Sweden: government considers obligation to denounce undocumented migrants

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This blog was written by Jacob Lind, Postdoctoral researcher in international migration at Malmö University; Anna Lundberg, Professor of Sociology of Law at Lund University; Hanna Scott, Doctoral student at Lunköpig University; and Karin Åberg, Doctoral student at the University of Gothenburg.

The Tidö agreement

Following the 2022 Swedish general elections, the majority parties (Sweden Democrats, Moderate Party, Christian Democrats and Liberals) presented a cooperation agreement (the Tidö Agreement) that aims to limit the rights of asylum seekers and undocumented people in Sweden. We see this as a “paradigm shift” in the position of human rights in Sweden, a country that for a long time has been perceived by others as a role model on the international stage when it comes to promoting human rights.

The Tidö Agreement contains an extensive list of proposals which, if implemented, would have severe impacts on undocumented inhabitants, professionals and the whole of society.

The Tidö Agreement proposes to oblige municipalities and other authorities that come into contact with undocumented people to inform the Swedish Migration Agency and/or the police. In practice, public authorities would be responsible for checking the person’s right to reside in Sweden. The proposal recognises that there may be situations where reporting would conflict with humanitarian values. However, neither the migration minister, nor the health care minister, have been willing to give more detail as to potential exceptions. They merely stated that a state inquiry will investigate in detail “possible exceptions, such as in the health care sector” where the duty to report is likely to be limited or exempted.

What will a reporting obligation mean in practice?

Mandatory reporting would make it more difficult to live in the country without a permit and strengthen a “hostile environment” against undocumented people in Sweden. This obligation would also lead to discrimination and stigmatisation, and fuel growing racism.

There would be serious consequences for children’s access to school and education. Many undocumented children would no longer be able to attend school. Teachers would have to act as border guards. Children’s trust in authority and their belief in everyone’s equal value and treatment would be undermined by witnessing how their friends are turned in by the adults who are supposed to care for them. Mandatory reporting would also stand in stark contrast to the principle of equal rights for children under international law.

Access to health care would also be impacted. All children, including those staying in Sweden without a residence permit, are entitled to medical care. Adults in an undocumented situation have the right to health care ”that cannot be deferred”. Yet, it is likely that access to health care for all undocumented individuals would be hindered by fear that contact with health care providers would mean being reported to police or migration authorities. 

The proposal would also have a detrimental effect on access to justice and protection for undocumented victims of crime and is likely to further prevent such crime victims and witnesses from reporting abuse to the police, or agreeing to give evidence in criminal proceedings.

Professional independence and integrity are undermined when service providers (e.g. health professionals, social workers, child protection workers, educators, etc.) have, or are perceived to have, priorities (such as reporting persons in an irregular situation) that supersede, and indeed conflict with, their primary concern for the best interests of the person (student, child, patient, etc.) they serve. It would damage their relationship with the service user, and their broader role within society. In the case of health care, delayed treatment of health conditions also means higher costs for both the individual and society.

Conflicts with national law

Since 1 July 2013, undocumented children in Sweden have the right to attend preschool and primary education. If they start studying before the age of 18, they additionally have the right to attend upper secondary school.

An earlier obligation for municipal school boards to report undocumented students to the police was withdrawn in 2013 as this right to education was introduced. According to the then government, such a reporting obligation would have prevent undocumented children and their parents from exercising their right to education. In 2018 the idea of an obligation to report was proposed again by the Sweden Democrats and the Moderates (centre-right) at the time had opposed it.

The Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act also protects children’s right to education. As a general principle, information about an individual’s personal circumstances is confidential, unless it is clear that the information can be disclosed without harm to the individual or someone close to him or her.

Conflicts with international laws and standards

Article 28 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) protects the unconditional right to education for all children, regardless of status. According to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, states should prohibit the sharing of students’ personal data and should develop firewalls between educational institutions and immigration authorities. The CRC has been transposed into national law in Sweden since 1 January 2020.

In 2016, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) found that

“the application of immigration rules must not interfere with the correct application of the human rights obligations of states in respect of all persons in their jurisdiction. … There must be clear firewalls which separate the activities of state authorities which provide social services and, where applicable, the private sector, from immigration control and enforcement obligations.”

Imposing the duty to report is a departure from this international recommendation. It also risks violating EU law, such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the General Data Protection Regulation.

The European Commission’s 2020 proposal for a Directive on violence against women and domestic violence and the 2023 proposal to revise the Victims’ Rights Directive both include a provision that would prohibit competent authorities coming in contact with a victim reporting a crime from transferring personal data pertaining to the residence status of the victim to competent migration authorities, at least until completion of the first individual assessment.

The European Parliament – in its position on the Directive on violence against women and domestic violence adopted in July – deleted the exception introduced by the Commission which allows reporting after the completion of the individual needs assessment.

Both directives are currently under negotiations, and have the potential to considerably enhance the rights of undocumented victims.

How was the proposal received?

As in previous attempts to introduce similar provisions, the proposal has been heavily and widely criticized by a number of actors, including university teachers, welfare professionals, health care workers, teachers, municipal workers and library staff. Representatives from trade unions representing all these sectors argue that the proposal goes against their professional ethics, would be contrary to the UN Children’s Rights Convention and will have an overall negative impact on social trust.

A medical doctor working at a health care clinic for undocumented migrants suggested that “if people do not dare to seek or are denied care, there are consequences for all of us”. Several directors of the regional boards who are responsible for the healthcare system politically in each region have also voiced criticism towards the proposal. In an article signed by 4008 health care workers, the signatories state: “If the measures proposed by the Tidö Agreement are implemented in the healthcare sector, we will commit civil disobedience and refuse to report our patients”.

Similarly, in a survey conducted by the teachers’ union among their members, more than half of the respondents answered that they would never report a student. The Swedish Teachers’ Council on Professional Ethics also strongly criticised the proposal and encouraged teachers to commit civil disobedience should the proposal become law. Nine out of ten librarians contest the proposal.

We, the authors of this text, teach future social workers and human rights professionals. Since the proposal was made public last year, we have been talking to students who worry that the duty to report violates the social work profession’s professional and ethical guidelines.

What’s next?

At the time of writing, the government has announced an inquiry into how this proposal should be legally designed and implemented.

We hope that raising awareness of the proposed duty to report beyond the Swedish context will lead to international scrutiny and criticism and that, together with individuals, professional organisations, civil society actors and politicians, this proposal can be stopped before it is implemented.

On this website, you can read a simple summary of the Tidö agreement in: Svenska, العربية (Arabic), English, Castellano (Spanish).