08/2005: Janna Valik

Janna Valik
Director-General of
the Swedish Migration Board


Sweden’s migration and refugee policy and
its contribution to the EU common policy framework


Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Unlike other EU member states, the number of asylum applications in Sweden has increased steadily since the early 2000s, reaching an annual inflow of around 31,000 in 2003. Approximately 250 non-EU labour migrants are also admitted each year. In addition, Sweden is among the few countries in the EU which, since 1950, has been implementing a policy on quota refugees. The Swedish Government allocates resources covering around 1,800 quota refugees each year, although, subject to government approval, the Migration Board may use some of its resettlement policy resources for alternative measures aimed at supporting refugees in or around their own countries. Sweden further supports relatively comprehensive integration measures in favour of asylum applicants, refugees and migrants. Could you guide us through, briefly, Sweden’s overall policy priorities and programme responses in the field of migration and asylum today, including as regards migration management policies and issues of integration into Swedish society?

Ü Janna Valik: First I would like to make clear that it is not up to the Swedish Migration Board to decide about overall policy priorities for migration and asylum affairs in Sweden. The Board is under the authority of the Swedish Government, who establishes objectives, guidelines and the allocation of resources for the Migration Board.

The guidelines laid down by the Government are based on a holistic approach that includes refugee, migration and integration policies, voluntary return to the countries origin and support to voluntary repatriation. These policies must be seen in the light of international cooperation arrangements and Sweden’s efforts in the field of global refugee issues. EU cooperation, in particular, plays a central and important role. The Government has made clear that Sweden will continue to take an active part in shaping common EU rules in the field of migration and asylum.

The policies guiding the Migration Board aim to ensure that asylum seekers in Sweden can benefit from the best reception conditions possible and that genuine refugees receive the protection to which they are entitled. Those who have valid claims for asylum must be given the opportunity to enter into Swedish society as soon as possible and those who have no grounds for asylum must return to their countries of origin. The important objectives here are to deter people from abusing the asylum system in order to safeguard the right of asylum and to prevent illegal immigration and the international trafficking in human beings.

The Migration Board is also guided by policies on regulated migration. Most immigrants settle in Sweden as a result of family ties. The number of applications on family grounds amounted to nearly 50,000 in 2004. As a comparison, the number of applications on employment grounds was 13,500. Only 209 persons were granted a permanent residence permit for employment reasons in 2004. As a result of EU enlargement there has been increased labour immigration from the new EU member states. The Government is now discussing possible approaches to a revised managed migration policy to increase legal routes for labour migration. A parliamentary committee has been appointed to consider this matter. Today’s managed migration policy focuses on demand for short-term labour, as well as for highly skilled professionals.

The asylum system in Sweden has been an issue for public debate for a long time. Some people whose asylum applications have been rejected today feel that not all their claims for seeking asylum have been taken into consideration and that they have not had the opportunity to present their cases fully. The asylum process is therefore being reformed to become more transparent and comprehensive. A new system for appeals and procedures will also be introduced. The change is being described as the biggest reform ever in the field of migration in Sweden. The current appeals authority, the Aliens Appeals Board, will be replaced by a court system. The Government also intends to abolish the possibility for applicants to submit a new claim after an appeal and a final decision have been pronounced. Many asylum seekers who have been in Sweden for a long period of time have remained in the country because of the possibility to submit an unlimited number of claims. The Swedish Migration Board is in the process of taking the necessary steps to meet the requirements of the new procedure, with a view to implementing the reform in 2006. It is our hope that, together with other measures to enhance legal security, the reform will contribute to a greater acceptability of decisions and will promote public trust in the system.

A fair and well managed system is also dependent on the propensity of individuals to co-operate in the process. The number of people claiming asylum in Sweden has dropped from 33,000 in 2002 to an expected 17,000 this year. The Migration Board has taken measures to shorten processing times, although it is still experiencing difficulties in removing failed applicants. To be able to increase the number of returns the authorities must come to grips with the problems related to the identification/verification of the identity of many asylum seekers. 92% of the applicants fail to present a national passport on arrival. Lack of travel documents means that the Migration Board is experiencing difficulties in arranging for the return of asylum seekers, should their claims fail. A series of measures, including legislative measures allowing the Board to cut benefits, have been put in place, and our officials liase with embassies in Sweden and the relevant authorities in the countries concerned to establish better practices and procedures to overcome these problems. Cooperation within the EU on these matters is also important.

