New law will hit women, children and LGBT persons hard
If the Swedish parliament votes ‘yes’ to the proposed new migration policy on 21 June, then women, children and LGBT persons, regardless of gender, who are seeking asylum in Sweden will suffer the most. The point is made by Annkatrin Meyersson and Baharan Kazemi, researchers at the University of Gothenburg.
‘If the law is passed, there will be dire consequences not only for all the people who are fleeing their countries but also for Swedish society. The government is adding fuel to the view of refugees as a problem and to the notion of “we vs. them”. I also see a neglect of basic human rights, and this is part of a dangerous process of creating a new normal,’ says Annkatrin Meyerson, PhD student in public law, specialising in asylum law.
On 21 June, the parliament will vote on a temporary law proposed by the cabinet. The purpose of the proposed new law is to dramatically reduce the number of people who seek asylum in Sweden. If the law is passed, it will go into effect on 20 July this year. The new law is the second step of the national government’s stricter migration policy. The first step was completed in December last year when ID checkpoints were introduced along the national borders, in particular along the border to Denmark.
At present, migrants to Sweden can seek asylum on several grounds: as a refugee under the 1951 international refugee convention, as a person in need of subsidiary protection, as a person otherwise in need of protection, as a quota refugee or based on ‘exceptionally distressing circumstances’ or ‘impediment to enforcement’, as expressed in the present Swedish Aliens Act. However, if the law goes into force, the categories ‘person otherwise in need of protection’ and ‘exceptionally distressing circumstances’ will be removed from the list. This means that Sweden will no longer offer people in these categories protection. In the group of migrants who are granted asylum in Sweden, everybody except quota refugees (who make up only a small fraction of all asylum seekers) are given temporary residence permits. The proposed law also restricts people’s current right to family reunification.
‘Sweden has already been criticised by the UNHCR for classifying so many people as persons in need of subsidiary protection instead of as refugees. In fact, a majority are offered protection on that ground. It hasn’t mattered as much in the past, since that group has had pretty much the same rights as for example refugees under the convention. However, this will change if the law is passed since it will remove the right of persons in need of subsidiary protection to family reunification. This will hit for example Syrians hard, since they are often classified as persons in need of subsidiary protection when arriving in Sweden. A lot of people from for example Afghanistan and Iraq will also suffer,’ says Annkatrin Meyersson.
‘The stricter rules for family reunification will impact women and children in particular. Since the journey to Europe is uncertain and very dangerous, men are often the ones who try to get here first. Women and children have often been able to come to Sweden because of the right to family reunification. If this door is closed, many women and children will be forced to stay in their home countries or refugee camps, or they may have to make it to Europe on their own with all the risks it entails,’ she says.
In addition, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual violence when fleeing their countries, according to a new report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).
Annkatrin Meyerson is also concerned that the new family reunification rules will be detrimental to many LGBT persons.
‘The proposed law adds some unfortunate restrictions to what constitutes a family. For those who are granted family reunification rights, the rights will only apply for spouses and cohabiting partners and not persons with whom the migrant intends to marry or enter a civil partnership, as in the past. The problem is that the countries we are talking about don’t allow same-sex marriages or cohabitation,’ she says.
The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights is one of the many organisations and official bodies that heavily criticised the draft law when it was circulated for comments earlier this year. Just like Annkatrin Meyerson, the organisation is afraid that the less permissive stance to family reunification will lead to a stricter application of the view of what constitutes a well-established relationship. Criticism has also been raised regarding the proposed new rules related to temporary residence permits since they seem to rest on the assumption that most people in need of international protection are fleeing a temporary situation that eventually will pass. Further, the organisation is negative to the proposed removal of ‘person otherwise in need of protection’ as a ground for asylum, since its experience is that many LGBT persons who seek protection in Sweden are granted asylum on precisely this ground.
Baharan Kazemi’s research at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Social Work concerns unaccompanied children fleeing their home countries. She says that although she can only speculate at this point, she believes that the new law will make it even harder for migrants seeking asylum for reasons related to disapproved and/or illegal relationships (homosexuality, escape from forced marriage, family disapproval of partner etc.) to talk to the Swedish Migration Agency about their problems.
‘If they know they can only get temporary residence permits, there’s a risk they’ll be sent back in 1–3 years. Then it’s not unlikely that some people may see it as too risky to come out, if they don’t know whether they can gain permanent protection,’ she says.
She also stresses that research shows that temporary residence permits lead to increased insecurity and hit women with psychological health problems particularly hard.
Baharan Kazemi says that unaccompanied children, a group comprising mainly boys, will suffer substantially if the law is enacted. Many children in this group have been granted asylum on the ground of ‘exceptionally distressing circumstances’ – a category that the new law will eliminate entirely.
‘I’m thinking of the view of who needs to flee and what they are expected to be able to endure in relation to ethnicity and gender – how boys and men from other countries are looked upon. According to the proposed law, it will be considered reasonable to send young men back to war zones where they are supposed to survive ISIS, forced recruitments, conflict situations and other atrocities. There are clearly various discourses in society that throw suspicion on unaccompanied children – about whether they really are children and qualify for asylum. Against this background it’s not so strange to implement the new rule that denies them protection,’ she says.
If the law is enacted, what needs to be done first?
‘It will be extremely urgent to try to exempt children from the new rules. Separating young children from their parents is a gruesome thing to do. But more than anything else, we must try to create legal ways to enter Sweden and Europe. That’s the single most important task,’ says Baharan Kazemi.
Footnote: On 21 June 2016, the Parliament overwhelmingly passed the new law.