Please come – but then what? Part 1: Sweden and the dilemma of integration

This article forms part of a 2013 series on integration in Sweden

For much of this year, discrimination of immigrants, integration and racism have been hotly debated.  Should Sweden’s immigration policy be more restrictive, and whether the government’s approach to integration is failing, are among the topics for discussion. After years of political silence and lack of a broad public debate (with public discourse concerning migration and integration being characterised by a high degree of political correctness, hampering the debate), the issue of integration is finally being discussed. The 2010 entry of the Sweden Democrats into the Riksdag and the Christmas suicide bombing in the middle of Stockholm have probably played a large part in bringing the issue of integration on the political table.

Monthly Policy Review

It could be argued that Sweden has always felt itself to be the conscience of the world and, as such, Swedes regard their open-arm approach to asylum-seekers as an expression of what is best in their culture. Unlike many European countries, where immigrant numbers are going down, Sweden issues more residence permits every year and remains one of the world’s most welcoming countries for asylum seekers. Today, immigration to Sweden exceeds 100,000 people per year. There is also broad popular support for helping refugees and a majority of Swedes remain positive to immigration. Sweden is regarded as a liberal, egalitarian welfare state and The Migration Policy Index (MIPEX) considers Sweden one of the most successful countries in dealing with integration. According to a recent World Values Survey, Swedes are amongst the world’s least racist peoples and most open to immigrants. Still, the effectiveness of integration policies has been questioned in a series of studies and critics warn that Sweden has not put enough resources and effort into integrating its refugees.

Immigration and integration are highly sensitive issues in Swedish politics, and recent studies show that Swedes have a more favourable opinion of immigration to Sweden than they do of the actual integration process.  While Swedes are the most positive in Europe toward immigration and multiculturalism, four out of five believe that immigrants should adapt to “our country’s habits”. In a series of articles Mundus International will try to understand why this is and will look deeper in to statistics and studies examining Sweden’s integration policies. What is the “missing piece” between the MIPEX study and people’s perception that immigrants are not integrating well and their lack of confidence in the government’s ability to handle immigration and integration?  In this first article, we summarise the history of immigration and integration policies and then look at public perception of immigration and integration.

Immigration in a historical perspective

Sweden remains one of the main EU countries of destination for asylum seekers; last year, 44,000 asylum seekers were accepted from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Earlier this month, Swedish migration authorities ruled that all Syrian asylum seekers in Sweden would be granted permanent residency in light of the worsening conflict in Syria.  The number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Sweden has been increasing. In 2012, over 3,500 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Sweden, compared with 2,400 in 2010. The largest groups of unaccompanied minors in 2012 came from Afghanistan (54 per cent) and Somalia (13 per cent).

Until the Second World War, Sweden was an net emigration country having seen large exoduses to the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century and early 1900s. From 1851 to 1910 roughly one million people emigrated from Sweden to America. Immigration began with the Second World War when Sweden received refugees from the Nordic, Baltic and other European countries, but in 1945, the number of foreign-born people in Sweden was still as low as 100,000. The service sector expanded quickly following World War II and in 1950 every fifth employee in the hotel and restaurant sector was a foreign citizen. Nordic citizens (especially Finns) have dominated labour immigration to Sweden, but the 1950s saw workers also coming from Germany, Austria and Italy and in the 1960s from Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey. The 1973 oil crisis followed by the industrial downturn in the mid-1970s meant that labour immigration declined in importance and refugees became the main source of immigrants. Since the 1980s, labour force immigration has been insignificant. When immigration driven by labour demand decreased, the variations of immigration of refugees and immigration due to family ties have instead dominated. Since the 1980s, the number of immigrants in Sweden has increased considerably in the 1980s, with significant immigration from Iran, Chile, Lebanon, Poland and Turkey, during the 1990s from the former Yugoslavia and the 2000s from Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Family reunification has accounted for a significant part of the rise in immigration since the middle of the 1990s. The exceptions are 2006 and 2009 when immigration of refugees accounted for the largest part of the upturn. In 1996, Sweden became a party to the Schengen agreement, which allows for free movement of people across all Member States. Since the labour force reform in 2009, the number of labour force immigrants from countries outside of the EU and EEA increased steadily. Hence, the modern era of immigration can be divided into four distinct stages, characterized by source and reason for migration:

