Sweden is set to drastically reduce the flow of refugees into the country by imposing strict identity checks on all travellers from Denmark, as Scandinavian countries compete with each other to shed their reputations as havens for asylum seekers.
For the first time since the 1950s, from midnight on Sunday (3 January) travellers by train, bus or boat will need to present a valid photo ID, such as a passport, to enter Sweden from its southern neighbour, with penalties for travel operators who fail to impose checks. Passengers who fail to present a satisfactory document will be turned back.
“The government now considers that the current situation, with a large number of people entering the country in a relatively short time, poses a serious threat to public order and national security,” the government said in a statement accompanying legislation enabling the border controls to take place.
The move marks a turning point for the Swedish ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, which earlier presented itself as a beacon to people fleeing conflict and terror in Asia and the Middle East.
“My Europe takes in people fleeing from war, my Europe does not build walls,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told crowds in Stockholm on 6 September. But three months and about 80,000 asylum seekers later, the migration minister told parliament: “The system cannot cope.”
Almost 163,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, the highest in Europe as a proportion of the population. In the autumn, applications were running at 10,000 weekly. But Stockholm has made clear it wants to slash the flow to around 1,000 a week in 2016.
Temporary border controls were first revealed in November, but the current legislation is valid for three years. Announcing the U-turn in refugee policy, the deputy prime minister burst into tears.
Prof Pieter Bevelander, head of the Malmö Institute of Migration, Diversity and Welfare, said: “Border controls are already in place, but the main control is when the rumour goes about among refugees that Sweden is not taking any more.”
About 40% of asylum seekers produce a passport or other identification upon arrival in Sweden, according to the migration board. But the figure varies according to nationality. Among some groups, such as juvenile Afghans, very few have papers, Bevelander said.
Critics of Sweden’s refugee crackdown fear it will cause a “domino effect” as countries compete to outdo each other in their hostility to asylum seekers.
“Traditionally, Sweden has been connected to humanitarian values, and we are very worried that the signals Sweden is sending out are that we are not that kind of country any more,” said Anna Carlstedt, president of the Red Cross in Sweden, whose staff and volunteers have often been the first line of support for new arrivals in the country.
Other Scandinavian countries have recently announced their intention to stem the flow of refugees.
In his new year address, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Denmark’s centre-right prime minister, said the country was prepared to impose similar controls on its border with Germany, if the Swedish passport checks left large numbers of asylum seekers stranded in Denmark.
A few days earlier, Rasmussen called for a debate on changes to the Geneva conventions if Europe was unable to swiftly curb the influx of asylum seekers.
About 18,500 migrants applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015. Last month, the government said police should be able to confiscate valuables from refugees to help cover their costs – just one of 34 proposals aimed at tightening refugee policy.
Last week, Norway’s rightwing government proposed a package of new measures that it claimed would make Oslo’s asylum policies “among Europe’s toughest”. More than 35,000 asylum seekers arrived in Norway last year, compared with 11,500 in 2014.
There is considerable uncertainty about how Sweden’s border controls will be applied. “It will be interesting to see how carriers will interpret a document in Pashtu or Dari, and according to the official Afghan calendar in which we are now in year 1394,” Viktor Banke, an asylum lawyer in Stockholm, told the Svenska Dagbladet.
Christina Höj Larsen, MP for the Left party, which has traditionally supported the government but turned against it on this issue, said she was proud of what Sweden had achieved so far, but that it still could do much more. The EU’s failure to share the responsibility for refugees should encourage Sweden to withhold its annual membership fee of 40.1bn kronor (£3.2bn), she said, adding: “There is strong legislation if member countries don’t follow the EU economic framework, but when countries breach the agreements on humans rights there are no sanctions.”
Swedish ministers declined requests for an interview with the Guardian.