in March, in a move widely condemned around the world, before propping up separatists fighting bloody battles with Ukrainian forces in the east of the country.

READ MORE: Russia blames Sweden for Ukraine crisis

A post on the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm earlier in March responded to criticism from Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström by blaming Sweden for the conflict in the Ukraine, saying it was caused by "the will of the West, not least Sweden as an instigator of the EU's Eastern Partnership, to do everything to push Kiev into the European Union".

"Many Ukrainian nationals, who applied for asylum in Sweden, were those, who were already in a European country, for example, working or studying (sur place protection seekers), when the situation in Ukraine had changed," Zelvenska explained.

The Ukrainian embassy in Stockholm was unavailable for comment this week, telling The Local that its current ambassador was out of the country, with a new one scheduled to start next month.

The Ukrainian community appears to be putting its mark on the Swedish capital. Online groups for Ukrainian expats are growing in size, several Ukrainian musicians are scheduled to visit the city this year and the first Nordic Ukrainian Film Festival opens on April 20th.

Of those who applied for asylum across the EU in 2014, 650 Ukrainians received positive outcomes on their first application decision. Eurostat defines positive outcomes as grants of refugee or subsidiary protection status, or an authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons.

Still, those who received good news were greatly outnumbered by those who were rejected in their first try – 2,335.

Sweden rejected eight times as many Ukrainian applicants in their first instances as they accepted, with just 20 receiving positive outcomes compared to 160 rejections.

Zelvenska explained to The Local that it is generally very hard for Ukrainians to gain asylum in EU member states, or to even reach those countries in the first place.

“One of the main reasons people get rejected may be that many countries are not clear on how the situation developed and won’t issue decisions until it is clear how the Ukrainian situation is going to develop,” she said.

“European countries are also being very formalistic in the criteria for asylum,” Zelvenska added. “For example, they may say that there are options for alternative protection already within Ukraine. For people in the east, they may say that they could relocate to the west.”

Zelvenska noted though that reasons for rejection are not made public so it is difficult to know for certain.

“We think it’s not necessary to apply all the criteria in a strict manner,” she said. “They must consider each case, country and the circumstances.”

Germany was the country that received the highest number of Ukrainian asylum requests at 2,705, Eurostat reported – 18 times greater than the number in 2013, 150. They accepted 20 in the first instance, but rejected another 45.

But the numbers have so far decreased this year, Zelvenska told The Local.

"Recent number of asylum applications by Ukrainian asylum seekers in Europe indeed increased in 2014, but have so far been decreasing in 2015.  In general, the numbers still remain quite low, for example, in February 2015 only 125 Ukrainians applied for asylum in Europe," she said.

Last year, EU countries received the highest number of asylum seekers since 1992 with a total of 626,000 applicants. More than 400,000 people applied in 2013.

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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