  • Refugees from neighboring countries (1938 to 1948)
  • Labor immigration from Finland and southern Europe (1949 to 1971)
  • Family reunification and refugees from developing countries (1972 to 1989)
  • Asylum seekers from southeastern and Eastern Europe and the free movement of EU citizens within the European Union (1990 to present).

Sweden ranks fourth in the number of accepted asylum seekers and second relative to its population, according to UN figures on 44 industrialised countries. Today, roughly 15 per cent of Swedish residents are foreign-born, and in some cities  – such as Malmö – almost 25 per cent of the population has been born abroad. The number of foreign-born people has increased by around 1 million over the last half century.  According to Sweden Statistics, immigration is expected to remain at a high level over the next few years. According to the Swedish Migration Board assessment, this is largely due to increased immigration of refugees. Labour force immigration is also expected to contribute to a high immigration from 2010 through 2020. Longer-term, immigration of refugees and family members is expected to drop, but still remain higher than today’s levels (see chart).

From immigration to integration policies

Over the last three decades various integration policies have been implemented in Sweden aimed at increasing both labour market integration and political participation. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sweden had no official policy of incorporating migrants into mainstream society. It was taken for granted that migrants from other Scandinavian countries, who were considered culturally similar, would assimilate. Various retrospective studies suggest that the early labour immigrants adapted fairly well and gradually became accepted in the cities in which they settled. They settled mainly in Sweden’s major cities and in a limited number of leading industrial towns. Sweden was one of the first countries to recognize the importance of immigrant integration – the first courses in Swedish were launched in 1965.

When Sweden entered the EU the Riksdag had not formulated on an integration policy, but had a functional immigration policy. In 1996 the government officially announced the transition from an immigration policy to an integration policy on the basis of a government bill ‘Sweden, the future and diversity – from immigration policies to integration policies (Prop. 1997 ⁄ 98:16). The following year the Swedish Integration Board was established.  The official shift to an integration policy was inspired by the idea of engaging into a broader integration policy aimed at the whole population. Thus, ethnic diversity was seen as the starting point in treating immigrants and the new integration policy was implemented to ensure “equal rights, obligations and opportunities for all, regardless of ethnic or cultural background”.

The current Swedish integration policies are based on a November 2009 reform bill called ‘Labour market introduction of newly arrived immigrants – individual responsibility with professional support’ (Prop. 2009 ⁄ 10:60). In December 2010, the newly appointed Minister for Integration Erik Ullenhag launched what he described as the largest integration policy reform since the mid-1980s. The main objective was to reform the integration system of Sweden in to be more efficient and labour market oriented. The reform was primarily targeted toward individualism – both in the sense of considering individual differences in the group of new arrivals and assigning greater responsibility for integration onto the individual – and to accelerating the integration of new arrivals into the labour market. The ‘Law on the establishment of certain newly incoming immigrants’ (Lag (2010:197) became operative on 1 December 2010. The Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality coordinated integration policy until early 2011, when the new Swedish government decided to move the portfolio to the Ministry of Employment, giving it a stronger link to labour market policy.

