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Emilsson, 2018 🔗

Continuity or change? The refugee crisis and the end of Swedish exceptionalism

Year: 2018

Type of text: Working paper

Published by:  Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM)

Malmö University

Language: English

Author: Henrik Emilsson

Available at:

Pages: 24

Short description of text 

Artikeln är en genomgång av politiska partiers policypositioner innan och efter år 2015 års stora flyktingmottagande.

Most important results

“The results indicate that the refugee crisis contributed to the breaking up of a long-established policy paradigm of openness and equal rights previously shared by most parties in parliament. A more fragmented party system has emerged where a new paradigm of controlling numbers has also found strong support outside the anti-immigration party the Sweden Democrats.” (abstract)

“The 1976 Aliens Act (Bill 1975/76:18) laid the foundation for future Swedish asylum and migration policies which have been characterized as having an open asylum and family-migration policy and equal rights for foreigners. It introduced new protection grounds beyond what is required by the Geneva Convention and replaced temporary residence permits with permanent ones. According to the Minister for Migration, Anna Greta Leijon (S), this should be seen as a part of a general policy goal of granting foreigners the same rights and obligations as Swedish citizens (Parliament protocol 1975/76:44). “ (5)

Policy coalitions beyond the left–right political divide: 1976–1997 (5) 

“The new Aliens Act (Bill 1988/89:86) introduced two external 6 policy measures – first safe country and carrier liability – making it harder for asylum-seekers to access the asylum process that was strongly opposed by the Liberal Party, the Green Party and the Left Party. This was the first time that a substantial element of the parliament fought for a more-generous asylum policy, and the three parties made an alliance with civil society organizations such as Save the children, Red Cross, the Church of Sweden and Amnesty (Öberg, 1994). “ (5-6)

A period of expansive asylum policy: 1998–2014 (6)

“The focus was no longer on migration control or integration considerations but, rather, on principles such as the rights of the child, equal rights in general, openness and the rule of law. For example, all parties endorsed the 2005 asylum bill (Bill 2004/05:170), which abolished direct political control over asylum decisions by creating migration courts. At the same time, the grounds for protection were extended. Children’s own grounds for protection were given greater weight and a broader definition of protection  grounds that included gender and sexual orientation was introduced. “ (6-7)

“Although the period overall meant a liberalization of asylum policy, the parliamentary debate was dominated by claims of inhumane asylum policies.” (7)

“Before the refugee crisis, Sweden had asylum and family-migration policies that went way beyond the EU minimum standards. Asylum was given to a larger groups than in other countries, and persons granted international protection immediately received permanent residence permits, equal socio-economic rights and the requirement-free possibility to reunite with their families. The Swedish openness to asylum and family migration has contributed to a migration profile that differs from most other European countries.” (9)

“The relatively liberal asylum and family-migration policies have been combined with a policy on equal rights. For example, Sweden has scored the highest in all the editions of the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), which measures migrants’ formal rights and the countries’ adaptation to diversity. Another indicator of rights is the absence of civic integration policies in Sweden (Goodman, 2010).” (9)

“The first major political reaction to the refugee crisis was the October Agreement between the Social Democratic and Green Party government and the four centre-right parties (Swedish Government, 2015a).” (10)

“The Social Democratic government, who did not want to wait for the long legislative process, decided on 12 November to introduce internal border controls (Swedish Government, 2015b)” (10)

“On 24 November, more drastic measures were implemented when the government decided to introduce external border controls (Swedish Government, 2015c). Now, no one without an identity card was able to cross from Denmark to Sweden. Combined, these measures reduced the number of asylum applicants to about 3,000 per month during the first quarter of 2016. ” (10)

