Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Oresund, a favored passage between Sweden and Denmark for Europe’s refugees, has become a source of great tension.
When the Oresund Bridge (that’s Öresund in Swedish and Øresund in Danish) opened in 2000, it was taken as a harbinger of a bright, borderless future for Europe.
Linking Danish Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmo across five miles of the Oresund Strait, the bridge was an unquestionably bold feat of engineering, featuring a two-mile tunnel connecting to it via an artificial island. The bridge’s role in reshaping Scandinavia’s geography was more impressive still. It joined two countries previously linked only by sea and air and helped to bind Denmark’s first and Sweden’s third cities into a new international metro area.
Now, however, that international link-up is under intense strain—so much so that Sweden is now drawing up a law that would allow it to close the bridge. The reason: Europe’s refugee crisis.
This year, more than 120,000 refugees sought asylum in Sweden between January and November. The source of their exodus is the ongoing war in Syria, creating levels of violence and disorder so intense that hundred of thousands have risked the dangerous journey across sea and over land to reach safety. Of the 800,000 refugees who have arrived by sea this year, one in seven has ended up in Sweden.
This is substantially thanks to Swedish generosity in setting high quotas. (It also helps that conditions the country offers refugees on arrival are relatively better than elsewhere.) Other European states have notably failed to be so generous. The U.K., with more than 6.5 times the population of Sweden, has agreed to take just 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next parliamentary term.
Neighboring Denmark has taken a far tougher line. The country’s government has taken out anti-refugee advertisements in Lebanese newspapers, announcing recent 50 percent cuts to refugee benefits and emphasizing how quickly Denmark would be able to deport them. The contrast could hardly be greater with Sweden, where people crossing by train from Denmark are greeted in Malmo Station with notices reading “Welcome Refugees” in Swedish, English, and Arabic.
The result of the Swedish welcoming attitude is perhaps predictable: Sweden is now struggling to cope with new arrivals from across the Oresund Bridge. Its turnaround has been swift. Ten days ago, the country announced that new arrivals would be given only temporary residence permits, an admission that left the Deputy Prime Minister in tears. Now Sweden is discussing ways to temporarily shut down the bridge if—or when—the flow of refugees heading across from Denmark gets too great.
Should it be adopted, the move would prove a blow to attempts to weld Copenhagen and Malmo together as one seamless metro. With 30,000 commuters crossing the bridge daily, even a short closure could prove extremely complicated. In the meantime, far tighter controls have been promised on the bridge in the run-up to Christmas—a potential headache for the many seasonal shoppers using the link, including many Danes seeking lower prices in Sweden.
The plan is a symbolic shock as well. The Oresund Bridge represented an outward-looking Scandinavia, both as an infrastructural link and as a cultural backdrop. It is, after all, the setting for Dano-Swedish detective drama The Bridge, currently in its third season and part of a wave of recent Scandinavian TV that’s achieved a level of international success hitherto undreamed of in the region. Sweden’s Sofia Helin, the actress who plays The Bridge’s high-functioning autistic detective and hero Saga Norén, has herself weighed in, telling a Danish magazine that Denmark needs to “bloody get it together” in accepting its fair share of refugees.
With tension growing along the Oresund Strait, the extreme convenience of crossing from Denmark to Sweden is currently coming across as something of a mixed blessing.