Despite experiencing economic slowdown in 2009 and a general election the following year, Sweden has stayed the course with its earlier approved integration strategy and has actually increased its investment in integration, with a particular focus on improving access to the labour market for newly arrived migrants. It would seem that, despite some mild shock within government at the success of the Sweden Democrats, integration policies, and approaches, are holding fast and responding to the economic crisis with more, rather than less investment. In its budget bill for 2013, the Government strengthened efforts to facilitate and speed up the introduction of newly arrived migrants. A set of targeted measures aimed at preparing the new arrivals for employment was introduced, as well as measures for improving school results for migrant pupils. The target group for the Introduction Act is also enlarged to include more family migrants. In this budget bill, the Ministry of Integration and Employment wants to create subsidised jobs and make Swedish language lessons more diverse. As part of efforts to improve the results achieved by newly-immigrated students, the Government has set aside funds for a pilot project involving an extra three hours of Swedish instruction per week. Nowadays, the integration process covers almost every aspect of society: the job market, the political sphere and social participation in society. Citizenship policies have changed over time and today include both the possibility of dual citizenship and non-citizens right to vote by in local and provincial elections. Thus, a great deal has happened since the 1970s, when the importance of immigrants’ ability to retain their culture was emphasized. 40 years on, Swedish integration policy is aimed at helping immigrants with job placement and language instruction.

Over the last decade European immigration and integration policy has been evolving away from multiculturalism and back to a more or less explicit assimilation ideal. In July 2011, the Commission proposed a European Agenda for the Integration of Non-EU Migrants, focusing on action to increase economic, social, cultural and political participation by migrants and putting the emphasis on local action. This agenda highlights challenges that need to be solved if the EU is to benefit fully from the potential offered by migration and the value of diversity. It also explores the role of countries of origin in the integration process. Rather than following the trend among other European countries towards increasingly restrictive integration conditions, Sweden has continued to pursue a rather liberal policy towards its immigrant population. Andreas Johansson Heinö, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg, argues that compared to other European countries Sweden is different in several respects: for instance, the movement toward increased assimilation that characterized most Western European countries in the last decade is not present in Sweden: “In this sphere Sweden often serves to represent the multicultural model, in contrast with the German policy of segregation, British laissez-faire and the French policy of assimilation.” A 2013 report by Timbro, a think tank, points out that in comparison with integration measures applied in other Western European countries, Sweden’s integration policies have four main characteristics:

  • participation is voluntary;
  • the content of the programme is employment-oriented;
  • until recently the programme was highly de-centralised, with the implementation taking place largely at the level of the municipalities; and
  • naturalisation is seen as an important element, rather than the ultimate goal of the integration process.

At first sight the Swedish approach appears to have been successful in fostering the integration of immigrants. For example, Sweden continues to rank high in the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) database – a tool to compare and assess integration policy. The Migration Policy Group has used a number of indicators, including labour market integration, long-term residence and family reunification rights, political rights, access to nationality, antidiscrimination policies and public opinion. Sweden scored more points than any other country included in the ranking. Consequently, Sweden was the country considered by the Migration Policy Group to have most favourable policies for promoting integration with the explanation that “Sweden’s ‘mainstreaming’ approach works to improve equal opportunities in practice.” 

Yet, in contrast to the Migration Policy Group ranking, data collected from the OECD and Eurostat seem to indicate unfavourable integration outcomes in Sweden, at least in terms of labour market participation. The gap in employment rates between the native and foreign-born population in Sweden widened during the 1990s and has not narrowed significantly since then. The Timbro report concluded that the results, in particular in respect of labour market integration, are ambiguous: “whilst improving language skills, the applied integration policies have done little to improve unemployment rates of the foreign-born and the introduction programme has the negative effect of delaying entry into the labour market.  Still, the labour market measures that have been applied on an increasing scale in recent years (such as work placement and job subsidies) seem to work”. Similarly, a 2010 paper by Professor Pieter Bevelander of Malmö University argued that much of the immigrant population has not integrated into the Swedish mainstream: “Although intentions are good, both the employment integration and the voting participation by immigrants are substantially lower than for native Swedes and this questions the effectiveness of integration policies.”

Changing opinions

Opinion polls show most Swedes support immigration and that many are more tolerant of foreigners than 20 years ago. Repeated opinion polls show roughly the same thing: most Swedes feel that diversity is positive, that society has benefited from integration and that all residents should have the same rights and obligations regardless of background. The attitudes towards immigration among different party sympathisers remain quite stable; Green Party and Left Party voters are the most positive to refugee immigration, while the Sweden Democrats voters are by far the most negative (94 per cent want Sweden to accept fewer refugees).

