In 1989 Sweden found itself in a situation similar to the current one. A rumor going around the world spoke of the country that would receive everyone, and people flocked there. The government then made its renowned Lucia Decision (Lucia being a Swedish Christmas tradition celebrated on December 13th each year) that from then on, only refugees according to the UN convention would be received.
There was an ant track of Turkish Bulgarians through Europe to Sweden, recalls the Minister of Immigration of the time, Maj-Lis Lööw.
This year, Migrationsverket (the Swedish immigration authorities) expect between 51,000 and 64,000 immigrants to seek asylum in Sweden. Add to this an expected follow-on immigration of 56,500, and you arrive at a total figure of somewhat over 100,000 fresh immigrants, which does not seem to trigger any urgent government action.
It was different in 1989. When it turned out that in the second half of the year more than 20,000 persons had applied for asylum in Sweden (compared to 19,000 in all of 1988), the government pulled the emergency brake. Under the leadership of Ingvar Carlsson, it was decided to reject everyone not considered refugees under the UN convention, and on December 14th, Minister of Immigration Maj-Lis Lööw announced the decision in the Swedish parliament. The center-right parties Moderaterna and Centerpartiet supported the government proposal, while the leftist parties Folkpartiet, Miljöpartiet and Vänsterpartiet opposed it.
Dispatch International called up Maj-Lis Lööw, asking her to explain how the government deliberated the situation back then. She explains the way the stream of refugees comes about:
It starts with a few arriving here. Then more people hear about Sweden, then ever more persons decide to come here, she says.
As there were already many Turkish-Bulgarians in Sweden and many middlemen who were paid to bring more asylum seekers from Bulgaria, the flow of refugees increased rapidly as the Soviet Union lost its grip on Eastern Europe.
There was an ant track of Turkish-Bulgarians through Europe to Sweden, Maj-Lis Lööw recalls.
Within a brief period, Sweden had received far more asylum seekers than usual. The asylum-handling system was overloaded, and the situation was becoming chaotic. Invandrarverket (the immigration authorities) had problems finding accommodation for all the applicants, so some had to make do with living in tent camps.
Later it turned out that most of the Turkish-Bulgarians lacked standing to apply for asylum. The Swedish government sent a delegation to Bulgaria.
There was a massive pressure just before Christmas, and there was simply no space to take in more, remembers Maj-Lis Lööw.
The delegation returned with good news. They had gained information enabling the government to adjust the policy in accordance with the refugee conventions. The situation for minority groups such as the Turkish-Bulgarians had improved significantly; they could no longer be considered persecuted.
The Lucia Decision was tested on two Turkish-Bulgarians whose asylum applications were both turned down.
The Lucia Decision enabled us to send a signal to the world that Sweden could not accept more Turkish-Bulgarians, Maj-Lis Lööw explains.
The flow was dead in its tracks. The stream of refugees from Bulgaria stopped almost immediately.
The urgent situation with the Turkish-Bulgarians was over, but then came the entire Yugoslavian crisis, Maj-Lis Lööw recalls.
In spite of the positive attitude towards the Lucia Decision on the part of Moderaterna and Centerpartiet, the newly formed Bildt cabinet undid the decision in 1991, primarily under pressure from Bengt Westerberg, then leader of Folkpartiet. It was not long after that before the arrival of the next great refugee wave, this time out of the former Yugoslavia.
Since then, the flow of refugees has increased from year to year. The wars in the Balkans caused thousands to flee to Sweden. Today, refugees primarily arrive from Syria or Somalia.
The immigration policy changes according to circumstances based on unrest and conditions genuinely causing people to flee. I do recognize the dilemma that the current government finds itself in, says Maj-Lis Lööw.
While the social democratic government of Ingvar Carlsson chose to apply the 4th Geneva Convention to stop the flow of refugees to Sweden, the current incumbent Fredrik Reinfeldt has chosen the opposite direction in 2013, it is estimated that the number of asylum seekers will reach new heights.