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EXPLAINED: Why does Sweden want to give police powers to seize foreigners’ ID?

Sweden's government last week announced plans to give Sweden's police and coastguards "increased powers to carry out internal ID checks on foreigners". What does this mean and should foreigners in Sweden be worried?

EXPLAINED: Why does Sweden want to give police powers to seize foreigners' ID?
Police in Sweden stop a small truck for an 'internal ID check'. Photo: Johan Nilsson / TT

What has the government actually announced? 

In a press release issued on July 5th, Sweden’s government said it aimed to “study the possibility of going ahead with proposals which will give the police and coast guard increased possibilities at so-called internal checks on foreigners to request the person’s passport and other ID documents and keep hold of those types of documents until the person gets permission to remain in Sweden or leaves the country.” 

The press release issued was quite vague, saying only that the government was considering coming back with a statement on taking the proposal further after the summer. This makes it look like the announcement was more a political measure, designed to make it look like it is taking action on reducing the number of immigrants in Sweden without a permit.

What is an ‘internal ID check on foreigners’? 

Because passports and other ID documents are not automatically checked at Sweden’s borders under the Schengen agreement, Sweden’s police are empowered under EU and Swedish law to carry out spot checks by asking people to provide passports and other ID documents to make sure foreigners are in the country legally. 

On their website, Sweden’s police describe ID checks on foreigners as “a compensatory measure within the Schengen area”. 

In this case, ‘internal’ means internal to the Schengen Area of countries, rather than internal to Sweden, so if police demand ID documents from passengers crossing over the bridge from Denmark, driving across from Norway or Finland, or arriving by ferry, that would still count as an internal check. 

However, under the law, police are empowered to check foreigners for ID anywhere they want to in Sweden. 

Why does the government want police to be able to seize ID documents when carrying out the checks? 

The government wants to cut down on the more than 12,500 people living in Sweden without a residence permit, and also to make it more difficult for people smugglers, and other criminals benefitting from illegal immigration. 

In the press release, Sweden’s migration minister Anders Ygeman argued that “a sustainable migration policy requires that we have control over who has the right to be in Sweden and who does not have that right.”

So do we know what ‘extra powers’ are being considered? 

A right to search baggage for ID documents. Today, police only have the powers to search foreigners or their baggage to look for identity documents or other evidence of who they are when they arrive in Sweden at the border.  A spokesman for the police said that this meant that police officers and the coast guard are “not entitled to search for a passport etc. when an individual cannot prove the right to reside in Sweden”.

A press officer at the justice ministry told The Local that the government hoped to change this. “The government considers that it is reasonable that such controls can also be carried out inside the country,” he wrote. 

A right to seize and confiscate ID documents. Under current legislation, police are only entitled to confiscate ID documents found on foreigners in a few situations, such as if the Migration Agency has already refused a residence permit and ordered them to be deported. “This situation makes the identification process more difficult, when the individual does not participate voluntarily to clarify their identity,” a police spokesman said. 

The government wants to increase police powers to confiscate ID documents. “In many cases,” the spokesman for the justice ministry said, “police cannot today seize the documents that they find and the government wants to look at the possibility of making them able to do so when it is appropriate.” 

A possibility to search phones, digital media and computers. Today police are only allowed to search a foreigner’s phone, laptop, emails or other digital media if there is suspicion that they have committed a crime. “The police authority has also presented the need of a regulation to confiscate and search digital media in an internal alien control, to investigate the identity and citizenship of a foreigner,” the spokesman wrote. “This is of special importance in situations when the foreigner cannot present any documents and refuse to participate.” 

A possibility to search people’s houses or apartments. As people living illegally in Sweden typically keep their documents where they live and do not carry them on them, Sweden’s police want the powers to raid their apartments or houses to search for documents, something which is not possible under current law. 

What’s the background to this? 

