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EXPLAINED: What are the Swedish police's new powers in border areas?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: What are the Swedish police's new powers in border areas?
Border police check passports on a train arriving from Denmark in 2018. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Sweden's new law extending police powers in border areas came into force on Tuesday, with the government then immediately tasking police to use the powers to step up border checks. We look at what the new powers are.


What powers does the law give police and customs officials? 

The biggest and most controversial change is that police and customs officials are gaining the right to stop and search foreign citizens and their vehicles at or near the border with other Schengen countries, without needing to document any of the grounds required for them to mount such a search under Sweden's Aliens Act outside of border areas. 

This is primarily so they can demand or search for ID documents if the foreign citizen refuses to provide them voluntarily, to check that they have a legal right to be in the country. But it also can also be to check for smuggled or stolen goods. 

In the text of the law, it stresses that "checks should be selective and should not be set up or carried out in such a way to be a systematic check of people", 

Police, border police, and customs officials have also gained the right to seize passports and other ID documents from those who cannot prove they have the right to be in Sweden at controls on Schengen's inner borders. 

They gain new powers to require foreigners to provide fingerprints and other biometric data and to allow themselves to be photographed. 

Police, the customs authorities, and the Säpo security police are also gaining a right to use new technology, such as surveillance cameras which can read and store number plates. Under the law, they can store details collected by such cameras for up to six months, so long as the purpose is to "work to stop, to prevent, or to discover criminal activities or to investigate or prosecute crimes". 

What qualifies as an 'area near the border'? 

"Areas near the border" or gränsnära områden is defined in the law to include "certain airports, ports and railway stations, bridges for road traffic to or from another country, border posts, and areas near these places". 

If a foreign citizen seeks to flee police or border officials, then the extended powers continue to apply during a pursuit even if the foreigner leaves the border area. 


What criticisms have there been of the law?

Sweden's Council on Legislation, which vets all new proposed laws, complained that the new powers gained by police, border police and customs officials, as framed in the proposed law, risked leading to discrimination.

They also warned that, as framed, the law suggested that foreigners could be searched without any suspicion at all, whereas in fact, under the EU's Schengen agreement, the authorities need to have a reason. 

The human rights group Civil Rights Defenders was highly critical of the law in its response to consultation back in March 2022, saying that if enacted it would be a "comprehensive violation of, among other things, the right to seek asylum, the right to a private life, personal integrity protections, protections against forced physical interventions, protections against being deprived of liberty, freedom of movement, and the right to equality before the law and not to be discriminated against."

Some of the clauses the group objected to include:

  • a clause that would allow police to use the new powers even in areas that are not near a border;
  • a clause which allows camera surveillance without the need for any documented justification;
  • clauses which allow police or the coast guard to move someone they have seized and carry out a bodily search at another place, allow bodily searches to be carried out by someone who is not a police officer or border officer, and allow those undergoing searches to be deprived of their liberty for up to three hours while the search takes place. 


What's the background to the law? 

The law has its background in an inquiry launched by the former Social Democrat government in 2020, which reported its conclusions in November 2021.

The former government sent its proposed changes out for consultation in December 2021, but, perhaps because of the coronavirus pandemic, they never went ahead and submitted the law to parliament. 

In February this year, the new right-wing government sent the draft of the law to the Council on Legislation, passed the final proposal to parliament in April, which then voted through the new law on June 20th. 


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