Swedish Immigration policy: Why all in or all out?

Author:  Alexander Alm-Pandeya, Johns Hopkins University


12.9 percent—12.9 percent of the votes of the Swedish people went to the far-right, anti-immigration party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats). Many journalists and politicians expressed disgust and incredulity at the result, claiming that it was a manifestation of apathy and rejection of the complete shutdown of debate on immigration policy. For most outside observers, two things in particular were noted. First, Sweden followed the trend of most European nations shifting towards the right on the political scale. Second, the increasing support for a party critical of large-scale immigration meant that Sweden and its integration policy were not functioning as smoothly as the country would like to make it seem.

The political establishment in Sweden has long taken great pride in its “solidary” and “humane” immigration policy. The reason why those two adjectives often come to describe the Swedish immigration policy is that refugee and asylum immigration constitutes a large part of the migration to Sweden. In 2013, approximately 54,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden, and the total immigration to Sweden was about 115,000, the highest amount ever recorded. Out of this total, family reunification accounted for 35 percent. Although these numbers may seem negligible, Sweden’s total population is less than ten million people. In effect, after Malta, whose population is only 500,000, Sweden has the largest per capita asylum immigration rate in all of the EU-28. Comparatively, Germany, with a population of 85 million, granted asylum to slightly fewer refugees than Sweden did in 2013.

Although the Swedish model has been touted as ideal and harmonious, there are severe problems with integration in Sweden. The number of “segregated areas” around the country, where unemployment is over 40 percent and where either voter participation or the number of high school diplomas awarded is less than 70 percent, increased from three in 1999 to 186 in 2012. In May 2013, there were riots in immigrant-dense communities in the suburbs of all major Swedish cities that lasted more than a week. They were provoked by the shooting of an armed elderly man who attacked police during an arrest in Husby, a Stockholm suburb. The riots then progressed into a protest against the disadvantages the impoverished suburbs face in Sweden. Reports have shown that the suburbs with large immigrant populations have become even more disproportionately populated with immigrants. While the City of Stockholm saw a four percentage point increase in the total number of inhabitants of foreign background, some suburbs with large immigrant populations (over 50 percent of the population) experienced increases of over 15 percentage points.


Swedish politicians have often defended the freedom of choice that immigrants to Sweden have in choosing their domicile, while several sociologists claim that it is natural for humans to seek out those similar to themselves. This means that the increasing segregation can only be a direct consequence of the policy that the Swedish government is currently conducting. While integration aims to reconcile the differences a host population and their culture may encounter with immigrants and their customs, it presumes that two neighbours will one day become family. Grouping people of the same national origin in large numbers in specific areas creates parallel societies that undermine the concept of integration. Furthermore, many of the suburbs with a high proportion of foreign-born inhabitants are poorer and less dynamic, and often have higher rates of crime. The striking differences in wealth and opportunity, in addition to perceived and real discrimination towards immigrants, creates a world of us versus them that, irrespective of which side of the clash one is on, drives a wedge between Swedes and immigrants. Both sides have stories to tell, which are unfortunately only told within the groups and not across them. Yet, Swedish politicians are not willing to see the quandary in this way.


Swedish politics is very much driven by consensus, where most, if not all, parties in a debate must reach a common resolution for an issue to be considered resolved. With immigration policy, a broad consensus concerning the goal and the means to achieve it was reached by most major parties. For many years, the wide consensus reached by the members of the Swedish parliament was shared by their voters. Many commentators noted a sense of harmony in public opinion. It seems now that it was in fact a coercive public effort where differing opinions were not allowed to breathe. Those who presented opposing views were shunned and ostracized, and were accused of hosting racist and xenophobic views. In the beginning, mostly openly far-right and racist entities were the victims. Nevertheless, leading up to the 2010 general election, word of the Sweden Democrats started to spread. The Sweden Democrats, led by the charismatic Jimmie Åkesson, criticized the high levels of immigration throughout the past 20 years, the segregation and joblessness many refugees face, and the loss of the “Swedish national identity.” Many Swedes felt that the Sweden Democrats had hit the nail on the head, but with the wrong reasons and ideology.


They won 5.9 percent of the votes in 2010, and were unable to influence Swedish immigration policy in a meaningful way. On the contrary, the Alliance, a coalition of four centre to centre-right parties, which continued in its position in government, reached an agreement with the Environmental Party to have the most liberal and “generous” immigration policy yet. However, criticism of the current immigration policy being the focal point of the Sweden Democrats, any views raised that could be interpreted as favourable to the Sweden Democrats were censored. Although many parties to both the right and left had strong views in their party programs in favour of limiting immigration, this enabled the Sweden Democrats to monopolize the idea and become the only true “opposition” to the seven other parties in Parliament. Consequently, any person who felt strongly about the issue was forced to vote for the Sweden Democrats if she wanted a possibility of actual change in policy.


Several high profile incidents sparked the debate on immigration in the months leading up to the 2014 general election. The 2013 riots showed that Sweden was not paradisiac, the war in Syria resulted in a higher refugee flow to Europe, the high-profile Muslim terrorist attacks around the world made islamophobia stronger, and former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told his country that “they would have to open their hearts” to refugees as the Swedish Migration Board would require an additional 44 billion SEK (6.2 billion dollars) to manage the huge flow of refugees. This created a stronger anti-immigration sentiment amongst voters which resulted in the Sweden Democrats’ record success in September.


Sweden is the most famous example of a functioning welfare state, where the state provides its citizens, with the help of a progressive tax system, several basic benefits such as free healthcare, education, and child support. But, by neglecting the growing friction between its current immigration policy and the desire of its people, a party that many would not like to see in parliament is growing. In order for democracy in Sweden to work, and make people feel important and recognized for their opinions, politicians need to start listening more. The political parties need to take into account a variety of views and the possibilities of a plurality of correct answers to difficult question. Not everything is black and white like the Sweden Democrats want to make it seem, but when other parties are afraid to take a strong stance on issues important to the people, success is inevitable. An open and honest debate is vital to making Sweden not go down the wrong path.


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