International research project contributes to better reception of migrants

16 December 2019

Önver Cetrez, associate professor in psychology of religion, Uppsala University

Önver Cetrez, associate professor in psychology of religion, Uppsala University

EU member states need to create a structure for internal solidarity and a better reception of migrants that begins outside Europe’s borders, says Önver Cetrez, associate professor at Uppsala University, who heads the RESPOND multinational research collaboration.

In 2015 more than one million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe. In Sweden alone, 162,877 people applied for asylum, a pressure for which society was ill-equipped, and on 12 November the Swedish government introduced temporary border controls because the strain on the Swedish Migration Board had become too great. The stream of refugees has now subsided, so in hindsight, what can we with learn from the situation and how it was handled? Since 2018 the international research project known as RESPOND – Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond – has surveyed experiences among migrants, organisations and authorities in 11 countries. The study is headed by Önver Cetrez, associate professor in psychology of religion, and Soner Barthoma, project coordinator, at Uppsala University.

“Member states of the European Union have not agreed either then or now on how the issue should be handled, and we want to understand what characterises each country’s reception of migrants and how it works,” says Önver Cetrez. “In the Swedish part of the study, we focus on migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and to some extent Iraq. We also meet representatives from organisations such as customs, the police, health care providers, regions and municipalities. As the work progresses, we publish reports from each country so that eventually we can compare results and formulate policy proposals for continued work on reception of migrants and improving their opportunities for integration.”

Seeking to create a more nuanced view of refugees

The researchers have talked to more than 600 migrants in the participating countries within the scope of the project. In Sweden and Turkey, the material will be supplemented by close to 1,400 questionnaires. In parallel, a short documentary film is being prepared focusing on the experiences of female refugees. In addition, artistically inclined migrants have been invited to portray their personal journey and arrival for planned art exhibitions in Germany, England and Sweden.

“One of RESPOND’s main aims is to create a more nuanced view of refugees: From victims in need of support to people with resources who bring along skills and a capacity to contribute to the development of society. Today we see how the tone of the discussion has hardened and immigration has become a term of abuse. But by letting migrants tell their stories and parties in the recipient community talk about their meetings, we hope to contribute to a more multifaceted image that also paves the way for a more empathetic and constructive attitude,” says Cetrez.

Refugees heading towards Hungary 2015, Roger Turesson/TT

In Sweden about 20 interviews have also been conducted with people who have been involved in the reception of migrants as part of their job or through voluntary efforts. The selection was based on a number of research themes that constitute RESPOND’s framework, and in several of these, the Migration Board plays a central role for obvious reasons.

“Our results show that after an initial tough period, the Swedish Migration Board was able to carry out its assignment better. A major criticism of the board focused on how it handled the housing issue, but people forget that the availability of housing was a problem in Sweden even long before the wave of refugees reached our country,” says Soner Barthoma.

The results also show that the government’s dwindling grants to the Swedish Migration Board resulted in reductions in the public authority’s human resources instead of much-needed investments in training. Researchers believe this development can produce undesirable results when new challenges await.

“The government’s decision is not necessarily cost-effective,” notes Mudar Shakra, a doctoral student at the Department of Theology. “Remaining administrative officers need to prioritise the most urgent applications for citizenship or family reunification, which means that asylum applications end up on the waiting list. We need to factor in the fact that the former category costs less than asylum seekers, who are often in need of both housing and other living expenses.”

Uniform rhetoric

In a study that has not yet been compiled, the researchers are examining how the rhetoric on migration issues changed in the years before and after 2015, both in political discussions and on the editorial pages of three newspapers. A line of reasoning hostile to foreigners certainly is not an unknown phenomenon in Sweden. As early as the 1940s, claims that immigrants often prefer aid rather than work collided with assertions that they want to take our jobs away from us. What is new in Sweden today seems to be a prevailing uniformity among leading voices speaking with few exceptions about restrictions rather than solidarity.

“Sweden’s rules on refugee migration have changed dramatically since 2015,” says Karin Borevi at the Uppsala Religion and Society Research Centre. “In many areas we reflect the situation in most other European countries today. In some areas, we even teeter on the minimum level for permissible restrictions under international conventions. The temporary 2016 law that limits asylum seekers’ opportunities to obtain a residence permit in Sweden represented a paradigm shift in Swedish migration policy because it was introduced following a decision made in haste with little room for impact assessment. In the autumn of 2015, other countries also made policy changes, but the sudden shift was remarkably large in Sweden, which is something we must critically analyse.”

By the time RESPOND reaches its conclusion in December 2020, about 70 reports are expected to be published. Work on policy recommendations has already started, and in Sweden researchers are highlighting, among other things, the need to counteract the exploitation of people seeking residence permits, because many today are forced to accept illegal job contracts to avoid deportation. Already published material also clarifies the need for more EU-wide platforms, such as the current consensus on the application of the Dublin Convention.

“The fact that several leading decision-makers talk about an imminent ‘return to normal’ is both abstract and is probably very premature, if it occurs at all,” Önver Cetrez notes. “Instead we need to find a structure for internal solidarity in Europe, with each country assuming its responsibility. We are also likely to face crises, conflicts and poverty that already exist outside Europe’s borders because not all refugees can come here. Regardless of which path we choose, obviously we need to begin moving in a sustainable direction in the near future.”


RESPOND conduct research within

  • Legal & Policy Framework
  • Border management & migration controls
  • Refugee Protection Regimes
  • Mapping and assessing reception policies
  • Integration policies, practices and responses
  • Conflicting Europeanization
  • Survey analysis
  • Comparative and prescriptive analysis