During the announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Åsa Romson broke into tears as she announced the “terrible decision” that will make life harder for the asylum-seekers seeking a new life in Europe.

The decision raises questions about whether the right to seek asylum is slowly losing ground to the notion of border control within the EU, as divisions on how to cope with the migrant crisis seem only to be splintering further.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán controversially warned that ‘Those who are overwhelmed cannot offer shelter to anyone’. Did Sweden just prove his point?

There is no bastion that has fallen, but any country has to see to it that when the situation on the ground is such, after having received more than 150.000 in a very limited period of time, that you’re not sure any more if you can handle it in an orderly and humane manner, you have to take appropriate measures. We need to see to it that we can continue to provide shelter, schools for the kids and proper health care and that everyone can have their asylum applications handled in a reasonable time and with proper procedures. And this is not a small task. Every week in Sweden we need to start a hundred new school classes, thanks to the refugees. This is of course a blessing in the long term but a considerable challenge in the short term. So I would say that the situation is the opposite and we continue to take our responsibility very seriously.
If the statement reads that an “overwhelmed country cannot offer shelter to anyone” then that is the best argument for increased solidarity and sharing the challenges within the European Union. We have to help each other. Let’s make sure that no country is overwhelmed. Let’s make sure that each country takes its responsibility, not necessarily to the same degree, not everyone has to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees like Sweden and Germany, but everyone should make their best efforts. I don’t believe that has been the case so far.
Look at the figures: around one million people are coming to the EU this year. There are some five hundred million people living here already, in 28 very rich countries. Is it really impossible for such a mighty union not to accept this one million people – 1 new person added to 500 – that is the ratio? I believe it is possible if we share the task.
We’re not going to have people live in the forest in Sweden. We want to make sure that there is an orderly system and that the right to seek asylum can be guaranteed. If we let people starve, or keep them out in the snow in the winter without protection, we wouldn’t take our obligations seriously. The temporary measures are undertaken to be able to continue to be humanitarian. They will take Sweden to a level where other EU countries have been all along. We are not closing our borders for those seeking asylum.

Is Hungary’s discourse of ‘border control’ replacing the human rights perspective in Sweden?

We are not raising fences. We are not limiting the right to seek asylum. We are saying exactly the opposite. We want to continue to be generous but it has to be controlled. It has to be orderly. And we have to share the burden. The refugee crisis is primarily a humanitarian crisis, not a border control issue.

The Sweden Democrats and their anti-immigration rhetoric are now the third biggest party in Sweden with 49 representatives in parliament. They have publicly cited Hungary as an “interesting political example”. Is Sweden shifting to the far right as a result of the migration crisis?

This is not my impression. Eighty-eight per cent of Swedes did not vote for this party in last year’s elections. All the other parties are united in opposition to this party and everything it stands for. Even now a year later, when we have gone through the toughest refugee crisis since the Second World War – we have received almost two hundred thousand refugees – and the systems are at the maximum of what we can cope with. Even now we still see that a large majority of the Swedes are reaching out to those in need and supporting a generous migration policy. This is remarkable.

Given that the crisis seems to have no end in sight, are you not worried that a political party that sparked out of a neo-Nazi movement will have significant influence in, say, 10 years?

Personally I don’t see that. We have seen earlier flows of migration, but yes, during these periods when lots of people came in pressuring the different municipalities etc. in a situation that was of course, in the short term, difficult to deal with, it was a strain on the system. In the first period, it is a challenge. But as time goes by, when the immediate crisis is over and we go back to normality and we have redimensioned our resources, which is exactly what is happening in Sweden at the moment, when integration continues, people see the benefits. I strongly believe that Swedes are not xenophobic. Most Swedes like to see a variety of cultures, a tolerant and open society. The general feeling is very open to embrace globalisation. Swedes travel a lot, we settle a lot abroad. We also see a large influx to Sweden from all over the world but this is our strength. It strengthens our society, economically, culturally and socially. That is part of our success story. Do we have problems? Yes, but we deal with them.

