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The interests of immigrants first

Can Sweden maintain its generous refugee policy and its generous welfare state?

by Elin Naurin and Patrik Öhberg

In the early summer of 2013, the Stockholm suburb of Husby attracted international attention. Cars on fire, shattered glass and riot police out in force evoked headlines all over the world. Government authorities in the United States and Britain went so far as to warn their citizens not to go to these areas.

The riots continued for almost a week and spread to other areas. And it was not the first time that suburbs in peaceful and friendly Sweden had been struck by violence. There has been much discussion about the cause of these actions. Not surprisingly the answer you get depends on whom you ask. From the left, voices proclaim that Sweden has become a class society, tainted by structural racism, while the centre-right, now in power, insists that it is a matter of getting young people to enter the labour market. For their part, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats say that the riots prove their claim that there are too many immigrants in Sweden from countries with different values.

In the international media, commentators ask whether the riots will undermine Sweden’s strong welfare state. Writing on June 1, Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente put it this way: “As Swedes redistribute more and more of their wealth to people whose habits are culturally alien, and who are permanently dependent on the state, the immigration consensus is bound to crack.”

Is Wente right? Is it possible to have a generous refugee policy and at the same time a generous welfare state? In what follows we try to shed some light on the choices confronting Sweden today. We draw some comparison with policies in Canada, a welfare state with high levels of immigration, but one that turns out to be quite different from Sweden in some key areas.

An open door to refugees

During the 1950s and 1960s, Sweden had a large influx of immigrants from abroad. A booming Swedish economy needed workers. But with the economic decline in the 1970s, the numbers of immigrants with work permits dropped sharply. By the end of the decade, economic immigration had effectively stopped, coming to be replaced by an open door to immigrants with refugee status. Sweden has thus become one of the most – perhaps the most – generous among OECD countries when it comes to admission of refugees. During the war in Iraq, Södertälje, a middle-sized Swedish city just south of Stockholm, welcomed more Iraqi refugees than Canada and the United States combined.

In contrast, Canada, although generous toward refugees when compared to most countries other than Sweden, has maintained its emphasis on labour market–based immigration.

The web page of Canada’s Economic Action Plan states that the “Government has pursued reforms to focus Canada’s immigration system on fuelling economic prosperity for Canada. The Government has placed top priority on attracting immigrants who have the skills and experience our economy needs.”

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About the Author

Elin Naurin
Elin Naurin is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She is currently a visting professor at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, Department of Political Science, McGill University.




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