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Sweden’s Ambivalence on Immigration

In 2015, immigration to Sweden reached an all-time high. At its peak, more than 10,000 people arrived in a single week. The total for the entire year was 162,877 people—1.6 percent of the Swedish population. In September, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven welcomed the immigrants, saying that his Europe does not build walls. A month and a half later, his government reintroduced border controls and decisively reduced immigration—perfectly illustrating Sweden’s ambivalence on this issue.

Sweden was for a long time a remarkably homogenous country. Its minorities were either few in number, such as the nomadic Sami, or culturally similar to the Swedes, such as the Finns. People moved out of the country rather than into it: about a million and a half Swedes left for America during the heyday of transatlantic migration. Immigrants, on the other hand, were rare. In 1945, foreigners made up only 1.5 percent of the total population of approximately 6.5 million, or around 100,000 people. These foreign born came mainly from Scandinavia and the Baltic littoral.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically. In a country of ten million, foreign-born currently number about 1.8 million, nearly a fifth of the population. Six hundred thousand have come since 2008. Sweden now has a larger percentage of foreign-born residents than even the United States.

Until the 1980s, immigrants to Sweden largely consisted of Europeans looking for—and getting—jobs. Today, the influx comes mainly from the Middle East and North Africa. Finnish, with a six-hundred-year history in Sweden, is now the third most spoken language after Swedish and Arabic. The migrants come seeking asylum and a large percentage are low-skilled: for example, 40 percent of Syrian immigrants arriving during the immigration peak have not gone to high school; for Somalis, the number is about 60 percent. The national Swedish average in 2017 was 12 percent.

While immigration levels have been relatively high for a few decades, it is only after the striking images of immigrants crowding train stations and ferry terminals in 2015—and after the panicked closing of the border the same year—that the Swedish public debate moved beyond well-meaning but politically correct soundbites to serious discussion about what this kind of immigration has meant for Sweden. Here, we will try to summarize a few key issues that have come up in this debate.

The Economic Impact

The early economic impacts have been significant, though it is too early to fully assess the long-term impacts, which are to some extent still possible to alter. But we do have a good idea of the short-term effects. We know, for instance, that the cost of receiving immigrants during 2017 was 64 billion Swedish kronor, some 7.05 billion U.S. dollars. In a country of ten million, this amounts to $700 per person per year. By comparison, the Swedish defense budget in 2017 was about $5 billion.

As most newcomers do not work—more on that later—they are on average supported by the Swedish welfare state, admittedly one of the most generous in the world. The net cost per refugee per annum is 70,000 kronor (this figure excludes the initial costs mentioned in the previous paragraph) which means that welfare distribution to the refugee population amounts to some $4.5 billion.

Of course, these numbers need to be put into perspective. The GDP of Sweden is far smaller than that of the United States, and what is quite a lot to a Swede may sound laughably small to an American. But the total cost for the refugee population—some $11 billion—is substantially larger than the entire budget of the United Nations refugee program (unhcr), which is about $7.7 billion. With this money, the UN helps more than sixty million refugees annually. Sweden only provides for a few hundred thousand annually.

Many analysts have said that the money spent in Sweden would be far more effective in refugee camps; after all, Sweden is by any standards a high-cost country. Yet, in 2015, Sweden slashed its foreign aid to prioritize spending on refugees within its borders. This was criticized as it effectively redistributes resources from women and children—who more often remain in camps—to men, who made up some 70 percent of the migrants reaching Sweden.

One may also dispute the refugee status of many migrants. It is true that many have come from war-torn Syria, but not all of them. Some have come from places such as Iran and Uzbekistan and Algeria, countries not at war. And even the Syrian refugees have traveled through Turkey and Greece and through the Balkans, all in all passing through eleven countries before coming to Sweden. All of these countries are at peace; there is no need to leave Turkey or Greece to come to Sweden for reasons of safety.

So why Sweden? A guess as good as any is that the generous Swedish welfare system makes migration to Sweden attractive. A family of six can in theory receive up to 32,000 Swedish kronor per month, more than $3,500, if the parents are unemployed. Apart from this economic factor, one may talk of a cultural draw: Sweden has large diasporas in place already, which softens the cultural transition for the immigrant but delays integration into Swedish society.

