Sweden: Restrictive Immigration Policy and Multiculturalism
By Charles Westin
Centre for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations
Sweden is the largest of the Nordic countries by size and population. With a population of nine million it is one of the smaller members of the European Union (EU), which it joined in 1995. Sweden industrialized at the end of the 19th century, and by the mid-20th century was known for combining a liberal market economy with state-run welfare policies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the recruitment of immigrant labor was essential for generating the tax-base required for the expansion of the public sector.
Most immigration in the 1950s and 1960s was from neighboring Nordic countries, with the largest numbers coming from Finland. However, since the early 1970s, immigration has consisted mainly of refugee migration and family reunification from non-European countries in the Middle East and Latin America. In the 1990s, Sweden received thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Currently, about 12 percent of Sweden's population is foreign born.
A number of social indicators show that people of migrant origin have considerably higher rates of unemployment than native Swedes and that they are more heavily dependent on social welfare benefits. Labor immigration is not and will not be accepted from non-EU countries in this situation.
The Hanseatic League, founded in the 12th century and centered in the German port of Lübeck, dominated trade in the Baltic and North Sea region until the late 16th century. The Swedish cities of Visby and Stockholm soon became important links in the Hanseatic trading network. German burghers settled in these towns, making German the leading language in Stockholm for several hundred years. The German presence had an immense impact on urban development in the Middle Ages, and it also significantly affected the development of the Swedish language.
As a major European power during the 17th century, Sweden ruled over a territory that included modern-day Finland and parts of Norway. Danes, Estonians, Finns, Germans, Latvians, Norwegians, Russians, and Saami (indigenous people of northern Scandinavia) inhabited territories that had been incorporated through conquest into the kingdom.
The kingdom allowed, and, in some cases, forced people to move from one region to another. In the 17th century, Finnish slash-and-burn peasants were relocated to the sparsely populated regions of central Sweden. These Finnish peasants maintained the Finnish language for almost 250 years. People from the Baltic countries also relocated within the state. A professional elite of smiths and foundry-workers were recruited from Wallonia in southern Belgium to develop the iron and steel industry. These immigrants were immensely important to Sweden's early industrial development.
In wars with Russia that took place during the 18th and early 19th centuries, Sweden lost Finland and was reduced to a small, insignificant country in northern Europe. By the mid-19th century, the population had grown dramatically due to important land reforms, general improvements in living conditions, and sanitation in the cities.
Several bad harvests within a few years resulted in a famine, which hit the rural population of southern Sweden. This in turn triggered a wave of emigration to North America that lasted until 1930, with many Swedes settling in the Midwestern United States, particularly Minnesota and Illinois. From the United States, some Swedes moved on to Canada's central provinces. More than one million people migrated to North America, about one-quarter of the population.
At about the same time, there was a smaller wave of emigration from southern Sweden to Denmark, which was then the more affluent country and in need of rural labor.
Sweden did not become a country of immigration again until World War II. The modern era of immigration can be divided into four distinct stages, with each stage representing different types of immigrants and immigration:
1) Refugees from neighboring countries (1938 to 1948)
As a result of these differing flows, the once-dominant Scandinavians, who composed well over half of Sweden's foreign-born population in 1960, made up only one-fourth of the foreign born in 2004 (see Table 1). A significant number of foreign born today are from the former Yugoslavia and, to a lesser extent, Iraq and Iran.
2) Labor immigration from Finland and southern Europe (1949 to 1971)
3) Family reunification and refugees from developing countries (1972 to 1989)
4) Asylum seekers from southeastern and Eastern Europe (1990 to present) and the free movement of EU citizens within the European Union.
Table 1. Number of Foreign-Born Permanent Residents in Sweden from Principal Sending Countries, 1960 to 2004
|Country of origin
|Percentage foreign born
Source: Befolkningsstatistik 2004. Örebro: Statistics Sweden, 2005.
The first stage (1938 to 1948) spans the period just before and after World War II. Before the war, Jews from Nazi Germany sought asylum in Sweden. Although a few were accepted, the majority were rejected due to anti-semitism and discriminatory racial ideology prevalent in Sweden at that time. Afraid of the rise in anti-semitism, leaders of the Jewish community in Sweden supported a restrictive asylum policy. The most important reason that many Jews were rejected was due to the fact that the Swedish government strove to avoid conflict with Nazi Germany.
