back to the Immigration Detention Monitor

30 April 2020 – Sweden

Gävle Detention Centre, (“Migrationsverket anmäler två anställda i Gävle,” SVT, 23 June 2014,
Gävle Detention Centre, (“Migrationsverket anmäler två anställda i Gävle,” SVT, 23 June 2014,

Sweden’s response to Covid-19 has been different to the approach taken by many neighbouring European countries. It has not imposed quarantine on its population, but rather called on its citizens to “take responsibility” and follow the recommendations of health authorities. To date, Sweden has recorded more than 21,000 cases of Covid-19 and 2,586 deaths related to the virus.

Sweden places on average some 3,000 people in immigration detention every year in its five dedicated immigration detention centres, which have a total capacity of around 519. This has now been reduced to around 300 to avoid overcrowding and according to the Swedish Network of Refugee Support Groups (FARR), a certain number of detainees have been released as there are no tenable legal grounds to detain them when expulsion is not possible in the near future. Decisions to release are made on individual grounds by both the Migration Agency and the police and released asylum seekers are required to report two to three times a week to the police. However, detainees have been released without any provision of support. They are not provided with housing or a daily allowance and so they are wholly dependent on the generosity of their networks to survive. In addition, they are denied normal access to health care as they have been expelled from the benefits that asylum seekers have. However, in respect of contagious such as Covid-19, asylum seekers will be provided with the necessary care free of charge. For other health conditions, a visit to a doctor can cost up to 1000 SEK (around $US 100) and any medicines prescribed will not be sold at subsidised prices.

FARR has reported that one of the detainees they have contact with has a serious heart condition and despite being in need of a life saving operation and in a poor mental and physical condition, the person is still held in a detention centre. FARR also reported that a few weeks ago, a detainee held in the same centre died. He had been offered the possibility to leave the detention centre, but as he had nowhere to go, he chose to remain in the centre. As his condition deteriorated, he was moved from the detention centre and died while in care.

NGOs in Sweden, including FARR, have called for the release of immigration detainees, but so far there has not been any general measure taken to prevent persons from being placed in detention. The Migration Agency and the Border Police have stated that they are still planning to deport/remove persons from Sweden. However, the Afghan Ministry for Refugees wrote a letter on 18 March 2020 to European countries requesting them to halt all deportations to Afghanistan due to the Covid-19 threat. Swedish authorities have not yet released an official response.

A FARR-associated group that visits detention centres reported that they regularly received alarming reports of the conditions inside the detention centre and the detainees’ fears of contracting the virus. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Migration Agency has suspended access to detention centres including for NGO visiting groups and alternative solutions are being implemented, such as using video contact with detainees. Normally, the visiting groups will have access to telephone interpreters, however, according to FARR, the Swedish Migration Board will not provide an interpreter for video calls thus making it difficult to communicate with many detainees.

The Migration Agency produced its own guidelines for measures to be taken in view of the pandemic. However, according to reports received by FARR, some of the measures mentioned are not being followed. As a consequence, FARR lodged a formal complaint with the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman (JO) suggesting they carry out an inspection. This has however not been possible to arrange due to the pandemic but the JO has already planned to inspect detention centres this year and it is hoped that the inspection will be carried out further along the year. It is important to note that while the JO does not have legal power to make authorities comply with their recommendations, they do have a certain level of influence.

A project has been launched in Uppsala where people can access information on Covid-19 in 15 languages through Whatsapp groups set up by the Cooperative Organisation for Immigrant Unions in Uppsala. The project focuses on newly arrived immigrants as well as those who lack sufficient knowledge in the Swedish language.

The Swedish Refugee Law Centre has also published an online page providing information for undocumented asylum seekers. The online resource covers information regarding access to health care for undocumented people and delaying appointments at the Swedish Migration Agency for those who are ill or have Covid-19 symptoms.

As regards the country’s prisons, on 24 March 2020, visits and day releases were suspended. The Swedish prison authority also advised that they would pay for phone calls to family members of detainees. In addition, no new prisoners will be admitted into the country’s prisons, even if persons have been sentenced to prison terms.