Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Non-fiction
The summer of 2015 saw a huge influx of refugees arriving in Europe. In addition to the ongoing war in Syria, other factors played a part: instability, persecution and poverty elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. While initially there was broad public support for welcoming refugees to Sweden, as in Germany (and in stark contrast to Visegrad countries such as Hungary), this welcoming attitude gradually faded. The Swedish Government ended up introducing a more restrictive asylum policy in response to what was seen as a ‘crisis’ in the asylum system.
Victor Banke, a lawyer handling asylum applications, was at the centre of events as they unfolded. In Andrum, he describes the initial reaction to the refugee crisis in the Swedish media and at grassroots level, and his own involvement: visiting the welcome facilities set up by volunteers at Stockholm’s Central Station, setting up an online petition to raise Sweden’s refugee quota, and becoming active in the public debate. The scope of his book extends well beyond the crisis of summer 2015. Chapters describing how the refugee crisis developed are interspersed with others depicting individuals Banke has worked with, notably an Afghan family and an Ethiopian man. The book follows the progress of their asylum cases in detail, and the ‘will they, won’t they’ element adds to the interest (as Andrum makes clear, a decision to grant asylum involves so many factors that the outcome is unpredictable). These case studies also give the reader a fuller picture of how asylum applications are handled in practice.
Considerable space is devoted to explaining the complexities of Swedish asylum policy. Historically, Banke argues, Sweden has walked a narrow line between generosity and restrictiveness towards refugees. For much of the 19th century, the country had a liberal immigration policy to compensate for the large numbers of Swedes emigrating. However, when Russian Jews arrived, fleeing pogroms in Tsarist Russia, they were obliged to register with the police. Faced with the knowledge that Nazi Germany intended to expel all ‘non-Aryans’, Sweden’s response was something of a compromise. The guiding principle of Swedish asylum policy, described in 1939 by Erik Drougge, then chief of the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen), was that it was ‘better to help a somewhat smaller number of people effectively than to offer ineffective help to a greater number’. Banke believes this principle still applies to asylum policy in Sweden today, although he questions whether it would actually be better, in view of the sheer need, to offer a lower level of protection to more asylum seekers instead.
Andrum is packed with information about Swedish asylum policy and how it operates in practice. With its analysis of legal provisions, statistics and points of procedure, this is not a book to be read in a hurry. Yet it is also very human – not just because of the numerous individual asylum seekers described, but also because it depicts the frustrations encountered by those working in the system: rejected appeals, unpleasant emails and, as the story moves into 2016, the entry into force of the new Aliens Act, which toughened up the rules on permanent residence permits and family reunion to give Sweden the ‘breathing space’ some felt it needed. Meeting an eight-year-old client, Banke realises that the new law means the boy will not be reunited with his parents until he is at least eleven. Although the refugee crisis was depicted by press and politicians as a crisis in Sweden, Banke’s book is a timely reminder that the asylum seekers are in fact the ones facing a crisis.