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New migration law? These are the issues dividing Sweden’s politicians

Sweden's political parties have been unable to reach agreement on exactly how to reform migration law, despite all agreeing that reform is needed. So what exactly are the issues causing the divide?

New migration law? These are the issues dividing Sweden's politicians
A waiting room at Sweden's Migration Agency. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

Sweden has had a temporary migration law in place since 2016, when it was brought in as a response to the unprecedented situation and large numbers of refugee arrivals.

That was never meant to be a permanent solution, and all Sweden's parties have called for change. Last year the Migration Committee was set up, with representatives form all eight parliamentary parties, to explore how this should be done.

That committee was meant to present a proposal today, but that now isn't happening after disagreements meant the cross-party talks broke down. Instead, the committee is likely to put forward proposals on individual policy areas where there is broad parliamentary support.

Here's a look at the areas that so far politicians have been unable to reach a compromise on.

Residence permits for asylum seekers

When an asylum seeker's application is approved in Sweden, should they receive a temporary or permanent residence permit? This is one question political parties can't agree on.

Before 2016, the default was that they would receive permanent permits, but this changed under the temporary migration law and temporary permits became the norm.

The parties who want it to stay that way argue that it will help keep new arrivals to more manageable numbers, while critics say that issuing temporary residence permits by default hinders integration.

A police officer looks on as a group of migrants arrive in Malmö during the 2015 crisis. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Family maintenance requirements

Another of the big changes in the 2016 temporary law was the introduction of so-called maintenance requirements for people bringing family members over to Sweden.

Anyone — not just people who arrived as asylum seekers, but also Swedish citizens and residents — bringing a family member or spouse to Sweden must meet certain criteria under the current rules.

The person in Sweden must prove that their income and size of their home is sufficient to support the family member before a permit will be granted, and any job offer, savings or independent income of the family member is not taken into account.

Most Swedish parties have agreed on an exemption from this rule for Swedish and EU/EEA citizens, according to Swedish radio.

Protection on humanitarian grounds

Several parties have called for protection on 'humanitarian grounds' to be introduced as a possible criteria for residence permit applications. This means that people in certain situations would have a greater possibility to come to Sweden; examples would be people fleeing a climate catastrophe, or people seriously or terminally ill, especially if they don't have family in their home country.

Currently, some of these situations are covered by the designation “others in need of protection”. But several politicians, among them the current Migration Minister Morgan Johansson, say that there are some cases which currently aren't covered by existing legislation which would be covered by adding “humanitarian grounds”.

Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson. File photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Cap on asylum targets

Usually called volymmål ('volume goal or target' in Swedish), this is a proposal from the right-of-centre Moderate Party for a limit on the number of asylum seekers who can enter Sweden each year.

Debate over this was one of the major reasons talks haven't been successful so far. The Green Party threatened to leave the government if their coalition partners, the Social Democrat, supported a policy that included a volymmål.

Because of this, it won't be included in the Migration Committee's proposals, along with several of the Moderate Party's other tougher proposals, including stricter requirements for access to the Swedish welfare system.

However, the Moderates could in theory put their own proposals to parliament.

What next?

So how will Sweden reach a compromise on these divisive issues in order to reform the migration law?

Instead of putting forward a complete law proposal, the likeliest step is that the committee will put forward individual proposals that have broad parliamentary support. 

Different groups of parties back different policies; for example, the Social Democrats, Green Party, Centre Party, Liberals and Left Party all support a new rule for protection on humanitarian grounds in principle, while both the Social Democrats and Moderate Party support temporary residence permits for asylum seekers.

Because there are considerable disagreements between the two government partners (the Social Democrat and Green parties), further negotiations will probably be needed to reach an agreement on some points.

If they manage to agree, the government would probably send the proposals out for a consultation round, after which it may decide to put them to parliament for a vote. Only then would there be a law change.

The temporary law that's currently in place will expire in summer next year, so the goal is to replace it with a new permanent policy before then.

Member comments

  1. “I thought Sweden was my home, and I got deported from there twice, even though I started a business, paid millions in taxes and even hired people in Sweden myself. I contributed as much as I could during my time there, but two deportations left a really bad taste in my mouth, in terms of how far away they are from humanity.”
    That’s the concluding statement from a Forbes article published Feb. 13, 2019: . It’s frustrating to me to read that beyond asylum seekers, there seems to be no discussion of skilled workers. How can it make sense to anyone that a migrant could be deported for an error they were not responsible for and unaware of? How is it that employers are tasked with managing a migration process that is adjudicated by a famously byzantine and opaque agency with some rules they enforce that they admit aren’t even written anywhere? It seems that the political leaders working on solutions also may not have consulted labor unions prior to attempting to make changes. So far, I don’t have very high confidence in any of the political leaders to effectively resolve these very long standing problems.

  2. As an asylum seeker myself who has seen the devastating impact of liberal regulations on both the UK and Australian cultures first-hand, and lost my right to safe freedom of movement as a woman by fighting for equal cultural rights in my own country my whole life, my current suggestion would be…
    1) grant temporary residence until the home country’s dangers abate (and must meet same citizenship/permanent residency criteria as everybody else if interested in that)
    2) the global agency responsible for enforcing human rights and rule of law in countries in crises should provide welfare where necessary – a good incentive to fix the cause instead of making other innocent countries carry the fiscal and sociocultural burdens with no end in sight.
    3) definitely cap the number of other cultures influencing your own
    Even though I am currently applying for permanent residency in Sweden.

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For members


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.


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

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