Interview with Migration Minister Tobias Billström

"We Need a Common European Migration Policy"

Sweden's Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy, Tobias Billström, is in favour of a common EU asylum policy and calls on the Member States of the European Union to support Sweden in the matter of Iraqi refugees. Petra Tabeling spoke to Minister Billström

Mr Billström, Sweden has the highest number of Iraqi refugees of all countries in the European Union. What is the reason for this?

Tobias Billström: There are several reasons for this. One is that a large group of Iraqis, mainly Kurds, have been living in Sweden since the 1970s and 1980s. In all, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Iraqis living in Sweden. They communicate with people back home and tell their relatives and other people about Sweden's ability to provide them with a safe haven.

Another reason is that last year, the former left-wing government put in place a temporary law that gave thousands of Iraqi people, who had previously received negative responses to their asylum applications, a second chance. Their applications were heard again and many of them received positive responses. Together, this has created a signal effect.

A signal that is now causing Sweden quite a few problems?

Billström: In recent months, some parts of Sweden have experienced a higher influx of asylum seekers from Iraq than others. This is something which the government is concerned about. We have to find ways of handling this situation because it puts a burden on the schools, the labour market, and ultimately also on the ability of people to be integrated into Swedish society.

But there is no sign in Sweden of the serious social problems that have developed in other EU countries.

Billström: Right now there is relatively little annoyance and protest at the influx of Iraqi people. That will come in a few years time. Then we will see the results in the schools or problems on the labour market and all the challenges to society. But we are trying to work ahead. Right now, the economy is doing well. This is a great advantage.

In some cases, we will be able to get them into industry and find jobs for them on the labour market, but for others, re-education and all that will be the core issue. Then we have the members of the middle class who have left Iraq. The Iraqi government has said it and we agree: the majority of the Iraqis who have left will have to go back when security and safety have returned to Iraq in order to rebuild the country.

Doctors, engineers, nurses, lawyers – even a few politicians perhaps – are needed there. This is also something we have to talk about. We will offer them a safe haven, but only for a certain period. At the end of the day they will have to go back. Otherwise, how can Iraq be re-created as a functioning state?

Does this mean that Sweden is slowly turning away from its much lauded, liberal Swedish immigration policy?

Billström: We do not have immigration laws that are more liberal than any other European country. However, the effect of our laws was, unfortunately, that people who left Iraq and came to Sweden were given a resident's permit sooner or later.

This was an unfortunate signal because it meant that the shared responsibility – which I think is so important in the European Union, namely that all countries take responsibility – also means that we have to have the same set of rules and the same kind of practice in applying these rules.

And this is something that Sweden works hard for in the EU. I never go to a Council of Ministers' meeting in Brussels without speaking about the importance of creating this common asylum policy for Europe.

And are you making any progress? You have already called on other Member States of the EU several times not to leave Sweden alone with this refugee problem. You have often said that the EU must share the burden of the crisis.

Billström: Yes and No. Sometimes I think it is an irony that Sweden – a country that did not take part in the Iraq War, was not part of the alliance, did everything it could in order to speak for peace, and is farthest away from the conflict in geographical terms – receives the most refugees. To my mind that is rather strange.

What solutions do you see within the EU? Are first steps already being taken?

Billström: The debate is constantly flowing and always in motion. Now we are finally sitting down and looking at the European Commission's Green Paper – it was presented in June – a Green Paper with 35 questions to all the Member States regarding how to create a common asylum policy.

In some ways we have made progress. But the next thing – and that is important – is to try and bring aid to Syria and to Jordan, the two countries in the region that have received a combined total of more than two million Iraqi refugees.

If we don't do that, sooner or later there will be a political destabilisation of Syria and Jordan, which will lead to even more problems. We must ensure that the refugees receive aid and that they can sustain themselves.

Interview conducted by Petra Tabeling

© 2007

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