The drop in the number of asylum seekers in the last couple of years reflects international events and policy changes. It is also a result of more effective Dublin procedures and the introduction of Eurodac. However, we know that the majority of the world’s refugees never reach Europe. You mention Sweden’s policy on quota refugees, which I believe is an important tool for taking responsibility for refugees outside of Europe. In Sweden resettlement has been an important part of asylum policy for a long time and the Government hopes that more EU member states will establish resettlement programmes. Through the quota system we are able to reach vulnerable groups and individuals whom we would not otherwise be able to protect within the regular asylum system. This year, Sweden has the capacity to admit 1,700 quota refugees.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: The Migration Board is Sweden’s central government authority with responsibility for all migration, refugee, voluntary/forced return and citizenship issues. In addition to handling all first instance asylum investigations, and applications for work/residence permits and citizenship, the Migration Board also coordinates relations with Sweden’s embassies and consulates abroad, which process applications for entry visas, work permits and residence permits; the police, as regards border controls; the Aliens Appeals Board, which reviews Migration Board decisions; the National Integration Office, which is responsible for ensuring that those granted asylum or protection are accepted and given introduction programmes by a local authority; and voluntary organisations and aid bodies. The Migration Board further produces Sweden’s asylum and migration statistics. The range of functions and responsibilities allocated, centrally, to a single Government entity, appears to be in contrast with the institutional organisation of migration and asylum affairs in most other EU member states, and indeed in major non-EU host countries. How would you assess the respective merits and possible challenges of such a high degree of centralisation of all functions related to migration and asylum policy at a national level?

Ü Janna Valik: The Swedish Migration Board, as the central government authority, has an overall responsibility for coordinating the implementation of Government policies in the field of asylum and migration. However, this does not mean that other authorities involved in the management of such issues, such as the Police Authority or the Swedish missions abroad, are dependent bodies and that the Migration Board has the authority to issue instructions to them as regards their actions or priorities. Although the Migration Board has responsibility for overall coordination, there is no single point of accountability other than the Government when it comes to the setting of Sweden’s overall policy objectives. The task of the Migration Board, essentially, is to promote cooperation among authorities, and to ensure that the implementation of asylum and migration policies is of a high quality, is efficient and is based on an holistic approach. This coordinating function aims to harmonise measures in such a way as to ensure that they can achieve the objectives set by the Government. It is essential that the bodies involved base their work on a common understanding of the concerns and objectives of all interested parties, i.e. the people affected, the public, the Government, NGOs etc. For the same reason it is considered an advantage to have a single authority with a wide range of functions and responsibilities.

I believe that the most obvious advantage of such a coordination is that it places the individual at the centre of the management system, ensuring that newcomers to Sweden experience an immigration service that works cohesively  from the first contact at the Swedish Embassy in the country of origin to the acquisition of citizenship in Sweden. I also believe that a high degree of coordination can save time and can be more cost-effective than a system that does not enjoy a central authority coordinating separate procedures and functions. Uniformity in the approach to applicants and the relevant policies must be considered as a major advantage. Different approaches by different authorities can result in lack of uniformity and can give the applicant contradictory signals. This, in turn, can create incentives for avoiding immigration restrictions or for abusing the system. On the other hand, a system with a central coordinating body can contribute to the clarity and predictability of the legal obligations and rights of an immigrant or asylum seeker in Sweden. For example, a fair system requires that asylum seekers who are not in need of protection return or are effectively removed after a fair and comprehensive examination of their claims is completed. To achieve this aim it is essential to secure coordination between the asylum authority and the authorities responsible for the execution of return decisions. In Sweden the Migration Board is responsible for assisting voluntary returns. However, if the applicant does not cooperate in the return process, then the case is referred to the Police Authority. This holistic approach, and a system based on a central government authority, contribute to facilitating such coordination.

I also believe that having a single authority that enjoys a wide spectrum of responsibilities can make international cooperation easier, where cooperation could otherwise be restrained by complex national administrative structures and the range of authorities involved in its management. It is also an advantage to have a central authority that contributes to the sharing of information and expertise in legal and fact-finding matters. As a central authority we are well equipped to support the development and exchange of the type of knowledge that is required for a coherent and effective implementation of migration and asylum policies.

However, a system based on a central authority is not, of course, without its drawbacks. A major challenge is to maintain the necessary high-level communication and liaison to ensure effective cooperation between different authorities and between different levels and functions within the organisation. With a wide spectrum of responsibilities there is also a need to maintain quality, consistency and integrity of service and decision-making, and to have the ability to delegate, supervise and evaluate. Of course, the implementation of policies is sometimes best taken on by specialised bodies and some of the Board’s existing tasks have been transferred to other authorities as a result of new Government policies. For 28 years, for example, the Board had the task of supporting the integration of immigrants into Swedish society, in addition to processing asylum applications, residence permits and citizenship cases. In 1997, however, the parliament decided to split immigration and immigrant integration affairs, and to introduce a new concept: it made immigrant integration a part of Sweden’s overall integration policy and, in 1998, a new agency, the Swedish Integration Board, was established to ensure that new immigrants receive appropriate support for their integration into Swedish society.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: The Migration Board has been active in promoting and contributing to international efforts for the development of effective instruments and responses in the field of migration and asylum. In particular, Sweden is today one of UNHCR’s largest donors. The Migration Board is also an active participant in the working party for voluntary repatriation of the Nordic Intergovernmental Consultation Group for Refugee Issues (NSHF), and it is part of other international collaboration efforts on repatriation matters that include seminars, conferences and monitoring the efforts of other countries. The Migration Board, furthermore, provided extensive expertise to the Candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe to help them adopt and comply with the EU’s minimum standards in the field of migration and asylum policy and legislation. Finally, Sweden was one of the countries that contributed actively to the adoption of the EU Asylum Procedures Directive, and to the inclusion in the Directive of the notion of non-state persecution, including gender-related persecution. How would you define and assess the current nature and reach of Sweden’s participation in the EU decision-making processes related to immigration and asylum policy and legislation? In particular, to what extent and in what form and areas is Sweden able to imprint its experience, approach and possible best practices on such processes? And, finally, what is Sweden’s possible role in bridging such processes with other cooperation and coordination systems promoted by regional organisations such as the Nordic Council and the Baltic Sea Council?

