Swedish government split on embassy asylum

The devastating shipwreck disaster in the Mediterranean has put the question of allowing EU embassies to process asylum applications back on the table, as the UN upped the death toll to 800 in the latest tragedy. But the Swedish coalition government remains divided on the issue.

Swedish government split on embassy asylum
People look on as survivors of this weekend's shipwreck are carried off a coastguard boat. Photo: AP Photo/Carmelo Imbesi

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EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has said repeatedly that he would support people outside the union to be able to seek asylum at EU embassies, for example through specially appointed 'migration attachés'.

“We should have offices in the EU delegations all over the world, in particular in third [world] countries, where we should allow people to apply for asylum or for legal migration status,” Avramopoulos said in September last year.

But the proposal is controversial and is not supported by either the whole of the commission or the member states. The Swedish centre-left coalition government is torn, with the smaller Green party supporting the proposal and the larger Social Democrat party being against it.

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Prime Minister Stefan Löfven's government met with the Swedish Committee on European Affairs on Sunday ahead of an EU crisis summit on this weekend's tragedy in which 800 migrants drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.

At the meeting, the government presented documents about how Sweden “ought to work within the EU to create more legal means to seek asylum in the union”. However, nothing was said about the possibility to apply for asylum at EU embassies.

“I just wonder how it would work, honestly? I understand that the thought behind it is good, but we have to look at what it means in practical terms. As things stand today, there's already a lot of pressure on our overseas authorities. (…) I don't dismiss anything, but I also think that you have to be a realist in looking at how it should be done, if so,” Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said.

Sweden's largest opposition party, the Moderates, is also against the proposal. But the Green party and the Left party support it, as does the right-wing Christian Democrat party, who wants to enable embassies to process emergency asylum applications.

“We can now no longer close our eyes to the fact that people are dying on their way to Europe. We have to save lives and the EU needs a common migration strategy,” Désirée Pethrus, Christian Democrat MP on the Committee on European Affairs, told Swedish news agency TT.

No EU country today offers the possibility to seek asylum at any of the nation's embassies. The purpose of such a proposal would be to decrease the number of refugees dying when they try to enter the EU via, for example, the Mediterranean Sea. Since the year 2000, around 25,000 people are estimated to have died upon trying to enter an EU member state.

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The latest disaster in Italy comes after a week in which two other migrant shipwrecks left an estimated 450 people dead. As well as Monday's crisis meeting, EU president Donald Tusk has called a special leaders' summit on the incident on Thursday.

Some 11,000 migrants have been rescued since the middle of last week and current trends suggest last year's total of 170,000 landing in Italy is likely to be exceeded in 2015.

Many travel onwards to other countries including Sweden, which takes in more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU nation.

But European politicians are deeply divided over how to tackle the issue, with many countries reluctant to change current rules, keen to retain their autonomy on immigration policies and concerned about the potential costs of helping refugees to reach safety in Europe.