24 March 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a new wave of refugees in Europe. According to the Swedish Migration Agency’s main forecast, some 76,000 people from Ukraine will apply for refugee status in Sweden by June this year, compared to the approximately 160,000 refugees who were received in all of 2015.

refugees at train station in Sweden
Tomislav Stjepic
However this forecast is uncertain, and according to another estimate, the number can reach 200,000 by Midsummer. The situation is already becoming critical, and is putting a lot of pressure on municipalities and government agencies.

Susanne Wallman Lundåsen is a political scientist and researcher at the Centre for Local Government Studies (CKS). The subject of her research includes the reception of new arrivals and asylum seekers in municipalities, social trust, and volunteers’ engagement and the role of civil society in crises. She maintains that the preconditions for handling a new wave of refugees have changed since 2015, when the last major refugee crisis affected Sweden.

For instance, a new law has been approved – the Settlement Act. Its aim is to, by way of central governance, more evenly allocate the responsibility for receiving new arrivals among Sweden’s municipalities. However, with the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive being implemented for the first time, it is not clear to what extent the Settlement Act will apply, because it concerns asylum seekers and their families who have been granted residency.

“Once again, this can result in the reception of refugees being unevenly allocated between municipalities around the country. The municipalities which take the most refugees in a short time can experience bottlenecks and an already complicated process can become even more difficult”, says Susanne Wallman Lundåsen.

What was the effect of the 2015 legislation change, and what does this mean for today's refugees?

“The application of the Temporary Protection Directive means that refugees do not need to apply for residency from the first day, which was the case previously. Now they can get a visa to be in Sweden for 90 days, and can travel and look for accommodation on their own – something that makes it harder for the authorities to keep track of how many people have actually come here, where they are and what assistance they need in the long term.”

The Temporary Protection Directive also means that refugees from Ukraine get a time-limited residency visa for at least one year, with the possibility of renewal for two more years. The municipalities have the right to receive compensation for accommodation costs.

“However, based on the Swedish Migration Agency’s information, it is somewhat unclear what the compensation should cover. Unlike 2015, the Temporary Protection Directive does not give adult refugees the right to study Swedish for immigrants, or SFI. However, children are entitled to attend school”, adds Susanne Wallman Lundåsen.

Additional bottlenecks

At the time of writing, the Swedish Migration Agency is not able to meet the demand for housing. Already in mid March, the need was so great that the agency asked the county boards for help in finding at least 12,000 housing units.

More long-term housing needs to be procured directly – a process that requires a lot of time and resources. The expectation is that 500 people will have to be employed in order to manage this work. Susanne Wallman Lundåsen says that with the inflow of people in need increasing every day, this could become another bottleneck.

“The authorities normally take longer to get started when there's an emergency, and in the case of Ukraine there was hardly any time for preparation. In situations like these, civil society and voluntary forces become important. They can activate their operations much faster than the authorities.”

Lessons from previous crises

Volunteers are very important in the initial, most urgent stage of a crisis. There are lots of groups on social media that organise resources, fundraising and accommodation at short notice. But the question is, how sustainable are these in the long term?

“It's possible that the public sector can learn from their way of organising themselves and rapidly forming informal crisis management teams. But in the long term, the refugee crisis is not only about accommodation. It's also about access to school, work and healthcare – and here the voluntary organisations don't have the authority”, says Susanne Wallman Lundåsen.

The last several years have been defined by international crises, refugee waves and a pandemic. To conclude, Susanne Wallman Lundåsen wonders how public institutions such as municipalities and civil society organisations can learn from how the most recent crises have been managed and are still being managed:

“Municipalities, regions and government authorities, as well as voluntary organisations, that have built up close collaborations both within and between the organisations should be able to benefit from it. The contacts that have been established should be able to speed up the initial work, when there is a crisis.”

Further reading
Engagement in Civil Society and Different Forms of Social Trust in the Aftermath of the European Refugee Crisis, Susanne Wallman Lundåsen, 2022


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