The ease with which one may become a Swedish citizen may be another contributing factor. Until recently, all confirmed refugees were awarded permanent visas. Anyone who resides in the country for five years becomes a citizen upon application—there is no test to ensure language skills or familiarity with Swedish society. This means that a substantial part of the citizenry does not speak Swedish, which in turn is provoking further debate. In the election that occurred in September of this year, an MP of Somali descent was elected after a campaign largely targeted at Somali people in the Somali language. Pundits are divided on whether this was a commendable effort to reach out to a marginalized community or the beginning of an “ethnification” of the Swedish electorate.

Moreover, Sweden’s labor market is not well suited to absorbing large numbers of low-skilled immigrants. One would expect to find such workers in low-paying jobs requiring few qualifications. But Sweden is a country with exceptionally few of these jobs: American tourists visiting Swedish cafés tend to complain that there is no table service; when they visit the supermarket, they are astonished that customers often check out their own groceries. This means that people with no high school education have a hard time finding jobs.

The jobs that do exist are mid-income by international standards, and they are jealously guarded by the highly unionized Swedish work force. This mixture creates a difficult situation for immigrants: in nine years, only about half have found a job. Some people blame Swedish racism for this; others point to the lack of cultural integration. While both of these may be at work to different extents, one cannot just wish away the economic structure of Sweden. For many immigrants, the prospects for finding work to support themselves—and thus avoid being resented as freeloaders—are grim.

Challenges to Assimilation

Mass immigration has also contributed to segregation. In 1990, Sweden had three so-called “outsider areas”—areas with high unemployment, high drop-out rates, low voter-participation rates, and so on. In 2012, the number of “outsider areas” had increased to 186. More than half a million people—overwhelmingly immigrants—lived in these areas at the time. And since 2012, the number of immigrants has increased by 400,000 persons. That this will increase the population living in such “outsider areas” is obvious; likely, new areas will be added to the list. A 2015 study from Växjö University showed that the native population starts moving out when the immigrant population reaches 4 percent in a given area.

Some of these areas, if not entirely beyond the reach of the authorities, are at least hard to reach. In 2017, twenty-three of them were designated “especially vulnerable areas” by the police. These are zones where the police cannot operate due to resistance from the locals: locals in these areas may be reluctant to stand witness in court; violent religious extremism is present; and parallel societal structures exist. Parallel societal structures include, for instance, informal “vice patrols,” often with an Islamist bent, that tell people—generally secular or moderate Muslims—to keep their daughters in line if they have been seen wearing immodest clothing. Only fifteen years ago, this problem was unheard of in Sweden.

When Swedish authorities have difficulties operating in an area, other problems frequently arise. The inhabitants of these areas—generally other immigrants—who try their best to make a living often cannot, say, run a profitable small business due to repeated robberies, car burnings, or extortion attempts. Such problems stifle economic activity and integration, while breeding apathy. These issues are more frequently coming out in the open and are now being taken seriously.

Supercilious Self-Deprecation

Previously, Swedish society was largely uninterested in assimilating immigrants, to some degree because of Swedes’ own view of their culture. Attitudes of cultural self-deprecation are ubiquitous. Former prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt famously said that all cultural development in Sweden has come from abroad, while only barbarism is native. Americans typically associate such attitudes with left-wingers, and surely Swedish left-wingers espouse them as well. But Reinfeldt was no Swedish social democrat; he was the leader of the conservative Moderate Party. Unsurprisingly, that party’s conservative credentials are now being disputed.

This cultural self-deprecation, however, is only superficial. At bottom, it is based on a sense of cultural superiority. Many Swedes think of Sweden as a nation with universal values. According to this mindset, anyone settling in Sweden will inevitably prefer and eventually choose to adopt these values by default. The argument that one should not expect a person from  Afghanistan, for example, to want to adopt Swedish values is often derided as racist: such doubts imply that the Afghan is too backwards to see the obvious merits of Swedish ways of life.

