By Olof Fägerstam
The current government in Sweden prides itself on being the world’s first feminist government. According to the government’s own definition a feminist government must work for gender equality both nationally and internationally. It is surprising, then, that the government has all but ignored reforming the system for refugee immigration, which is deeply flawed when it comes to women’s rights. The Swedish system hinders women from applying for asylum independently; they therefore become dependent on male relatives to be able to seek refuge in Sweden.
The cornerstone of this discriminatory system is the requirement that refugees travel to Sweden to apply for asylum. Making the journey is dangerous for anyone, but women are especially at risk. In November 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 female asylum seekers who had been interned at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Nearly all of the women reported that they were unable to move freely around the camp out of fear of sexual harassment from male refugees. Pregnant women lacked necessary sanitation facilities and medical care. Several of the women had gone through miscarriages due to the impoverished conditions in the camp. A 2016 report from UNHCR states that many refugee and migrant women are exposed to sexual violence during their journey to Europe. This includes being forced into transactional sex in order to “pay for” travel documents or the journey itself.
Considering the risk of ending up in situations such as these it is no wonder that families prefer to send their sons. The requirement to apply for asylum within Sweden therefore in practice works to discourage women from applying. The effects can be seen in the heavy surplus of men among asylum seekers crossing the Swedish border. Every year since 2012 there have been at least 50 percent more male asylum seekers than female. In the record year of 2015 the amount of male asylum seekers was more than double the amount of women.
The other way for refugees to get to Sweden is through family reunification. In this category women make up 59 percent of all immigrants. The reliance on family reunification is problematic on two grounds. Firstly, family reunification is not enough to make up for the gender imbalance that results from the asylum applications. Secondly, it means that female refugees are forced to rely on male relatives if they wish to immigrate to Sweden. This makes it very difficult for certain categories of female refugees to go to Sweden, such as those who are trying to escape from arranged marriages or from abuse within their own families. Ironically, this means that our feminist government presides over a system which encourages women to submit to a patriarchal family model.
One country that has managed to develop a more equal system is Canada. There refugees usually do not apply for asylum within the country. Instead the government works to resettle refugees who have been identified by UNHCR into Canada. Private sponsors, such as settlement organizations and religious communities, are also able to identify refugees. These sponsors pledge to provide social and financial support once the refugees are resettled.
The Canadian system has several advantages. Refugees accepted through the resettlement programme do not have to undertake a dangerous journey just to apply for asylum; they can be flown in just like any international traveller. By identifying who should be allowed to enter Canada beforehand, the government is able to ensure equal distributions between the genders. It is also able to selectively target certain groups for resettlement, such as LGBT people and women at risk of gender-based violence.
Reforming the Swedish asylum system would require working in coordination with the other members of the European Union. Fourteen EU member states, including Sweden, already have a resettlement programme. The number of refugees involved, however, is low: in 2016 less than 15,000 refugees were moved into the EU for resettlement, which can be compared to around 292,000 people who entered by crossing the Mediterranean. The EU commission recently proposed to admit an additional 50,000 people through resettlement. This would be a step in the right direction, but resettlement programmes need to be made permanent.
In four months Sweden will have its next round of parliamentary elections. If our current government wants to retain its credibility as a feminist government it should work to reform our flawed refugee system. In 2016 the government introduced a law which temporarily limits the Swedish rules for asylum to the EU minimum levels. The government should allow the stricter rules for asylum to become permanent. Instead it should work to expand the resettlement quota, both on the national and European level. This is would ensure a fairer asylum process than the current system, which disproportionately favours male refugees over females.
By Olof Fägerstam
Image: Siri Christiansen