During the war, thousands of people from neighboring countries sought asylum in Sweden. Finnish children were evacuated to Sweden at the time of the Soviet attack in 1939. During the German occupation of Denmark and Norway, Jews and threatened members of the resistance fled to Sweden. At first there was some reluctance to accept these foreigners but fairly soon they were generally accepted and even welcomed. These refugees were given work in factories, agriculture, and forestry to replace the tens of thousands of Swedish men who were called up for national defense service.
Toward the end of the war, people fled from Estonia and Latvia, crossing the Baltic in small vessels. Some 30,000 Estonians and 5,000 Latvians remained in Sweden after the war. About 30,000 survivors from Nazi concentration camps were resettled in Sweden between 1945 and 1948. The Swedish government had no established organization to integrate these refugees into society so those who came had to make it on their own. Since labor was in great demand, these refugees did not create any major societal problems.
The second phase (1949 to 1971) represents the virtually free entry of labor immigrants from Finland and southern Europe at a time when many Western European countries were also seeking workers. By the end of the 1940s, the Swedish export industry flourished, and companies started to recruit foreign labor. In 1954, the Nordic countries set up a common labor market, which enabled large-scale migration from Finland to Sweden during the 1950s and 1960s. A total of 550,000 Finns migrated to Sweden during this time period.
Companies also turned to Yugoslavia (approximately 60,000 labor migrants) and Greece (approximately 20,000) for manpower, initiating a substantial migration from these countries. The flow of immigrants peaked in 1970 (see Table 2). Sweden did not set up a guest worker program like the German Federal Republic or Switzerland in order to meet labor demands. Unlike other Western European countries, Sweden had a policy of permanent immigration that treated these labor migrants as future citizens.
Table 2. Flows of Immigrants and Emigrants, 1949 to 1971
Note: The emigration column mainly consists of migrants returning to their country of origin. The share of native Swedish emigrants was quite large in the late 1940s and early 1950s but had dropped to a rather insignificant level by the mid-1950s.
Source: Statistics Sweden: Population Statistics.
The government cooperated closely with the LO (the Swedish trade union confederation) on the issue of recruiting labor from abroad. They agreed that importing cheap labor would not be allowed and that foreign workers were to enjoy the same wage levels and rights as Swedes, including access to unemployment benefits. Recruitment of foreign labor was only possible as long as the LO accepted it.
Besides the recruitment of foreign labor carried out by major industrial companies, an increasing number of migrants started to come to Sweden in the 1960s on their own accord to find jobs. As long as people found jobs, they did not create a problem. Yet, the authorities were unaware of these growing flows in the early 1960s. In 1967, existing legal provisions in the immigration law were applied consistently to slow down migration to Sweden that was not sponsored by recruiting companies. Many Western European countries began to consider curbing labor migration in the early 1970s, with most programs stopping around the time of the 1973 oil crisis. Sweden officially ended labor migration from non-Nordic countries in 1972.
Asylum seekers from developing countries and flows of their family members characterize Sweden's third phase of immigration (1972 to 1989).
Before this period, Sweden became a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, in 1951 and 1967 respectively. Individuals who managed to escape from the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact countries were readily granted permanent residence. In conjunction with the 1956 Budapest uprising, thousands of Hungarians were accepted. Similarly, in 1968, when Prague was taken over by Soviet tanks, thousands of Czech refugees were granted residence.
During the 1950s and 1960s, those granted refugee status were placed within the same general framework as labor migrants. The National Board of Labor was responsible for their resettlement. All of this changed when labor migration was stopped. Refugee status became important as grounds for permanent residence.
The first non-European refugees Sweden accepted were the Ugandan Asians expelled in 1972 by Idi Amin, whose Africanization policies stripped Asians of their citizenship. Of the 70,000 forced to leave, half were British Protected Persons who were accepted by the UK. The other half were former Ugandan citizens made stateless. The United States and Canada accepted young, well-educated persons. Others were resettled in various European countries; approximately 1,000 came to Sweden.
The following year, some 5,000 refugees from Chile were accepted after the coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. In total, Sweden accepted 18,000 Chilean refugees between 1973 and 1989. Approximately 6,000 refugees from Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru also came to Sweden.