Ü Janna Valik: The Government has taken the view that cooperation on a global level, and collaboration among countries to ease the plight of refugees, are key requirements for the management of migration in an appropriate and efficient way. The harmonisation of asylum and migration policies within the European Union is of course a step in the right direction. By adopting minimum common standards, the foundations of a common EU policy on asylum have now been laid. The key measures that remain to be adopted relate to the development, by 2010, of a common European asylum system with a common asylum procedure and a uniform status for those who are granted asylum or protection, and the definition of measures to allow foreigners to work legally in the EU according to the needs of the labour markets. The EU multi-annual programme also includes the reinforcement of partnerships with third countries to better tackle illegal immigration, the establishment of a policy to expel and return illegal immigrants to their countries of origin, and the use of biometrics and information systems.

I hope that Sweden and the Swedish Migration Board will play an active role in the on-going harmonisation process, by contributing to discussions, sharing best practice and promoting closer practical co-operation among member states. The task of the Swedish Migration Board is to support the government in its cooperation with the EU member states and internationally, to keep the government informed about the Board’s international work, and to support the government’s work on global developments in the field of migration. In particular, the Migration Board is in the process of devising a strategy for Sweden’s international development work until 2007. The aim is to increase harmonisation within the EU, to combat illegal migration and trafficking, to encourage third countries to base their migration policy on a holistic approach, and to help build migration and asylum capacity in third countries, in line with EU standards.

In addition to the various legal measures that are currently being adopted, it is also important to build on our practical co-operation efforts and to exchange information and discuss developments relating to the migration and asylum policies of different countries. I believe that the Migration Board can contribute to the exchange of best practice and to practical cooperation in a number of ways. The Board plays an active role in several cooperation networks on asylum and migration issues. We are represented in the steering board of GDISC (General Directors Immigration Service Conference) and also contribute to the cooperation efforts between the Nordic and Baltic States. The Nordic countries have been cooperating on migration issues since 1986, within the framework of the Nordic High-Level Advisory Group on Refugee Matters (NSHF). The work of the NSHF is conducted through regular meetings in which the Migration Board is represented.

The Swedish Migration Board is also involved in several development projects. One of them is the regional CARDS project in the Western Balkans. The aim of the project is to increase the level of co-operation on asylum, migration and visa matters among the countries of the region. The beneficiary countries are Albania, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia-Montenegro. The project started in January 2004 and will run until 2005, with funding from the European Commission.

Another project relates to the Soderkoping process. For a long time Sweden has co-operated on asylum and migration issues with the Baltic States. A few years ago a similar co-operation arrangement was established with Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. In 2001 the Swedish Migration Board invited four countries  Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine to Sderkping to discuss asylum and migration issues. The meeting resulted in the so-called Soderkoping process in which, today, ten countries participate to discuss and devise asylum and migration policies. Sweden has maintained a significant role in the Soderkoping process. The project is funded by the European Commission and is jointly managed by the Swedish Migration Board, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. The Migration Board is also involved in bilateral projects in Russia and Belarus.

The Soderkoping process is also an adequate tool for other cross-border activities in Europe. Following adoption of the EU’s Hague Programme, there will be an accelerated process of harmonisation in the field of asylum. It will put pressure on surrounding countries to give increased priority to migration and asylum issues. It will also put pressure on the EU member states themselves to support and encourage their neighbouring countries. I hope that the Soderkoping process will be seen as a replicable method to implement the new European Neighbourhood Policy, which supports capacity building activities in the countries surrounding the EU and which aims to create a ring of friends around the borders of the enlarged EU. Since the Sderkping process has already established a strong network among the countries concerned, it could be instrumental in promoting closer relationships, and in avoiding any dividing lines on our continent.

To give you another, final example of the Board’s participation in European cooperation, I would like to mention that, in Sweden, the Migration Board is also responsible for the European Refugee Fund (ERF), a fund established by the European Commission to develop reception systems for asylum-seekers, to finance integration efforts and to help people return or be voluntarily repatriated to their native countries. In Sweden, the Migration Board is responsible for granting ERF project co-funding. Co-partners also play an important role in the international projects carried out by the Migration Board. Our main partners are the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, the UNHCR, IOM, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), and the supporting and beneficiary countries.