The government in March 2020 launched an utredning – the Swedish term for one of the investigations or inquiries which are the first stage of the formation of new legislation – titled “Measures for Areas near the Border”: 

In the conclusions of this investigation, published last November, the judge tasked with leading the inquiry, Stefan Reimer, proposed that police be empowered to seize identity documents “if it cannot be established that the alien is entitled to stay in Sweden, or if there is uncertainty concerning the alien’s identity”. 

How long could the government keep foreigners’ ID documents if they do seize them? 

The inquiry proposed that the authorities should be allowed to keep the documents long enough to be able to check that the foreigner has a residence permit, or is entitled to stay in Sweden for another reason. 

If the foreigner then turns out to be entitled to stay in Sweden, then their documents will be returned. If they are not, then they will only be returned if the foreigner either receives a permit to stay in Sweden, or leaves the country. 

This means that people living in Sweden irregularly now risk losing their passports or identity documents indefinitely unless they turn themselves in to the police to be deported. 

How do police know who is a foreigner and who is not when carrying out internal ID checks? 

Under current Swedish law, police need to have a reason which is “backed up” to carry out an internal ID check and they need to inform the foreigner of what that reason is. 

To prevent racial profiling, the current law specifically prohibits carrying out controls “based an appearance which is considered ‘foreign’, or on the basis of language or name”. 

When the check is made, police or the coastguard need to fill in a document giving the reason for the check, the time and place, who has been controlled, and who carried out the control. This document then needs to be checked to ensure the right procedures have been followed.  

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For members


What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

With the cost of airline tickets increasingly discouraging, is driving from Scandinavia to the UK becoming a more attractive option? The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett gave it a try.

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

This summer has seen the return of large-scale international travel after a couple of Covid-hit years that have not been a picnic for anyone.

While the end of restrictions came as a relief, severe delays and disruptions at airports have added a new uncertainty around travel in 2022.

Scandinavia has not been an exception to this, with strikes at Scandinavian airline SAS and delays at Copenhagen and other airports among the problems faced by the sector.

Additionally, the increasing price of airline tickets in a time when inflation is hitting living costs across the board has become another factor discouraging air travel.

Finally, there’s the impact of air travel on climate to be considered. So is there an alternative?

The plan

Unlike colleagues who have made long distance journeys from France and Sweden respectively by rail, our plan was to make the trip from our home in Denmark to the UK by car.

There are a few reasons we picked this less climate-friendly option. I’ll readily admit they were driven (no pun intended) by our own needs, and not those of the planet. I hope we can offset this by using the train more than the car for longer journeys within Denmark, where costs are competitive.

Once we decided not to take our usual Ryanair flight, we only really considered driving. This is primarily because we have a toddler (age two), and felt that on such a long journey, the ability to control the timing and length of our stops would be crucial.

Secondly, the route would have taken longer and been more difficult logistically by rail, and would also have cost more. For example, we arrived at Harwich International Port late on a weekday evening, from where onward travel was to rural Suffolk. The thought of doing this on multiple local rail (possibly bus) services with a tired two-year-old makes me shudder a bit.

The route

From our home in central Denmark, we set out on a Monday morning and drove south on the E45 motorway, crossing the German border and continuing past Hamburg. We then got on to the A1 Autobahn and made for Bremen, where we stopped overnight.

Travelling non-stop, this journey takes just under four hours. It took us around five and a half. We stopped twice and were caught in traffic at Hamburg, where there is lot of construction going on around the city’s ring road.

Leaving early (just after 6am) the following day, we drove southwest and crossed the border into the Netherlands after a brief stop, but then managed to complete the journey to the port town Hook of Holland without a further break.

Our ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich was due to leave at 2:15pm and check-in time was an hour before that. This was the only deadline we had on our journey that would have been problematic to miss, so we gave ourselves plenty of time for the drive from Bremen. We arrived in Hook of Holland at around 11:30am.

Next was a six-hour ferry crossing to the East Anglian coast. We booked a cabin – they are inexpensive on daytime crossings – which gave us a chance to relax after the drive and our daughter a comfortable spot for her afternoon nap.

After a queue at customs in Harwich which took around 45 minutes, we were driving through the Essex countryside just before 9pm local time. The final drive to our destination took an hour and a half.