During the 1970s and 1980s, many refugees came from the Middle East. Christian Orthodox Syrians sought asylum on the grounds of religious persecution. The Kurds were another salient group, emigrating from Eastern Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. By far, the largest groups from the Middle East were from Iran and Iraq; the Iranians arrived in the 1980s as a consequence of the war against Iraq and in opposition to the Islamic government in Tehran. Kurdish Iraqis started to arrive in the 1990s in response to increasing oppression from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Many of these people were granted asylum on humanitarian grounds. This allowed the immigration authorities to appease liberal critics who felt that Sweden was not doing enough to live up to its commitments to the UN. By not recognizing these asylum seekers as UN Convention refugees, they did not enjoy the full rights to protection as written in the convention. Instead, Swedish authorities interpreted "humanitarian grounds" without having to follow international conventions. Consequently, the authorities could change their interpretations if necessary.
When labor recruitment from non-Nordic countries was stopped in 1972, the number of new immigrants dropped considerably. However, refugees and their family members (spouses, minors, and, in some cases, elderly parents) were still accepted for permanent residence. Over time, in a process known as chain migration, the number of immigrants increased per year as those established in Sweden sponsored family members.
The increasing flow of refugees prompted the government to rule that political asylum applications filed in December 1989 or later would be treated strictly in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention; humanitarian grounds for asylum would no longer be used. This marks the beginning of the fourth and most recent stage (1990 to present) of immigration to Sweden.
The timing of stricter asylum policy coincided with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. According to Statistics Sweden, the country received 208,700 asylum seekers between 1989 and 1993, of which 115,900 (56 percent) were from the former Yugoslavia and 43,000 (21 percent) were from the Middle East. Initially, practically all applications were approved.
By 1993, the number of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Kosovo had grown so large that the government introduced visa requirements for persons coming from the former Yugoslavia. Since there was public support for assisting refugees from the Balkans, 50,000 asylum seekers (mainly from Bosnia-Herzegovina) were granted temporary residence without having their individual cases tried.
Today, immigrants continue to come from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo through family reunification provisions. At the same time, asylum seekers have continued to come from Iraq, particularly since the US invasion in 2003.
When Sweden joined the European Union (EU) in 1995, it also agreed to allow other EU citizens to work and live in Sweden. In 1996, Sweden became a party to the Schengen agreement, which allows for free movement of people across all Member States. Most cross-border movement affecting Sweden is from (and to) neighboring Nordic countries although Germany sends the most labor migrants. In relation to the EU-15 (except Denmark and Finland) migration from Sweden has frequently been slightly greater than migration to Sweden, but the numbers of EU immigrants are small in comparison to non-European immigration.
In May 2004, when 10 countries joined the EU, Sweden was one of only three existing Member States (along with the UK and Ireland) that agreed to allow citizens of the eight, new Eastern European Member States to work without formally requesting a permit; the others introduced provisional regulations to monitor migration flows. Prime Minister Göran Persson spoke in favor of Sweden introducing such regulations, but the government did not find parliamentary support for this policy.
While the UK and Ireland have seen significant flows from Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and some other new Members States, Sweden has experienced little such migration for various reasons. Trade unions have been able to keep out cheap labor, having succeeded in stopping a Latvian construction company, for example, from fulfilling a contract by demanding that the Latvian workers be paid Swedish, not Latvian, salaries. Also, Sweden has few job openings in such fields as building and construction, manufacturing, electronic engineering, and education.
Key Census Categories and Recent Flow Numbers
Sweden does not register religion, ethnicity, or race as categories in its census. The official key categories are country of birth, citizenship, and parents' citizenship(s). Ethnicity or national identity of an immigrant group may sometimes be inferred from this information, but in most cases it is problematic and may lead to erroneous conclusions.
For example, immigrants from Turkey may be ethnic Turks, Kurds, or Syrians. While ethnic Turks are Muslim and speak Turkish, the Syrians are a Christian Orthodox minority who speak an Aramaic language. The Kurds are Muslim and speak Kurmancî, a language related to Persian but not to Turkish. Both the Syrian (24,000) and Kurdish (40,000) communities in Sweden are larger than the ethnic Turkish community (11,000). Ethnicity is not registered in the census so these figures are estimates. The Syriani also come from Lebanon and Syria, and Kurds from Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
In 2004, Sweden had a net loss of migrants in relation to the Nordic countries and a net gain in relation to the EU-25 (excluding the Nordic Member States). This immigration, as well as that from the Americas, was predominantly labor related. Other European migration, mainly driven by family reunification, was from the states of the former Yugoslavia, Romania, and other former Soviet states. Immigration from Africa and Asia consisted of both family reunification but also, especially in the case of Iraq, refugees (see Table 3).
