MALMO, Sweden (Reuters) - Swedish police started checking trains for migrants on Thursday, imposing the first large-scale border controls in two decades, a move criticized by one opposition party as ending a tradition of openness and by others as being too little too late.
Officers waited at Hyllie station south of the city of Malmo, the first stop in Sweden on a route from Denmark, checked passengers’ papers and led about 50 people away in the space of one and a half hours.
The controls by a Nordic state that touts itself as a “humanitarian superpower” underscored how the flow of refugees into the European Union is straining its prized system of open internal borders close to breaking point.
Parents with toddlers and young children, some of them wrapped in blankets, waited by the track waiting to be processed.
“We take the ones who want asylum here in Sweden and get them to Malmo on buses,” said one police officer.
“The rest are sent back on trains to where they came from. If that’s Copenhagen, then that’s where we send them back to.”
Many of the migrants appeared reluctant to get off trains at first, but eventually obeyed the police, who carried standard-issue arms and wore bright yellow vests. No scuffles broke out.
The Centre Party, a member of the center-right opposition alliance, has criticized the decision by center-left Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, saying it ends an open-door tradition.
Other rightist parties have said the measures are not enough to help Sweden deal with up to 190,000 asylum seekers this year - double the previous record from the early 1990s.
Lofven said it was impossible to know whether border controls would lower the number of asylum seekers as that was only one of factor dictating the flow into Sweden.
“However, it is important that we get order at the borders so that we can control them,” he told local news agency TT.
Until Thursday, the half-hour ride over the Oresund Bridge separating Denmark and Sweden had no checks, under the European union’s border-free Schengen agreement.
At one point, police escorted 20 people, mostly men, from a train. The group was asked whether they sought asylum and after one refugee appeared to translate, most raised their hands. Five youths refused, saying they wanted to move on to Norway.
Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Additional reporting by Johan Ahlander; Editing by Andrew Heavens