By Alistair Scrutton and Niklas Pollard
Sweden will impose temporary border controls from Thursday in response to a record influx of refugees, a turnaround for a country known for its open-door policies that also threw down the gauntlet to other EU nations hit by a migration crisis.
The decision by a Nordic state that touts itself as a “humanitarian superpower” underscored how the flow of refugees into the European Union is straining its prized system of open internal borders close to breaking point.
Germany warned it could start sending Syrian refugees back to other EU states from which they came, prompting Hungary to insist it would take none, while Sweden’s neighbour Denmark said it was tightening immigration rules and Slovenia began to emulate Budapest in erecting new border fences.
Sweden has welcomed more asylum-seeking refugees and migrants per capita than any other EU country and authorities forecast that up to 190,000 asylum seekers could arrive this year, double the previous record from the early 1990s.
“Our signal to the rest of the EU is crystal clear – Sweden is the country that has shouldered the greatest responsibility for the refugee crisis,” Interior Minister Anders Ygeman told a news conference hastily called by the centre-left government.
“If we are to cope with this mutual challenge, the other countries must take their responsibility.”
Sweden’s border controls will primarily extend to the bridge across the Oresund strait separating Sweden and Denmark and ferry ports in the region. They will be imposed from Thursday for a period of 10 days and could be extended by 20-day periods.
The government acted on the same day as EU leaders, at a summit in Malta with African counterparts, offered them aid and better access to Europe for African business and other travellers in return for help in curbing chaotic bouts of migration across the Mediterranean from Africa and promises to take back migrants expelled by EU states.
After African delegations depart on Thursday, EU leaders will hold an emergency summit of their own to review slow progress in implementing steps meant to control the flow of refugees entering the EU via Greece, and negotiations with Turkey to get its help in slowing departures of Syrian refugees.
In Berlin, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble described Germany’s refugee crisis as being like an avalanche. Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under fierce pressure since offering shelter to close to a million asylum-seekers this year.
“Avalanches can be caused if a careless skier … sets some snow on the move,” Schaeuble told an event on European integration held in Berlin. “Whether we are at the stage where the avalanche has already reached the valley below, or whether we are at the stage at the top of the slope, I don’t know.”
TENTS FOR REFUGEES
Sweden’s government had warned last week that it could no longer guarantee finding accommodation for newly-arrived refugees. The minority government has faced pressure also from the centre-right opposition and far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats – who are rising in polls – to tighten up on refugees.
The Swedish Migration Agency already plans to shelter thousands of refugees in heated tents due to a housing shortage, while some people may be accommodated in venues such as ski resorts and a theme park.
Some 10,000 refugees arrived last week, and 2,000 in one day – both records for Sweden. Compounding concerns, there have been more than a dozen suspected arson attacks on buildings earmarked for refugees in the last few months.
“The fact the we can see that hundreds of people now can’t be provided with a roof over their heads by the Migration Agency and are forced to sleep outdoors or in railway stations, that risks creating threats to order and security,” Ygeman said.
Stockholm has also applied to the European Commission to arrange for some of those to be moved to other EU countries.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said last week that refugees and migrants were likely to continue to arrive in Europe at a rate of up to 5,000 per day via Turkey this winter.
More than 760,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to EU territory this year, entering mainly via Greece and Italy, after fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as conflicts and deprivation in Eritrea, other parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the U.N. agency says.