Table 3. Immigration and Emigration Flows by Region of Origin, 2004
|EU-25 (except Nordic countries)
|The rest of Europe
|North and South America
Note: Immigration refers in this table to persons who receive permanent or temporary residence in the country. Emigration refers to persons who leave the country on more than a temporary basis.
Source: Statistics Sweden, Population Statistics 2005.
Asylum seekers in 2003 and 2004 mainly came from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkish Kurdistan in the Middle East. Smaller numbers came from Somalia and various other states of the Horn of Africa and West Africa. Asylum seekers have also come from Serbia Montenegro (mainly Albanians from Kosovo), Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Russia (see Table 4).
Table 4. Asylum Seekers by Country of Citizenship, 2003 and 2004
||Asylum seekers arriving in 2003 and 2004
||Asylum seekers registered with the Swedish Migration Board*
|Rest of Europe
|Rest of Africa
|Rest of Asia
|Rest of the world
Note: *These persons arrived in previous years but their applications were being processed by the Migration Board in 2003 and 2004.
Source: Statistics Sweden. Populations Statistics.
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.
However, in 1975, Parliament endorsed an integration policy based on the need to deal with labor migrants from southern Europe. A radical break with the earlier laissez-faire system, the policy was condensed into three principal objectives: equality, freedom of choice, and partnership. Immigrants residing permanently in Sweden were to enjoy the same rights as Swedish citizens (equality), including access to the welfare system. In private life, they could decide whether they wished to assimilate or maintain their distinct native culture (freedom of choice). This also meant targeted language support for immigrant children. Whatever their preference, it should not conflict with essential Swedish values and norms (partnership). Partnership implied, among other things, voting rights in local and county elections.
By the time this policy came into effect, labor immigration from non-Nordic countries had ceased and the majority of migrants were refugees from developing countries. Consequently, integration programs faced difficult organizational problems, such as recruiting qualified language teachers.
The Board of Labor was responsible for managing refugee integration from World War II until 1984. However, in 1985, the Board of Immigration took over. It developed an ambitious program of integration built on the pillars of language and vocational training, dispersal to a large number of towns with available housing, and municipal responsibility for implementing the integration programs. Municipalities were to receive subsidies from the state in relation to the number of refugees they agreed to accept.
The program was not a success. It generated social welfare dependency among refugees because they were allocated to parts of the country with few available jobs and high rates of unemployment among native Swedes. As numbers of asylum seekers increased, the Board of Migration faced great difficulties finding municipalities that would accept more refugees than they already had taken on. Refugees who had been placed in a municipality were not allowed to move elsewhere because the municipality would lose its subsidy.
In the 1990s, the refugee integration program was revised to allow greater flexibility in management. Refugees were also allowed to decide where they would like to live. This has meant a greater pressure on the major cities with their much stronger labor markets.
The fundamental principles of the 1975 integration policy still apply although the terminology has changed. The concept of diversity was introduced in the 1990s because integration was no longer regarded as a unilateral process of incorporating immigrants into mainstream society but a process of mutual adjustment and adaptation of migrant minorities and mainstream ethnic Swedes.
Since citizenship is based on the ius sanguinis principle, children born in Sweden to non-Swedish parents are not automatically entitled to Swedish citizenship. However, immigrants and their children are encouraged to naturalize and the requirements are not restrictive. Requirements for naturalization are five years of permanent residence in Sweden; refugees need four years while Nordic citizens need just two years.
Although Sweden does not require potential citizens to pass a language test, immigrants who have been sentenced to prison for a criminal offense are not allowed to naturalize. Applications are submitted to the Board of Immigration. In many cities, the local authorities organize an annual welcoming ceremony.
