Make the city of Malmö, Sweden, into a sanctuary for undocumented refugees

[in Swedish: Gör hela Malmö till en fristad för papperslösa flyktingar]

I published the following article in Sydsvenska dagbladet on Sunday March 24: Here in English:


The time has come to make the city of Malmö into a sanctuary for undocumented refugees. Police enforcement activities may even depend on such a decision. This is a reasonable conclusion, says Anna Lundberg, lecturer in human rights at Malmö University, after having followed an intense debate in Sweden lately about REVA – rättssäkert och effektivt verkställighetsarbete (legally secure and effective enforcement work) – from Colorado in the US.


In Colorado, USA, where I am a guest researcher this spring, the police for years has been trying to streamline their work. One strategy has been to stop searching for undocumented persons. The so-called ‘internal controls of foreigners’, which inevitably resulted in increased problems with ‘racial profiling’, i.e. people were being stopped solely because of their appearance, led to serious problems in police work. It was found among other things that people avoided to report crimes that they themselves or relatives had been subject to. In addition, experienced police officers felt that they were thwarted. This is exactly what Petra Stenkula, the deputy director of the County Criminal Police in the south of Sweden, has been warning for. ‘Internal controls of foreigners’ and less effective police work seem to be two sides of the same coin.


The independent U.S. research institute “Police Foundation” in 2009 published a report on these issues. The results were based on interviews with police chiefs and experts on issues related to crime in the whole of U.S. The study showed that a full 70 % of the police chiefs believed that victims of crime who also are immigrants are less likely than the general population to contact the police. Furthermore, over 15 % of the interview persons said that their personnel were asking questions about legal status.


One consequence of the above report is that identity checks have been eliminated in many locations here in the U.S. in favour of more emphasis on law enforcement in general. In addition, forum for dialogue with immigrant groups have been developed to ensure that victims of crime feel that they can turn to the police.


Scores of police officers around the United States today have voluntarily choose public safety as their top priority, and rejects some politicians claim that they should search, detain and deport people without a residence permit. The report Debunking the Myth of “Sanctuary Cities”. Community Policing Policies Protects Americans that was released last year by the organization “American Immigration Law Foundation” notes that the new community policing has made everyone safer. People in general are now given access to police protection and, in addition, they are also more likely to report crimes that affect others.


No less than nine cities in Colorado – in the U.S. as a whole, about 70 cities – offers people without papers a sanctuary. In these cities, the police don’t stop someone just because there is a reason to believe that the person is in the country without papers. Instead, the police focus on stopping suspected criminals. These are two categories that seldom coincide.


The idea of ​​ sanctuary is not new. Partially inspired by an initiative in Berkley in 1971, where soldiers who refused to fight in Vietnam was given a safe heaven; the police in Los Angeles in 1979 was banned to ask people about their immigration status. Under a special rule “Special Order 40” which still applies today in the city, the police may not take a police action with the objective to reveal if a person has a permit to reside in the country or not.


Of course, the picture is not unilateral. Never before have so many people been deported from the U.S. ‘Racial profiling’ is a major problem within the Police. As in Sweden, isolated severe crimes committed by immigrants are discussed in the media to prove that immigrants are the same as criminal. However, research has consistently shown that immigrants in general are no more likely to commit crimes than natives. If we consider undocumented persons it is rather the contrary since the consequences for them will be very serious if they get caught – they could be expelled from the country. In addition, police officers that stopped implement internal controls of aliens in the U.S. didn’t loose its power to arrest criminals regardless of immigration status. They are working with DHS (Department of Homeland Security) to identify criminals that can be deported if they don’t have papers, but this is not the majority.


Contemporary challenges in our migration politics is not solved by police work that produces undocumented persons. In light of the great protests among the population in Malmö because of REVA it is now possible to make Malmö a protected zone where persons who are undocumented can stay and be assured of their safety.


Anna Lundberg

Lecturer in human rights at Malmö University, spring 2013 visiting scholar at the Wolf Law School in Boulder, Colorado.


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