Has the EU and its open borders created a pull-effect that is escalating the migrant crisis?

The notion that Angela Merkel and Germany started the refugee crisis that I sometimes hear in the debate, I think is completely false. Refugee crises start on the ground somewhere, often because of wars, conflicts and terror, or due to natural disasters, when people feel that there is no other option. I strongly believe that most people would like to stay in their homes with their friends and families, but when they don’t see any hope, year after year, they will ultimately decide to leave – and so would we.
I know that the refugee flow we are seeing is not a temporary thing. There has been constant pressure, in the Middle East, in South Asia, not to mention in Africa. In the longer run, people want to migrate to Europe and elsewhere. Yes we know that people have mixed reasons for coming to Europe, this is clear even according to the UNHCR. But we also know that the main reasons are due to real conflicts. It’s not like these people decided that they wanted to leave, many of them from Syria. They decide to come because it’s their only option. They have lost their homes and they were forced to leave to survive. There is war and terrorism in their countries and they have to escape to create a future for their families – and I think this is their right.
There are others that don’t see a future in their home countries for other reasons. But this is exactly why we need to have a proper asylum process, including readmission treaties, making sure that people can return in an orderly and humane way to their home countries. Sweden has such an agreement with Iraq but is also looking into possibilities to conclude similar agreements with other countries. If you don’t have valid reasons to seek asylum, then you would have to return. Some will stay and some will go back.

How has your service in the Middle East affected your view of today’s crisis?

I worked for 11 years in total in South Asia and the Middle East (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jordan). During these years I experienced war, terrorism, poverty and refugee flows close by, while trying to contribute to solutions to the conflicts and to provide humanitarian and development aid to all those in need. I know some things about what the refugees are fleeing from and why. I know that refugees are human beings like you and me, that the children have the same wish for safety, care and close friends as our children, and that the parents try to make the best possible future for their families.
I have seen the suffering and hopelessness in their eyes. I have seen destruction and turmoil. Thus, I know that refugees are not “illegal migrants threatening our societies and values”, but ordinary people seeking refuge and protection from terror and violence. I find it especially sad and cynical indeed when I sometimes see attempts to use the fear of terrorism to blame the innocent refugees who are themselves the first victims of that same terrorism. On the contrary, the best way to tackle terrorism is to stand up for tolerance and open societies, for the rule-of-law, promoting cultural and religious dialogue and understanding – bridging the gaps, rather than looking for differences. To me, as a Christian, the essence of our Christian values is to care about those in need, to reach out and to show compassion and humanity.

The UNHCR warns of 60 million internally displaced people. Some would argue that they are headed for the EU and that what we have seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. Is there no limit to how many refugees the EU can absorb?

Yes, the UNHCR estimates that there are 60 million refugees globally but the majority of those are internally displaced people; people that are fleeing still inside their countries. They are not fleeing around the world. Also, the ones that flee their countries are mostly in the neighbouring countries. The Afghans who fled are primarily in Iran and Pakistan. The people who fled from Iraq are in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, etc. The refugees who flee from Syria turn up in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. When we talk about the European dimension of this, we have to understand that it is still a creek if the other flows are rivers. As I said, one million, that’s a lot of people. But we have had refugee inflows before to the EU. Look at the Balkan wars. My country and many other countries including Hungary took responsibilities seriously then and now these people are integrated in our societies. In Sweden we have had inflows from many parts of the world for decades, for instance from the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Kurds, Somalia, Eritrea and Chile. I have so many examples, including of course all the Hungarians who came in 1956 and during the 1960s and 1970s fleeing from communism oppression. These Hungarians are now very well integrated and part of Sweden. And one hundred years ago we Swedes migrated in millions to find a future in America. We should see it in a historic perspective that migration is there, it will always be there and yes some migration is not desirable. We don’t want to see crisis situations like today. So what do we need to do? We need to work on solutions to end the wars. To fight terrorism. To fight poverty and climate change. We need to give people the opportunity to stay in their countries in peace and security. This is the key thing.