In popular discourse, "immigrant" no longer refers to a process of migration but to persons of non-Nordic origin. For many years, authorities used the term "second-generation immigrant" to refer to children born in Sweden of parents who migrated to the country. Legitimate questions have been raised about how long one must remain an immigrant in Swedish society. Today, authorities avoid the term "immigrant," using instead "persons of migrant origin" in official discourse. A policy of diversity management was introduced some years back in order to counteract tendencies of social exclusion and stereotyping. More teeth have also been put in to the previously rather weak laws on ethnic discrimination.
As yet, there are no indications that naturalization policy may become more restrictive. However, there are indications that the traditional jus sanguinis principle (the conferral of citizenship to persons with a citizen parent or parents, or blood) may be complemented with the jus soli principle (the conferral of citizenship to persons born in the state's territory, or soil) so that children born in the country will have the option of Swedish citizenship.
Dual citizenship has been accepted only in recent years. For democratic reasons, Sweden was opposed to dual citizenship, believing that a person should only be entitled to vote for one national parliament. However, this stand proved to be untenable with increasing globalization. It was also argued that people should be entitled to vote for national parliament in the country to which they pay their taxes and where they lived. Since some countries will not allow their citizens to give up their citizenship, the only reasonable solution was for Sweden to grant dual citizenship.
Current Policy Discussions
For quite a long time, the government has been concerned about unemployment levels among the foreign born as compared to natives of the country, higher levels of social-welfare dependency among people of migrant origin, segregation indices, dropping participation in local elections, school dropouts, crime rates, etc.
The diversity policy that was introduced in the 1990s did not result in any obvious improvements. Thus, the government set up a commission in 2001 to investigate migrant communities' access to power and influence.
In 2003, however, two members of the commission's scientific committee publicly criticized the commission, claiming it discriminated against its non-Swedish members. The government discontinued the commission and set up a new commission to investigate integration in relation to structural discrimination.
The new commission consists of two researchers and a secretariat, but above all, it has been in a position to engage a large number of independent researchers for specific studies and tasks. Most of the researchers are young post-docs in sociology, economics, anthropology, and political science; a large share are of immigrant background. One of the critics, University of Uppsala ethnic studies professor Masoud Kamali (born in Iran), was appointed chair of the new commission.
This new commission has clearly adopted a post-colonial theoretical perspective. In its report released in 2005, it proposed introducing affirmative action on a broad scale to counteract structural discrimination. Affirmative action, the commission stated, should not only apply to ethnic or migrant minorities but also to other social categories. The commission even proposed that categories of people in a low socioeconomic position (including native Swedes) should enjoy the benefits of affirmative action.
However, the commission has not been able to pinpoint the causes of structural discrimination. All the main trade unions and the employers' association have jointly repudiated the policy proposal. Members of the non-socialist opposition parties, who on the whole are more favorably inclined to labor migration, have criticized the government for encouraging the production of ideological discourse rather than seriously determining the facts, analyzing the problems, and developing feasible strategies to deal with the shortcomings.
Political Debates Around Immigration
With national elections set for September 2006, several immigration-related debates beyond structural discrimination are taking place.
In 2005, attention was brought to the way in which immigration authorities deport asylum-seeking families whose young children exhibit what psychiatrists call pervasive refusal syndrome (a profound and pervasive refusal to eat, drink, talk, walk, and engage in any form of self-care). Deporting these families goes against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Sweden has ratified.
Beyond these types of deportations, the country's exceptionally restrictive immigration and asylum policies have been criticized by the Red Cross, Save the Children, and the Swedish Church. Together with Swedish Pen (an organization of writers, authors, and journalists who defend the freedom of the press) these organizations hosted a "tribunal" in the fall of 2005 to shift public opinion toward more open policies.
The current Social Democratic government's restrictive approach is meant to appease anti-immigrant opinion with the goal of preventing the rise of a popular protest party with anti-immigration politics as its principal platform. Yet the government must balance this with the political support it depends on from the Green Party and the Left Party, both of which disdain the ongoing erosion of humanitarian asylum and refugee policies.
Issues on the Horizon
Sweden, like all countries in Western Europe, is facing an aging population and low birth rates. It is reasonable to believe that Sweden will have to rethink its immigration policy in the not-too-distant future and to accept low-skilled labor immigration from non-European countries.
Sweden will also have to rethink its self-image as a European nation-state, which is not compatible with the multicultural image Sweden is trying to establish. The notion of "Swedishness" will also need reconsideration in order to become more inclusive.
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