“the average processing time from application to decision in asylum cases went from as short as three months before the crisis to over 12 months in 2016 (Migration Agency, 2016). Second, the asylum reception system itself has come under severe strain. At the beginning of 2016, over 173,000 persons were enrolled in the system, which forces the Migration Agency to resort to both temporary and expensive solutions. There were also capacity problems for those granted protection and, by April 2016, about 13,000 persons still waited at reception centres for somewhere to live. Third, the housing situation was alarming, with overcrowding in socioeconomic and ethnically segregated neighborhoods (National Board of Housing, Building and Planning, 2015). Fourth, the numbers also put pressures on the introduction program for newly arrived immigrants organized by the Employment Service. When it was introduced in December 2010, the program was planned for about 16,500 participants (Bill 2009/10:60). The forecast has not held, and the number of participants reached 55,000 in February 2016. Estimates show that there will be close to 80,000 participants in 2017, growing to over 100,000 in 2018–2020 (Employment Service, 2016). Due to the increase in participants, the Employment Service has identified a number of risk areas: overstretched personnel, increased administration, a lack of office space and of access to interpreters and translation services, measures and programs and the risk of a general lower quality in the introduction program. Fifth, the costs increased dramatically. The budget for migration and integration rose to almost 50 billion SEK in 2016, from a previous level of 10 billion SEK between 2006 and 2011 (Bill 2017/18:1). “ (10-11)

“The numbers put stress upon the asylum system and, according to the government, pose a serious threat to public order and internal security. Two strategies are used which are designed to limit access to the Swedish territory and reduce the attractiveness of Sweden as a choice for asylum-seekers. The border controls introduced on 24 November tried to close off access to the Swedish territory and thereby hinder persons applying for asylum. In addition, the government presented a proposal for a revised migration law with the intention of making Sweden a less attractive choice for asylum-seekers, a proposal which took effect on 20 July 2016 (Bill 2015/16:174).” (11)

“However, some migration and integration policies are still, in many respects, more liberal than in other comparable countries. There are still no civic integration requirements, such as language skills or civic tests, for permanent residence. In addition, all persons granted temporary residence permits are given the same rights to welfare as other residents.” (11)

“Sweden has pursued a more open migration policy compared to most European countries and has combined this openness with the granting of equal rights to migrants after admission. The refugee crisis has challenged the principles of the migration policy, and the Swedish government has implemented external border controls and a more restrictive asylum and family-migration policy. “ (11-12)

“Today, however, both the political debate in parliament and the official migration policy positions of most parties have changed drastically. Deeply entrenched principles and narratives among many of the seven ‘old’ parties have been discarded in favour of the overall goal of reducing the number of asylum-seekers and family migrants. “ (17)

“On the one hand we have the Moderates and the Social Democratic Party, together with the more-hesitant Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats, who guide their policies according to their overall goal of adapting policies to European standards in order to reduce asylum and family migration. The Green Party and the Left Party are still holding on to the traditional Swedish policies on migration, with a generous asylum policy, permanent residence permits and no income requirements for family migration. The odd one out is the Centre Party, which still advocates a generous migration policy while, at the same time, being open to reducing immigrants’ socio- economic rights. In these changes, we have seen a break up of earlier policy coalitions (Hajer, 2003; Sabatier & Weible, 2007) and we now have a more fragmented policy field that makes future policies more difficult to predict.” (17-18)

“Thus, a new dominant policy paradigm acknowledging a need for a reduction in the number of asylum-seekers and family migrants, previously only consisting of the Sweden Democrats, have has emerged and is supported by a clear majority of the political parties. When it comes to rights, the majority of the parties still support the principle that legal residents should have equal rights independent of status and citizenship, thus confirming a long-standing tradition in Swedish migration policies that dates back to the late 1960s, when Sweden resisted the guest-worker system and introduced long-term residence permits for labour migrants.” (17-18)

Theoretical perspective/framework

“According to the DCF [Discourse Coalitions (Hajer, 2003)], policy change comes from discursive openings. Discursive openings are facilitated by the emergence of exogenous crises or shocks to the social system that make the tensions of dominant positions either visible or difficult to conceal. A crisis is thus a trigger for new forms of discursive responses that open or close off possible courses of action.” (5)


“For their policy positions before the crisis I use the latest party programs, released before the refugee crisis, together with manifestos from the 2014 election. The empirical material for party positions after the refugee crisis consists of two important migration policy debates in the Swedish parliament, the party motions related to those debates and the eventual new, official, party programs. “ (3)

Summarized by: Josefin Åström