Sweden will impose temporary border controls starting Thursday in response to an influx of refugees, a turnaround for a country known for its open-door policies that also threw down the gauntlet to other EU nations hit by a migration crisis.
Sweden's prime minister is defending his decision to reintroduce border controls, saying it is no longer possible to properly control the country's borders.
Stefan Lofven told reporters on Thursday that “when our authorities tell us we cannot guarantee the security and control of our borders, we need to listen.”
The decision by a Nordic state that touts itself as a "humanitarian superpower" underscored how the flow of refugees into the European Union is straining its prized system of open internal borders close to breaking point.
Sweden's government had warned last week that it could no longer guarantee finding accommodation for newly-arrived refugees. The minority government has faced pressure also from the center-right opposition and far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats — who are rising in polls — to tighten up on refugees.
The Swedish Migration Agency already plans to shelter thousands of refugees in heated tents due to a housing shortage, while some people may be accommodated in venues such as ski resorts and a theme park.
Some 10,000 refugees arrived last week, and 2,000 in one day — both records for Sweden. Compounding concerns, there have been more than a dozen suspected arson attacks on buildings earmarked for refugees in the last few months.
“The fact the we can see that hundreds of people now can't be provided with a roof over their heads by the Migration Agency and are forced to sleep outdoors or in railway stations, that risks creating threats to order and security,” Interior Minister Anders Ygeman said.
Sweden has welcomed more asylum-seeking refugees and migrants per capita than any other EU country and authorities forecast that up to 190,000 asylum- seekers could arrive this year, double the previous record from the early 1990s.
Sweden's border controls will primarily extend to the bridge across the Oresund strait separating Sweden and Denmark and ferry ports in the region. They will be imposed starting Thursday for a period of 10 days and could be extended by 20-day periods.
Stockholm has also applied to the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, to arrange for some of those to be moved to other EU countries.
Germany warned it could start sending Syrian refugees back to other EU states from which they came, in a return to the so-called Dublin rules which stipulated that refugees must apply for asylum in the EU country they entered. Hungary, often the first EU country many refugees arrive in, responded that it would take none.
Sweden's announcement came on the same day that EU leaders, at a summit in Malta with African counterparts, offered aid and better access to Europe for African business and other travelers in return for help to curb chaotic migration flows across the Mediterranean from Africa and promises to take back refugees expelled by EU states.
Speaking at a migration summit in Malta, Lofven said that his EU partners understand Sweden's decision, and that the bloc’s leaders need to revamp the rules for Europe's passport-free area.
He said the EU needs “to discuss what the rules should look like. We need another system. That is obvious.”
The U.N’s. refugee agency said last week that refugees and migrants were likely to continue to arrive in Europe at a rate of up to 5,000 per day via Turkey this winter.
More than 760,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to EU territory this year, entering mainly via Greece and Italy, after fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as conflicts and deprivation in Eritrea, other parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the U.N. agency says.