Viktor Orbán has warned that Europe is losing its identity. Sweden has changed dramatically in the last decades as a result of its refugee regime. Are you not worried of losing the Swedish identity?

We often talk about identity. I’d rather talk about values. To stand up for those values that are not only European but global or human values. Human rights, democracy, rule of law, tolerance, compassion, open societies, respect for each other – all these values together form what I would say is the essential part of our civilisation. I don’t see these values as being threatened by refugees. Instead the refugee crisis is the test if we respect our own values when they are needed the most.
Identity is not a fixed thing. We are not living in museums. We are in an interchanging world. If I look back at Sweden and how it looked when I was a child and if I look at Sweden today, then it’s not the same country at all. It’s radically different – and I think that’s a very good thing. If we would still have been the same as back then, then we would have been standing still and we would not have developed. For a Europe without borders, with free travel, the opportunity to study abroad, where business can grow and capital can flow, we have to embrace this variety rather than sticking to some notion of a fixed identity which I don’t believe exists. Europe has always been a melting pot. It has been at the crossroads of migration, of armies unfortunately, and of religions living side by side. In fact, multiculturalism is the essence of our European heritage – and the foundation of our European Union.

Vladmir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have made some interesting remarks regarding Europe’s migrant crisis. Putin has described it as a consequence of the EU “blindly following America’s orders” in the Middle East and North Africa. Erdogan told CNN in September that “the whole Western world is to be blamed” in his opinion. Do you think the USA is doing its share to assist the EU?

Having served in the conflict zones from where these people are fleeing from, I will say that I always saw attempts to blame others. Everyone was blaming someone else. The Americans were often on that list. I don’t subscribe to this view at all. I think the primary responsibility lies on the leaders of these countries. There is a possibility for change. There is a possibility for good governance. There is a possibility for peaceful political settlements and solutions, for good development, economic policies and for good neighbourly relations if you have benevolent good leaders in these countries.
It doesn’t do much good to talk about history at his point. To talk about history and play the blame game doesn’t solve anything for that kid who is here as a refugee. We have to focus on what we are seeing here right now. How do we solve this situation? After that we can have an academic discussion about what caused this situation, but that’s more of a history lesson.
The first thing we can do is of course to stop the wars, but again the primary responsibility lies with the leaders of these countries. The outer world can assist in various ways, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. When it comes to Syria, what is needed is a political settlement, which is now being negotiated by the UN, led by a Swedish diplomat, my good friend Staffan de Mistura. This is the future – political dialogue rather than protracted wars.

The US definitely led the wars in the Middle East and influenced the Arab Spring. Shouldn’t they lead the efforts in sharing a burden that is seen as a direct consequence of their own policies?

Don’t forget that the USA is a country of immigrants, including millions of Swedes. The idea that the USA is closed to migration is wrong. They have taken in migrants from all over the world for years and years. That being said, I think there is still room for more sharing of the challenges from all countries, from outside of the EU. It’s not a European problem, it is a global problem. Clearly, the United States, Russia, Japan, India, China and all the other nations need to be part of the solution.

The migration influx we see today seems to have abundant supply while divisions within the EU seem to be splintering further. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, warns of a Schengen zone on the verge of collapse. Are you optimistic at all?

The spirit that I have often seen around the negotiating tables in Brussels is that when leaders come together and one country explains there is a problem – it could be Greece one day, it could be Sweden the next day – the EU comes together in the end. Because we are all dependent on each other, and we have a common foreign and security policy and a Schengen zone. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, all other EU members immediately came out and said yes, we are with France, we will help you, we will deal with terrorism together. The same approach must be there to solve the migration crisis.
I’m optimistic about one thing, because I have lived through a number of crises in Europe. I have seen the European Union develop and I have seen that whenever there is a crisis what ultimately happens is that Europe can first get caught by surprise and there can be turbulence, but in the end we normally find a solution. The union comes out stronger, we learn something by tackling our problems together. After all, that is why we have all chosen to be part of the European Union, isn’t it?

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