Photos: Exhibition at Norrbottens Järnvägsmuseum [Railway Museem of Norrbotten]

After WW II, Russian prisoners of war were transported home from Norway. Here a stop in Sweden.

Reviews Soviet refugees in postwar Sweden. Asylum policy in a liberal democracy

+ Cecilia Notini Burch, A Cold War Pursuit: Soviet Refugees in Sweden, 1945–54. Stockholm: Santérus Academic Press Sweden, 2014. 359 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 4 2014, pp 57-59
Published on on January 21, 2015

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Refugee policies have been high on the political agenda of many European countries for many years. Cecilia Malmström, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, has repeatedly urged the member states to adopt a responsible position on refugee-related issues. That many policy positions exist among different countries and different parties was shown in the election to the European Parliament in May 2014.

The historian Cecilia Notini Burch has written an important and thought-provoking contribution to research on refugee policies in liberal democracies. Her PhD dissertation includes a thorough study of Sweden’s refugee policy towards Balts, Ingrians, and Russians during the period 1945—1954. She examines asylum policy (who is allowed to stay), removal decisions, how the Soviet demands for extradition were dealt with, and how residence permits were granted. Altogether, this empirical data gives us a multifaceted view of Swedish refugee policy during the post-Second World War period.

Notini Burch studies a period affected by many factors: the international norm system regarding refugees became more codified, the Cold War was intensifying and surveillance of Communists increased, Sweden was no longer an emigration country but an immigration country, and Sweden’s booming economy raised demands for labor immigration. Notini Burch studies which of these factors could explain the Swedish refugee policy towards Soviet refugees during 1945—1954. The explanatory factors investigated in the thesis are external and internal security, economics, ethnicity, social control, and international judicial development.

The thesis is built on archival documents. A rich array of material from the National Archives of Sweden has been used, including the archives of the Aliens Appeals Board, the National Alien Commission, the Swedish Security Service, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is without doubt an empirically rich thesis. The personal dossiers of several hundred refugees contain many interesting stories and reveal how they were dealt with and processed by the Swedish bureaucracy.

At the start of the period covered by the empirical examination, the refugee policy in Sweden had been under severe stress during the Second World War and was noticeably affected by ethnic considerations. During the period investigated, the judicial framework was initially very loose and gave the bureaucracy a wide margin in which to maneuver. The international framework that increasingly came into place influenced Swedish legislation regarding refugees in the direction of more clearly defined individual rights.

Notini Burch shows how asylum rights were strengthened, and that in 1948 Soviet refugees had strong protection in Sweden, despite their increasing numbers. In 1948 the refugee policy was more clearly defined, which meant the government needed to intervene less often and bureaucrats managed implementation themselves.

The year 1948 was an important one for refugees who, for some reason, were not welcomed by the Swedish authorities after they had received asylum. From 1948 on, recognized political refugees were treated in accordance with international law and received extensive protection even if they were guilty of theft or prostitution or were deemed unreliable. Unlawful intelligence activities were an exception: persons found guilty of espionage were deported.

Among refugees from the Soviet territories, Notini Burch identified a tendency for Baltic refugees to be treated somewhat more generously than Ingrians, and Ingrians somewhat more generously than Russians. This pattern was evident not only in situations where deportation decisions were discussed, but also when residence permits were granted or denied. Balts received residence permits earlier, for longer periods, and with fewer restrictions.

A result with implications for Sweden’s overall security policy during the Cold War was that the Soviet Union sought to force the return of dispersed Soviet citizens from the Western territories. Soviet personnel argued that they had a right to meet with refugees and try to persuade them to return to the Soviet Union. Once again 1948, was a watershed. After 1948, Swedish authorities dealt with the demands from the Soviet Union on a lower bureaucratic level and denied access to political refugees who were in custody.

Many interesting conclusions could be drawn from the thesis. One is that all the explanatory factors discussed in Notini Burch’s thesis had some importance for Swedish refugee policy after the Second World War. In this respect, the thesis is a corrective to the monocausal models that have been applied in earlier research.

The special importance of some of the factors is worth emphasizing. External and internal security considerations were especially prevalent in the demands put forward by the Soviet authorities. The importance of ethnicity was another factor that merits special attention. Before 1948, Swedish refugee policy was more ethnically sensitive, and became less so when the judicial framework was put in place by the Swedish politicians. The international conventions on political refugees made an important impact on the Swedish framework.

Notini Burch has without doubt written a very insightful thesis using a multifaceted empirical foundation. It is certainly useful reading for social scientists interested in refugee policies. The thesis also provides the reader with new interesting questions: How did the governments’ discussions on immigration take place on a detailed level? Why was Sweden able to depoliticize the refugee issue in relation to Soviet Union? What role did immigration and human rights networks play in the remaking of Swedish refugee policy during the late 1940s?

Finally, if there is anything one might put on the wish list, it would be to have a somewhat more explicit discussion of the possibilities and limitations of generalizing the results to liberal democracies. Is it possible that Swedish refugee policy during the post-Second World War period may have been more influenced by security concerns than policies in other countries? Are economic concerns more prevalent in periods when the need for labor immigration is less acute? A more coherent discussion on the theoretical factors would have been welcome, since some factors are mainly discussed in terms of policy change, while others are discussed in terms of policies. This makes the focus of the scientific problem somewhat blurred. And finally, the distinction between some of the factors is not clear (e.g., ethnicity and social control are defined in similar terms), and this causes problems in the empirical chapters when Notini Burch wants to draw inferences from the data.

Despite these minor objections, I would strongly recommend this thesis to anyone with an interest in refugee issues and in bureaucracy and Cold War issues. 

  • by Ann-Marie Ekengren

    Professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg. Her main research areas are foreign policy decision-making, international relations, and party politics.

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