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European open border area again in danger as Sweden, Denmark impose controls

media The Oresund bridge-tunnel link between Denmark and Sweden became the latest site of crisis in the European Union's open-border area, with Swedish officials imposing ID checks for all travellers passing from Denmark. Reuters/Johan Nilsson

Mass arrivals of asylum seekers once again pushed Europe to question its free-movement Schengen area on Monday after Sweden and Denmark imposed ID checks at their borders.

As of Monday, anyone hoping to reach Sweden would have to show photo ID on the Danish side of the Oresund bridge-and-tunnel link between the two countries, which sees some 15,000 commuters pass every day.

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It is also one of the main routes for people seeking refuge in Sweden as they flee conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere.

With a population of 9.8 million people, Sweden welcomed an estimated 160,000 asylum seekers last year and the new border controls mark a clear about-face for a country that welcomed the European Union’s (EU) largest per-capita number of asylum seekers in 2015.

Government officials appeared to cite the country’s generosity as its justification for the border controls, with Swedish Migration Minister Morgan Johansson saying they were aimed at “preventing an acute situation where we can no longer welcome asylum seekers properly”.

Other officials said a huge spike in the number of people seeking refuge as of September 2015 had pushed the asylum system beyond its limit.

“Sweden has received approximately 115,000 asylum seekers in the last four months alone,” Fredrik Bengtsson, spokesperson of Sweden’s Migration Agency, told RFI. “That has put a lot of strain on the Swedish system to fix accommodation for all the asylum seekers, to handle all the applications and so on.”

Denmark responded by announcing it would carry out random checks on its border with Germany, “simply reacting to a decision made in Sweden” according Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen.

Many observers said the moves were dangerous for the European open-border policy outlined under the Schengen treaty, which remains active even though the arrivals of asylum seekers have been leading a growing number of EU countries to impose border controls for several months now.

“We can see that many member states are facing high difficulties in coping with the challenge of asylum seekers arriving in their countries,” explained Yves Pascouau, director of migration policies at the European Policy Centre, who fears a “domino effect” in which one country automatically activates border controls after another.

“At the end of the day, what is at stake is whether the Schengen area is going to suffer from this situation."

Although the new border controls are being called temporary measures, the root causes of the movement of asylum seekers are still the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

“We have no idea when the amount of refugees coming to Europe will decrease,” says Livia Johannesson, a political scientist at the University of Stockholm. “And I think it’s very hard to see that the restrictions the government has imposed now will end any time soon.”

For now Sweden’s border controls are the latest example of how even the most open countries are rethinking their policies as the flow of asylum seekers strains budgets, riles politicians and shows little signs of slowing down.

In this case, it comes with the feeling that the country has already done more than its fair share to help people seeking refuge.

“There are just a few countries in Europe that actually took their responsibilities in 2015,” Bengtsson said. “Sweden cannot handle more than 150,000 to 200,000 asylum seekers per year, but Europe as a whole could do a lot more. It’s quite sad to see that, now that Sweden has started to decide to have fewer asylum seekers, more countries are following.”

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