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Asylum Seekers Knocking at Sweden’s Door Test Its History of Warm Welcome


A Syrian family, above, originally from Aleppo resettle in Torsby, a village in Sweden, in early 2014. The family, which first fled to Cairo, had just filed forms for Swedish citizenship and then encountered fast food. Torsby takes in 25 refugees a year. J.BÄVMAN/UNHCR

Far from the first point of entry into Europe for asylum seekers, Sweden has emerged as one of the most generous nations in the European Union, offering to take in high numbers of migrants when other nations have been reluctant to do so. Sweden, with a population of just under 10 million, received 54,300 asylum applications in 2013, the greatest number since 1992, when Kosovar Albanians were fleeing Yugoslavia, and the second-highest in Europe, after Germany.

In fact, Sweden expects more people to swarm to its shores: at least 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which works closely with the government on how Sweden’s refugee quota system will be allotted, Sweden received the most asylum applications per person in the world from 2009 to 2013. This year, the largest group included in the refugee quota — 1,900 resettlement spots — are Syrians and Palestinians from Syria. A total of 600 openings have been reserved for this group for 2014.

The numbers astound: through September this year, 60,146 asylum applications were received by the Swedish Migration Board, and of those about 41,000 were male; 20,000 were female; and 17,000 were children, including 5,000 unaccompanied minors (under 18 years old).

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Not everyone is still welcoming in Sweden. The record demand for asylum seekers has caused a rise in xenophobia and increased support for the Sweden Democrats, a political party committed to cutting immigration numbers. In the parliamentary elections on Sept. 14, the party more than doubled its support to 13 percent, although the moderate Social Democrats stayed in power. The election results reflect a broader trend, as right-wing parties elsewhere in Europe are questioning whether the Schengen Area notion of free movement should be replaced with a more restrictive doctrine.

A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan analysis group based in Washington, D.C., questions whether the free movement toward Sweden benefits the nation’s economy in the long run. It may be thriving now — but for native workers only. Immigrants can get into Sweden but they can’t seem to get up the socioeconomic ladder.

“Sweden is investing a huge amount in immigrant integration, and has been the real integration innovator among European countries,” said Meghan Benton, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “But given the large share of noneconomic migrants [refugees and their families], it faces a huge challenge and is still grappling for answers.”

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Despite Sweden’s generosity toward immigrants, not everyone is successfully integrating into Swedish society, as highlighted in the report from the institute. Large gaps in employment rates hinder full integration, and the level of education among immigrants arriving in Sweden from North Africa and the Middle East is too low for them to contribute productively to the workforce just yet. Sweden also takes in Afghanis, Somalis, Eritreans, Congolese and Colombians, many of whom are residing in second countries, like Congolese refugees who come from camps in Uganda.

The immigration divide in Sweden was on display last year, when a group of immigrants rioted over high unemployment and segregated living policies, a rare occurrence in the staid suburbs of Stockholm, the capital. The images of torched cars and widespread looting in May 2013 altered the perception of Sweden as a nation capable of absorbing immigrants into the country’s well-known social welfare system. Those who rioted in Husby, outside Stockholm, suffered from an unemployment rate of twice the national average, about 14 percent.

To help lower that number, Benton argues that employers have to take on workers from different backgrounds, even though they have fewer skills and face a much steeper learning curve. Benton also thinks that Swedish tax incentives to encourage the creation of jobs at the lower end of the spectrum is an important policy to maintain. The winner of the country’s recent national election, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, has stated that refugees are good for the country, describing them as “people who come into Swedish society to build it together with us.”

Refugees from Aleppo, Syria, describe their escape. Sweden tktkt MOHAMED AZAKIR/WORLD BANK
Sweden received the most asylum applications in the world from 2009 to 2013 and now saves most of its resettlement spots for Syrians and Palestinians from Syria. In January 2014, refugees from Aleppo describe their immediate escape, above, into Lebanon. MOHAMED AZAKIR/WORLD BANK

Sweden has kept a commitment to both humanitarian immigration (refugees and their families) as well as to labor immigration, with noneconomic migration making up the majority of arrivals in Sweden. The migration report, however, said that Sweden’s role as a migration destination has started to backfire. The report suggests that Sweden has been able to fulfill its humanitarian commitment to immigrants but not its economic commitment. Immigrants are constrained to low-skilled jobs, a reflection of their education, which in turn creates barriers to attaining employment among native Swedes with more formal training. If the share of working people in Sweden decreases, some critics worry that the welfare state will be hard to sustain.

The best model, the report says, is to incorporate immigrants into the welfare state and create economic and social opportunities, from housing to education and employment, which decreases the risk of unrest and exclusion as witnessed in Husby. Even with the rise of the Sweden Democrats and the recent political tilt to the right, the report argues that a change in direction is unlikely and Sweden’s humanitarian commitment will remain strong. The notion of free movement, supposedly a unifying force in Europe, has now fractured relationships among countries who say that immigration should be more selective.

These views have been brewing throughout the continent, from France to Italy to Germany, among others. Moreover, only 10 percent of Swedes want a more open immigration policy, according to a poll done by a broadcaster, SVT, in May. The Sweden Democrats have become the third-largest party in the legislature, so the debates about the country’s immigration policies are likely to go on.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Alexander Brotman is the Joseph S. Nye Jr. External Relations Intern with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. in film studies and media and communications from Muhlenberg College. He has worked for State Representative Alice Peisch of Massachusetts, Africa Center in Dublin, Harvard School of Public Health and Amnesty International.

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