Yet people do not always assimilate. They often persist in their habits, with the blessing of Swedish authorities. In a much publicized case a couple of years ago, a male Muslim immigrant refused to shake the hand of a female employer at a job interview; he duly did not get the job. He then sued her for discriminating against him on the basis of religion, and he was awarded compensation. Such cases have created a dilemma, for they obviously put feminism at odds with multiculturalism.

The Disputed Connection between Immigration and Crime

On this topic, another worrying aspect of recent years’ large-scale immigration is its gender imbalance. In 2016, Politico reported that for every 100 sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girls in Sweden, there were 123 boys. In China, after years of a one-child policy, there are 117 boys for every 100 girls in the same age cohort.

A society where many young men can’t find partners—which is unavoidable when males outnumber females by a fifth—is likely to grow more violent and dangerous, especially for women. It is sometimes reported that Sweden nearly leads the world in rapes per capita. These comparative statistics are unreliable, however, as Sweden has a wider definition of what constitutes rape than most countries. But it is clear that the incidence of rape has increased: between 2014 and 2017, self-reported victims of sexual crimes increased from 1.0 percent to 2.4 percent of the population. At the same time, these crimes are becoming more brutal, including gang rapes, torture, and the like.

The possible—in some circles commonly suggested—connection of such crimes to immigration has been highly controversial. Earlier this year, investigative journalists at SVT, the government-owned broadcasting corporation, delved into the matter, as Sweden does not keep official statistics on the ethnicity of perpetrators. They found that 58 percent of convicted rapists were born outside of Sweden, and eight out of ten assault rapists were born outside of Sweden. Of the latter, 40 percent had been in Sweden one year or less.

As we speak, there is intense debate on how to interpret these numbers. Is there a selection bias—i.e., are victims more willing to report on immigrant perpetrators? Or do the perpetrators largely come from intensely, even violently, patriarchal cultures? In the court that is Swedish public discourse, the jury is still out.

Other crimes have also surged. Car burnings have increased by 400 percent over the last twenty years. In mid-August, 80 cars were burned across western Sweden in a coordinated attack, possibly launched in retaliation against the police for having busted a drug deal. Shootings have also increased. Last year, five times as many people were shot to death compared to twelve years ago. Deadly gun violence among young men is twice as common as in comparable European countries. To a large extent, shootings are concentrated in or near the abovementioned vulnerable areas. Here, a connection to immigration seems likely.

Sweden’s Immigration Debate Will Continue

Debates surrounding immigration are likely to persist, and probably intensify. In 2017, PEW Research Center published an analysis forecasting the number of Muslims in Europe in the year 2050: If immigration is lowered to zero, Sweden’s Muslim population will be 11 percent (that of the United States is about 1 percent). If immigration moderates from recent highs, 20 percent of the population will be Muslim in 2050. And if immigration is at the levels of 2014 to 2016, 30 percent of the Swedish population will be Muslim.

Whatever one thinks of Islam, this is likely to create many cultural conflicts. One can see a few such conflicts already, for instance in debates over the question of whether mosques should be allowed to do prayer calls on loudspeakers. If Muslims constitute 20 or 30 percent of the population, critics say, such prayer calls would be heard everywhere and likely split society in half. Others say this is exaggerating either the effect of the call—for Swedes will perhaps grow to accept them and happily coexist—or the religiosity of Swedish Muslims in 2050—for perhaps the majority of Muslim immigrants will turn secular, following the trend of Swedish Christians. It remains to be seen what will happen.

Whatever the future will bring, however, it is clear that the changes experienced in recent years are already having significant impacts on Swedish society. In politics, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have in the course of fifteen years gone from a few local mandates and no national parliamentary seats to becoming the third largest party after the September 2018 election, now commanding the support of almost a fifth of the electorate. But the party’s roots in fringe nationalist movements have made it anathema to the other political parties. Reflecting the divided opinions of Swedes, the parties that were the most successful aside from the Sweden Democrats were the Left Party—formerly Communist—and the neoliberal Centre Party. These parties have very different outlooks on society, but they have in common their liberalism on immigration. Immigration, then, has become the major fault line in Swedish society. And Sweden’s ambivalence on this issue is almost certain to continue, following the complex and often contradictory economic, cultural, and moral arguments at the center of the debate.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive published on November 15, 2018.

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