Even so, resentment is growing. Swedish public opinion has never been entirely coherent with the multicultural integration policies. Most Swedes also feel that immigrants should adapt to Swedish society, and they draw sharp distinctions between different groups of immigrants concerning their ability to do so. A large group of Swedes feels sceptical about Islam, and associates Muslims with the oppression of women.While the majority of Swedes still welcome immigration, the Sweden Democrats has advanced in voter surveys from five per cent in the last election to nearly 10 per cent in 2013 (surveys indicate that the party may have a ceiling of support at between 10 and 15 per cent). Party Leader Jimmie Åkesson’s aim is to reduce immigration by 90 per cent and around 20 per cent of Swedes now believe the Sweden Democrats have the best immigration policy, according to an opinion poll by Novus.

Also, interestingly, according to a recent study, Swedes have a more favourable opinion of immigration to Sweden than they do of the actual integration process. The 2013 Transatlantic Trends Survey by the German Marshall Fund, published this month, indicated that Swedes have a much more positive reaction to immigration than other Europeans: 82 per cent of Swedes believed that immigrants enrich the nation’s culture, compared to 60 per cent in Europe. Just over half of Swedes surveyed said that they did not find immigrants to be a “burden on social services”, and 74 per cent adding that immigrants actually help create jobs when starting new businesses. While the survey indicated a strong positive reaction towards immigration, it showed concerns as to how immigrants integrate and a lack of faith in the government’s immigration policies. 61 per cent of Swedes responded first-generation immigrants were integrating poorly, and 43 per cent said that second generation immigration was poor. In addition, 64 per cent had concerns about how the government was handling immigration issues. Anna Jardfelt, Director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs commented on the report and found it  “… quite fascinating to see that while we are the most favourable towards immigration, we have quite serious worries on integration. We are open to people actually coming to Sweden, but are concerned about how they integrate. Elsewhere in Europe, especially around the southern end, people are more reticent about immigration and more open to integration – completely the other way around.”


In recent years, the integration of immigrants has moved to the top of the policy agenda. Sweden is seeing the most intense debate on immigration in its political history, and integration and immigration will be one of the main political issues in the future. The Husby riots suggest a divided country trying to come to grips with a changing socio-political landscape. Immigration is at a record high and the xenophobic Sweden Democrats is polling around 10 per cent. At the same time, maybe as testament to Sweden’s history of tolerance, there has also been a backlash against anti-immigration sentiments. Earlier this year, evening tabloid Aftonbladet ran a campaign called “We like difference”. The revelation that Swedish police tried to track illegal immigrants by randomly asking foreign looking people to show their ID-cards caused a public outcry. And this month’s exposé by daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter that the police have been systematically racial profiling Roma is continuing to top the news – Swedish Liberal Party MEP Cecilia Wikström has called on the responsible commissioner to investigate.

Why then this enigma of increased resentment toward immigration and the entry into the political establishment by the Sweden Democrats and, at the same time, the strong backlash against racism and anti-immigrant sentiments? Professor Andreas Johansson Heinö offers an explanation: “What we tend to forget is that Sweden is neither politically, economically or culturally an optimal immigrant country. We have labour and housing markets for insiders, we are a nation united by a thick layer of identity-bearing markers and we’ve historically had limited experience with multiculturalism. Rather than racism, Sweden is characterised by a norm of conformity: the unspoken expectation that immigrants should adapt and Swedes’ lack of cultural self-awareness that creates uncertainty when we encounter other cultures, a lack of humility before other perspectives about progress and modernity. This is a harmful cultural norm that creates obstacles to equal integration. But it is not necessarily racism.”

Note: This is a shortened version of the original article, which was published in the October 2013 edition of the Monthly Policy Review. Footnotes and graphs are only available in the subscriber version of this article.


Mundus News