Asylum Policy Transfer as a Threat to Nordic Exceptionalism

24.2.2023 Stephen Phillips

The idea that Nordic countries are exceptional in many categories, often linked especially to the apparent success of the Nordic countries in the development of welfare states and relatively high standards of living for Nordic citizens, is difficult to sustain when looking at asylum policy in these countries. This notion of Nordic exceptionalism is often viewed uncritically, ‘creating a veneer of immaculateness around Nordic societies domestically and internationally’.[1] Rather than being exceptional in any positive sense, the Nordic countries instead are implementing policies laid out by states such as the US and Australia, where rhetoric around national security and border control accompanies increasing hostility towards unwanted migrants through policies of deterrence and externalisation. Any image of Nordic exceptionalism based on providing support and a safety net for the more vulnerable members of society is fundamentally challenged by the response to those seeking asylum.

Nordic Exceptionalism

Different exceptionalisms emerge even among the Nordic countries themselves. In Finland, for example, this idea is grounded in Finland not having had any overseas colonies of its own, however this was not possible as Finland was itself part of the Swedish realm until 1809, then the Grand Duchy of Finland until independence in 1917. Nevertheless, this domination by foreign powers did not prevent Finns from benefitting from colonialism, and many Finns took part in colonial enterprise in the Americas and the Congo. Besides the role of Finns in colonialism abroad, the Finnish state has an ongoing history of colonial, assimilationist practices and policies toward the Sámi people.[2] There is a comparable tension in Denmark, where the idea of Denmark as a benevolent colonial master exists alongside historical intervention in Greenlandic everyday affairs, including attempts to control marriage, reproduction, and labour, and persistent systemic discrimination between Danes and Greenlanders to the present day.[3]

The United States and Australia, two key points of inspiration for externalised Nordic asylum policies, similarly maintain their own particular – although not encompassing in terms of national identity, as in the Nordic case – exceptionalisms. For example, jurists in the US seek to maintain a sense of distance from international developments, and prioritise US sovereignty over taking a role in broader legal debates. Australian exceptionalism is evident in its temporary protection regime, which unlike other comparable systems was not designed for cases of mass influx of migrants, and is implemented not as an admission tool but as a deterrent. This Australian approach puts it at odds with, for example, the EU approach to temporary protection, creating an Australian exceptionalism that focuses on all unwanted migrants, even when few in number, and that is designed not to facilitate access to territory, but to prevent it. While European countries have used temporary protection (as distinct from other forms of international protection) as a way to flaunt their humanitarian credentials, Australia uses temporary protection to punish unwanted irregular migrants who are requesting ongoing protection.

Transfer of asylum policy

In the case of forced migration, Nordic exceptionalism remains elusive. The Nordic countries are exceptional only in that their relative geographic isolation from the southern and eastern frontlines affords them a level of protection from mass influx. Finland shares a significant border with Russia, however there is no recent history or current likelihood of mass influx across this border. Nordic policies and rhetoric, however, largely existing within the framework of the EU’s Common European Asylum System (CEAS), are not substantially different to those of other EU Member States, nor to those of the United States and Australia before them. Using the same language as a procession of US and Australian leaders, calls for zero asylum seekers have become common in the rhetoric of many Nordic leaders, focussing on threats to social cohesion, crime, illegality, and the need to disrupt the business model of people smugglers. This rhetoric is expressed and normalised despite relatively low numbers of asylum seekers attempting to enter Nordic countries. Asylum applications increased in the three Nordic EU Member States in 2015, then saw a decline and normalisation from 2016, one year earlier than the EU as a whole. Denmark, for example, received 20,935 applications in 2015 and 6,180 in 2016, Sweden received 162,450 in 2015 and 28,790 in 2016, and Finland received 32,345 in 2015 and 5,605 in 2016. In 2020, Denmark received 1,475 asylum applications, Finland received 3,190, and Sweden received 16,225. These 2020 figures represent less than five percent of the EU total, and while these countries are certainly very small in terms of population, they are among the most prosperous in Europe.

The most striking recent example of this policy diffusion is the Danish move to allow for offshore processing of asylum seekers, modelled directly on the US offshore processing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Australia’s Pacific Solution, under which thousands of asylum seekers have been transferred to Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru for processing. Denmark, similar to the United Kingdom, proposes to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and settlement. While not yet implemented, it is enough of an indicator that Nordic states are willing to pursue even the most controversial elements of US and Australian policy towards unwanted migrants. Finland’s recent announcement of a pre-emptive border wall along parts of its frontier with Russia shows a similar prioritisation of border securitisation over international human rights law, evoking images of wall-building projects in the US and other rich countries. Any demonstration of Nordic exceptionalism in the case of asylum policy and its accompanying rhetoric is a distant memory; rather, the Nordic countries are pursuing a well-trodden path laid out by other states. This further normalisation of asylum policy aimed at punishment and exclusion has ongoing implications for the decay and fragility of asylum more broadly – when even those states which claim the most democratic and humanitarian values conspire to repel unwanted migrants, concepts such as protection, asylum, and universal human rights become increasingly fraught.

This text is adapted from a forthcoming article in Retfærd: Nordisk Juridisk Tidskrift entitled ‘Nordic Exceptionalism or a Well-Trodden Path? Asylum Policy Lessons from the US and Australia’.


[1] JENSEN, L. and LOFTSDÓTTIR, K. 2022. Exceptionalism. 3. Routledge: Oxon.

[2] See MERIVIRTA, R. and KOIVUNEN, L. (eds.) 2021. Finnish Colonial Encounters: From Anti-Imperialism to Cultural Colonialism and Complicity. Palgrave Macmillan: Cham.

[3] PETTERSON, C. 2012. Colonialism, racism and exceptionalism. In Whiteness and Postcolonialism in the Nordic Region: Exceptionalism, Migrant Others and National Identities, ed. Kristín Loftsdóttir and Lars Jensen, 29–42. Ashgate: Surrey.

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