What went right

It’s not the most relevant information for anyone considering a similar trip, but I have to mention our car. A 2003 VW Polo we bought two years ago that has never had any mechanical issues, I was nevertheless braced for possible problems given its age (and ensured I had roadside assistance for outside of Denmark, more detail on this below).

However, there was not so much as a hint of an issue of any kind at any point during the 900 kilometres it covered on the journey, nor on the way home. Respect.

Our plan to split the trip into two days paid off. I think you could do it in one day (there are also overnight ferries) if you shared the driving and needed less flexibility. I should also recognise here that we live relatively close to Germany and our destination was close to the east coast of the UK. If you were travelling, for example, from Copenhagen to Cardiff, you’d have significantly more driving to do.

For us, knowing we could take long breaks if we needed them took a lot of stress out of the journey and allowed us to adapt to our toddler’s needs – changing nappies, finding a service station playground or stopping for an ice cream.

Stopping overnight also gave us the chance to see some new places (we switched things up on the way back and stayed in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, instead of Bremen) and gave us a feeling of being on our own little bonus holiday.

What went wrong

In all, things went as well as we possibly could have hoped for and our conclusion after we got back home was that we’d like to travel this way again.

We were stopped by traffic police in Groningen city centre because I failed to understand signs showing we were entering a public transport-only zone. The officers who stopped us then offered to escort us to our accommodation a few streets away.

The ferry, operated by Stena Lines, had far less to do on board than we’d imagined there would be on a six-hour voyage. Two tiny off-duty shops, a cinema showing a superhero film and a minuscule play area (which our daughter nevertheless enjoyed) were about the extent of it. We hadn’t downloaded any films ourselves or brought much entertainment with us from the car, so we got a bit bored during the crossing. This is hardly a serious gripe and an easy one to rectify on the return trip.

The practical stuff 

Roadside assistance is obviously crucial for a journey like this, and it’s also important to double check your insurance is valid once you leave the country in which your car is registered and insured – Denmark, in our case.

Foreign authorities can check your insurance is valid. You can document this with the International Motor Insurance or “Green” card, which serves as proof you have motor insurance when you drive outside of the EU (you don’t need it within the EU).

This means that (in theory) you can be asked to present it in the UK. We weren’t asked for it.

The Green Card can be printed via your insurance company’s website. You’ll need your MitID or NemID secure login to access the platform and print off your document. Here is an example of the relevant page on the website of insurance company Tryg. If you can’t find the right section on your insurance company’s website, contact them by phone.

A number of Danish companies specialise in roadside assistance, including Falck and SOS Dansk Autohjælp. You can also include roadside assistance as part of your motor insurance package. We have the latter option, but in either case, I’d recommend calling your provider to make sure you are covered for breakdown in the EU and non-EU countries like the UK (if that’s where you’re going). Obviously, you should add such cover to your existing deal if you don’t have it, or change to a different deal.

The company which operates the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich is Stena Line. Both directions have daytime and overnight departures.

There is a range of prices, and I couldn’t cover all the options here if I tried. However, I’d recommend a cabin on the daytime departures, because it’s inexpensive and gives you a bit of personal space and privacy, which is useful with children.

After calculating what our approximate fuel costs would be, the price of the hotel stays and ferry tickets, we found that the trip cost around 1,500 kroner more than we would have paid to fly from Billund Airport to London Stansted with checked-in baggage with Ryanair on the same dates. In return, we could take as much luggage as we want with us (and back), we got to see Bremen and Groningen and had our own car with us in the UK. This was more than worth the additional expense.

I also spent 50 kroner on a “DK” sticker for the tailgate of the car (because the car is so old it predates the EU number plates that include the country code) and 70 kroner for some headlight stickers which prevent full beam headlamps from dazzling oncoming drivers when you are driving on the left in the UK.

As I busily fixed them onto my car as we waited to disembark the ferry, however, a lorry driver parked next to us said these were, in fact, entirely unnecessary.