Last week, a 22-year old Swede called Elin Ersson made headlines around the world for her ‘citizen-activism’. Learning that a failed asylum seeker from Afghanistan was to be deported from her country, she bought a seat on the plane that was due to take him part of the way back home (as far as Turkey). Once she was on board the plane Ersson refused to sit down. Filming the whole thing on her mobile phone (natch) Ms Ersson insisted that to send the failed asylum-seeker to his home country would be consigning him to ‘death’ because Afghanistan is ‘hell’. After about 15 minutes of this Ms Ersson got her way. The Afghan migrant was taken off the flight. Some passengers applauded. Ms Ersson cried. And soon she was being lauded as the Millennials’ answer to Rosa Parks.
The self-appointed leaders of the sisterhood were especially vocal. A writer at the website that used to be the Independent told us that Ms Ersson has shown us ‘how effective individual action can be.’ Britain’s Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, applauded the ‘brave action by this young student’. And Caroline Lucas MP – joint leader of Britain’s Green Party – tweeted out motivationally ‘If ever you think one person can’t make a difference, then watch this! Huge respect to Elin Ersson, a student at Gothenburg university, for – literally – standing up for what she believes in. A true inspiration.’
Of course anyone with any knowledge of the facts could tell you that the real headline story here should have been ‘Sweden actually deports failed asylum-seeker’. In the last few years alone, Sweden has taken in around a hundred thousand people who the country itself recognises have no right to be there. For in 2015, Sweden, like Germany, opened up its borders to the world and only after the world had come did the Swedish authorities ask who in the world was there.
It is also not as though the process of deportation in Sweden is entirely arbitrary or without checks. Each migrant to Sweden has ample opportunity to explain why they believe they have a right to asylum in the country. And if their application is turned down they have plenty of opportunities to appeal that decision. This whole process goes on for years until it is finally unresolved. The most common ending for those judged to have no legitimate asylum claim is that they then simply disappear into the country. Very few illegals with no right to be in Sweden ever actually do get deported.
So one thing that anybody could tell was that Ms Ersson’s 52-year old Afghan migrant was an anomaly. And there are often reasons for anomalies. Sure enough, in the days since Ms Ersson became famous it has turned out that her 52-year old failed asylum seeker had reportedly been issued a two-year prison sentence in Sweden for assault. This sentence is on the harsh side in Sweden for an assault charge, so it will be interesting to discover just how severe the assault was that Ms Ersson’s illegal migrant was convicted of, and who the victim – or victims – of that assault might have been. As ever in such cases there is a difficulty getting the specifics. Firstly because so few people – including very few media – want to chase up the facts. And secondly because the authorities try to keep the rulings in specific asylum cases from public view. I am told that so far no local media have been able to get hold of the details of the assault case involving the man Ms Ersson has ‘saved’. Perhaps we shall find out at some point.
In any case, what is interesting about this case – like many similar cases I document in my recent book – is the tilt in the moral-political landscape that it exemplifies. For people like Ms Ersson there is only something to gain from deciding to arbitrarily impose your own personal migration and asylum policy. ‘Let them all stay’ has no moral taint to it, yet for the time being ‘Let the person who shouldn’t be here go home’ still does.
To put it another way, an individual or organisation that took it upon itself to expel illegal migrants who the government had failed to deport might not get the plaudits that Ms Ersson did. Even though such a group would have the law on their side more than Ms Ersson does, I imagine that there would be fewer public figures going on about the ‘bravery’ and ‘inspiration’ of the impromptu deportation brigades, or twittering on about how it all goes to show that even one person can make a difference in this world, etc etc.
As so often, the New York Times is able to sum up this moral equilibrium. For the NYT, Ms Ersson’s action is an ‘Act of defiance’ which (as their headline puts it) ‘Casts harsh light on Europe’s deportation of asylum seekers.’ In fact the harshness and cast of this light depends very much on where you’re looking at the situation from.
Here’s a bet. Even if the 52-year old Afghan migrant who Ms Ersson chose to release back into Sweden turns out to have served time in prison for an assault on some innocent Swedish woman, here are some NYT headlines we will not read:
‘Act of violence highlights breakdown in border security in Sweden’
‘Act of violence raises questions on why failed asylum seekers are allowed to stay in Sweden’
Nor is it likely that if Ms Ersson’s migrant is released back into the community and commits another assault that any responsibility for this will come back onto her.
Though perhaps it should. As it should also come back on Diane Abbott, Caroline Lucas and the headline-writers at papers living and defunct. If they’re up for personal accountability and personal responsibility, then let them take account for the consequences of these apparently cost-free actions. After all, as an average day’s news has again today reminded us, there is a cost to everything. The only real question is who ends up paying for it. You? Or someone else’s children.