17th Jan 2019


Refugee rights highlighted ahead of Swedish vote

  • Europa Europa, a Swedish anti-nationalist cabaret on EU asylum policy (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

"Thank you for daring. Thank you for keeping grip of me when the barbed wire cut into your skin. Thank you for carrying me on your back although you don’t know how to swim. Thank you for singing to me when I was scared. Thank you for leaving grandma even though you said you never could."

It is Sunday evening at a sylvan theatre in central Stockholm. The wooden benches are packed with families, pensioners and groups of friends. They are here to see Europa Europa, the anti-nationalist cabaret on EU asylum policy by artist collective Ful and electro group, The Knife.

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The performers invite the audience to sing along - reflecting the Swedish tradition of getting political messages across through theatre and community singing.

"You called me a parasite, a freeloader, a burden, a liar, a victim and a perpetrator, always a criminal. But I can never be illegal. Call me a hero! For all borders I survived. For all the fears I overcame. For my courage. For the life I’ll never get. Call me by my real name!"

The mix of caberet, park theatre and community singing makes for an odd, borderline camp, expression of electro music, combined with diva make-up, satin jumpsuits, glitter bombs, firecrackers, clenched fists and love declarations.

It could not be further from the grey meetings rooms in Brussels where EU asylum policy is decided.

Over the summer, Europa Europa performed in parks in different Swedish cities. The tour is part of the efforts to put refugee rights on the agenda ahead of Sweden’s upcoming triple elections. On 14 September, citizens and long-term residents will choose a new parliament, local authorities and regional councils.

For the last eight years, the parliament was governed by the Alliance, a coalition of liberal and conservative parties with the Moderate Party at the helm. The right-wing block was re-elected in 2010 when voters judged it better suited to deal with the eurozone crisis.

This time around, polls show a tight race with a slight lead for the red and green parties, while the feminist party is hovering around the 4 percent threshold.

The Common European Asylum System was adopted in June 2013 and marked a milestone in harmonising European migration rules. But it is increasingly obvious that the system fails to save lives.

The UNHCR recently noted that the number of forcibly displaced people now exceeds 50 million, a level unheard of since the end of the second world war. Half of the refugees are children.

The 1951 Geneva Convention states that individuals who fear being persecuted by their country of nationality can apply for asylum in another state. But this right is undermined by the fact that there are no legal ways of entering the EU. Potential asylum seekers are not issued entry visas, but they need to get into foreign territory in order to lodge their asylum requests.

The Swedish Migration Board offers permanent residency status to Syrian refugees. This, however, only applies to those who made it to Sweden without being stopped and registered in another Schengen country.

Irregular border crossings are increasingly dangerous. Amnesty International reports that the EU has spent millions investing in expensive surveillance materials: live scans for fingerprinting, helicopters, police patrol vehicles (over €16 million); offshore patrol vessels (over €31 million); coastal patrol vessels (over €14 million); high-speed boats, airplanes with sensors, off-road vehicles, motorcycles (over €2.5 million); and night vision goggles, long-distance day goggles, thermal cameras, Co2 detection devices and search-and-rescue boats.

As the EU seals off its land borders, desperate people turn to dangerous sea routes. They put themselves at the mercy of smugglers. They go by dinghies, which have more chances of passing unnoticed on Frontex surveillance systems. They travel without captains, as the latter face charges if caught by border police.

At least 2,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean in the first eight months of 2014, half of them during the summer, despite the fact that Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation has saved tens of thousands migrants since October 2013. There are 25,000 documented cases of migrants who died while trying to enter the Schengen area since 2000.

Those who survive the perilous journey are often ill-treated by border guards, unlawfully expelled without access to asylum procedures or detained in prison-like conditions.

Cecilia Malmstrom, the outgoing Swedish Commissioner for Home Affairs, has been in charge of EU migration policy over the last five years. She advocated legal ways of entering Europe and the need for increased solidarity between member states. But the militarising of EU borders also happened on her watch.

The authors of Europa Europa are not the only Swedish artists to advocate refugee rights. In a widely relayed radio show, the poet Athena Farrokhzad called EU migration policy the largest European tragedy of our times and urged listeners to show solidarity by whatever means available to them, also by marrying undocumented migrants.

"We are often told that we have a generous migration policy and that open borders would be a catastrophe - as if the catastrophe was not already happening."

Sweden already receives more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU country. But a recent poll shows that 62 percent of the respondents want to maintain or increase the number of asylum seekers. PM Fredrik Reinfeldt placed immigration centre-stage in the election campaign when he highlighted "the need to open one’s hearts" in his final summer speech.

He made the statement even as the anti-immigrant party, Sweden Democrats (SD), looks set to scoop as much as ten percent of the vote in Sunday’s election. The party first entered the Riksdagen four years ago and received 9.67 percent in the May European elections.

But despite the recent gains, SD have largely failed to set the political agenda. All other parties have refused parliamentary cooperation.

The liberal-conservative Alliance struck a deal with the Green party to increase labour migration to Sweden and also acknowledged some rights to undocumented migrants.

SD leader Jimmie Akesson has sought to rebrand the party as patriotic and “critical of immigration”.

Political scientist Marie Demker, who studies changes in public opinion, says that Swedes are increasingly open to immigration and the multicultural society.

Tolerance - something to be worked on

But this tolerance is also something that has to be worked on.

Structural discrimination is clearly visible at the labour market. It is much more difficult for immigrants to find jobs while foreign-born graduates find it difficult to find jobs in line with their level of education and they earn less than their colleagues who were born in Sweden.

The country has also had its anti-racism image dented in the past. In November 2013, a journalist revealed that police had been systematically registering Roma people and their relatives. Among those registered was MEP Soraya Post.

Meanwhile, although mainstream Swedish parties say they will not work with SD, the question arises of how long this stance will be maintained should the party get bigger in the future.

Keeping Sweden tolerant also takes action at the grass roots level. Swedish civil society is increasingly active in the work place, at kitchen tables, community centres and on the streets to keep racism at bay.

Social media, editorials, and cultural journals have tried to address structural discrimination of people who are not considered Swedish. They emphasise the threat that far-right movements pose to a democratic society, rather than letting the discussion be framed by the “threat of mass immigration”.

Europa Europa will perform for the last time on Sunday, election night, once more presenting the message that human rights must keep crossing borders, just like the people to whom these rights belong.

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