STOCKHOLM/HELSINKI – Stunned by an unprecedented wave of migration, Sweden on Thursday put into words an uncomfortable reality for Europe: If the continent isn’t going to welcome more than 1 million people a year, it will have to deport large numbers of them to countries plagued by social unrest and abject poverty.
Interior Minister Anders Ygeman said Sweden could send back 60,000-80,000 asylum seekers in the coming years. Even in a country with a long history of immigration, that would be a scale of expulsions unseen before.
“The first step is to ensure voluntary returns,” Ygeman told Swedish newspaper Dagens Industri. “But if we don’t succeed, we need to have returns by coercion.”
The coercive part is where it gets uncomfortable. Packing unwilling migrants, even entire families, onto chartered airplanes bound for the Balkans, the Middle East or Africa evokes images that clash with Europe’s humanitarian ideals.
But the sharp rise of people seeking asylum in Europe last year almost certainly will also lead to much higher numbers of rejections and deportations.
European Union officials have urged member countries to quickly send back those who don’t qualify for asylum so that Europe’s welcome can be focused on those who do, such as people fleeing the war in Syria.
“People who do not have a right to stay in the European Union need to be returned home,” said Natasha Bertaud, a spokeswoman for the EU’s executive Commission.
“This is a matter of credibility that we do return these people, because you don’t want to give the impression of course that Europe is an open door,” she said.
EU statistics show most of those rejected come from the Balkans, including Albania and Kosovo, some of Europe’s poorest countries. Many applicants running away from poverty in West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh also are turned away. Even people from unstable countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia can’t count on getting asylum unless they can prove they, personally, face grave risks at home.
Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s vice president, told Dutch TV station NOS this week that the majority of people seeking asylum in Europe are not refugees.
“More than half, 60 percent, should have to return much more quickly. If we start with doing that, it would already make a huge difference,” he said.
Sending them back is easier said than done. In 2014, EU nations returned less than 40 percent of the people who were ordered to be deported.
Sometimes those seeking asylum go into hiding after receiving a negative decision. Sometimes their native country doesn’t want them back.
EU countries, including Sweden and Germany, have had some success sending people back to the Balkans on chartered flights. Of the 37,000 who returned from Germany on their own accord last year, all but about 5,000 were from the Balkans.
“It’s been more difficult with Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Mikael Ribbenvik, director of operations at the Swedish Migration Agency. “The returns have worked during some periods, and not so well during others.”
One of the biggest obstacles to sending people back is to obtain travel documents from their home countries. People routinely lose or even destroy their travel papers coming to Europe, creating confusion about where they are from.
“Most countries in the world don’t accept someone if (it) cannot be proved that it’s one of their citizens,” Ribbenvik said.
Sweden has urged the EU and its Frontex border agency to help establish return agreements with the countries of origin.
Frontex’s budget for deporting people was significantly increased this year, allowing it to coordinate more flights and help countries prepare their own.
Under U.N. rules, countries are supposed to offer protection to refugees fleeing war and persecution. But some European countries also offer protection to people deemed at risk of torture or the death penalty or who are suffering from an exceptionally serious disease.
Even for those who get a negative decision within months, it can take years before all appeals are exhausted and they are ordered to leave.
Jawad Aref Hashemi, a 43-year-old Afghan who lived in Iran before traveling to Denmark to seek asylum, suggested he won’t accept no for an answer.
“If people are sent home, they will protest. How will they send us home? In big cars? We are not animals,” he said.
Abdi Xuseen, a 28-year-old Somali who also sought asylum in Denmark, said “people will hide” or go on hunger strikes if they are forced to leave Europe.
Statistics from the Swedish Migration Agency show 127,000 people have been ordered to leave the country since 2010. About 60,000 did so voluntarily, while 26,000 were deported with coercion and 40,000 absconded.
Authorities have little information on the latter group. Some are believed to have left the country, while others remain in Sweden illegally, at risk of being exploited in a black market economy.
“There has to be noticeable consequences for companies that use illegal labor,” Ygeman told Dagens Industri. “If there’s a decent illegal labor market the incentive to stay in Sweden will be strong.”
More than 160,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden last year, the highest number in Europe relative to population size. Ygeman’s estimate that 60,000-80,000 of them will have to leave was based on the current rejection rate of about 45 percent.
Meanwhile, the stream of migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe continues.
Greece’s coast guard said 25 people died, including 10 children, when a migrant boat sank Thursday off Samos, an island near the Turkish coast.
Romanian rescuers dropped off 119 African migrants in Italy after rescuing them from an inflatable dingy. The migrants were dehydrated and showed signs of hypothermia, the Romanian border police said.
Finland expects to expel around 20,000 of the 32,000 asylum seekers it received in 2015, the country’s interior ministry said on Thursday.
“In principle we speak of about two-thirds, meaning approximately 65 percent of the 32,000 will get a negative decision (to their asylum application),” Paivi Nerg, the ministry’s administrative director, told AFP.
More than 20,000 of the asylum seekers Finland welcomed in 2015 came from Iraq.
Nerg said the number of people Finland expected to expel was an estimate and stressed that each application was being evaluated individually.
“In previous years around 60 percent (of applicants) received a negative decision but now we have somewhat tightened our criteria for Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis,” she explained.
In 2015 Finland made it more difficult for migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia to get asylum, concluding the security situation had eased in certain areas of those countries.
Nerg said two charter flights to deport Iraqis were planned within the following months.
The deportations were to take place gradually, as immigration authorities process applications.
Finland is currently in diplomatic negotiations with neighboring Russia to stop migrants from entering Finland via the Arctic region.
After Norway barred migrants from entering the country on its own Arctic border crossing with Russia in December, the flow of migrants turned toward Finland.