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Trials of a role model

Sweden does an about-face on refugee policy

by Patrik Öhberg and Elin Naurin

10_refugee-boatSweden has long taken great pride in welcoming refugees. Most recently, it was the first EU country to grant all asylum seekers from Syria permanent residency. Between 2013 and 2016 Sweden received approximately 320,000 asylum seekers – more refugees per capita than any other OECD country.1 Half of these arrived in 2015 alone.

Even Sweden, ultimately, could not absorb such numbers, and by the end of that year it was forced to completely change its policies, to bring numbers down to the EU minimum. Today Sweden no longer claims, nor indeed aspires, to have a generous refugee system. The new policies not only make it harder for refugees to stay in Sweden but also undercut the Swedish narrative as a country that can combine generous refugee policies and economic prosperity without aggravating anti-immigrant sentiment. Instead, Sweden has reduced refugee intake, has borrowed money despite an economic upturn and faces an anti-immigrant party with neo-Nazi roots that has climbed to third place in parliament.

Effectively, Sweden is no longer the role model it would like to be. This is difficult for Swedes to accept. A generous asylum system fits the Swedish narrative of being a humanitarian superpower. In recent years, its expression has taken the form of showing that an efficient welfare state is compatible with generosity towards refugees. Swedish leaders made it clear that they would not go down the path of Denmark and Norway and restrict the entry of refugees. Unlike them, Sweden would not give in to populist demands. Initially, this seemed to work. Both Denmark and Norway, but not Sweden, had anti-immigrant, right-wing populists in their parliaments.2 If the elite makes concessions to anti-immigration sentiments by implementing strict immigration policies, the argument went, the populists will get wind in their sails and appear respectable in the public eye. Swedes could be proud that they had a strong economy, a welcoming attitude toward refugees and no anti-immigrant parties in their parliament.

It turns out, however, that welcoming so many refugees did not reflect majority sentiment. In the yearly public opinion surveys done by the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg, citizens have been asked whether Sweden should accept fewer refugees. Ever since the question was first asked in 1988, more people agreed than disagreed with “accept fewer.”3 This had no effect on MPs: the overwhelming majority remained committed to receiving more refugees. The dissonance had no political ramifications, since none of the established parties made it an issue.

All this changed when the anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), entered Parliament in 2010. All of a sudden a party successfully exploited the division between politicians and citizens on the sensitive issue of immigration. One might expect that one or more of the established parties would have adapted their policies to appeal to concerned voters. But given the Sweden Democrats’ roots in neo-Nazi movements, to side with them on immigration was problematic. Such an adjustment would clash directly with the narrative of Sweden as a role model.

From the beginning the modus operandi was to treat the Sweden Democrats as pariahs and refuse to give them a platform. When SD entered parliament in 2010, its deputies were totally isolated. There are anecdotes about cancelled Christmas parties for the administrative staff and restructuring of the parliament so that MPs wouldn’t risk even meeting their SD colleagues. Collaboration in committees was unthinkable for any of the other parties.

The minority centre-right government instead made a deal on immigration with the Green Party, whereby the already liberal policies towards immigrants became even more liberal. The political establishment sent a clear message: the Sweden Democrats cannot change liberal Swedish policies on immigration, so voting for them was useless. The message, however, was not heeded. In the 2014 national election, the Sweden Democrats doubled their share of votes (from 6 to 13 per cent) to become the third largest party.

The Conservative Party more or less lost what the Sweden Democrats had gained. In the aftermath of the 2014 election the Social Democrats under Stefan Löfven formed a minority coalition with the Green Party. There was an understanding with the opposition that the SD would have no input on policy. So the message from the electorate – it’s time to talk about Sweden’s refugee policies – was again ignored.

The Sweden Democrats decided to make yet more noise. Their party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, texted to his staff, “Give ‘em hell.” Instead of presenting their own budget, SD supported the alternative budget of the four opposition parties (now called the Alliance for Sweden), allowing that budget to pass. The Social Democratic–Green government found itself in the unprecedented situation of having to govern the country under the opposition’s budget.4

As these events unfolded, the number of refugees coming to Sweden’s borders constantly increased. As all asylum seekers from Syria were now granted permanent residency, it was evident already during the 2014 election campaign that Sweden was about to receive a record number of refugees. During the campaign then–Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt pleaded with Swedes “to open their hearts,” welcome refugees and make the necessary economic sacrifices because a large influx of refugees would limit the scope for new reforms.5 Löfven called it unworthy to pit the cost for refugees against welfare reforms. A humanitarian role model should not stoop to talking about money and volume when people are in distress.

To curb the success of the anti-immigrant party, the political elite developed a joint strategy. Refugees should not be discussed in a way that could benefit the Sweden Democrats. Refugee policies were based on humanitarian values and international law. To question them amounted to lowering moral standards and, in the end, joining with the neo-Nazis. This narrative was widely accepted among journalists as well as politicians. Swedish politicians and journalists talked about the refugees benefiting the Swedish economy, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of new arrivals were from agricultural countries with poor education systems. In effect, they were making claims that confused open immigration with the point system that exists in Australia and Canada.

There was a price to be paid for such a stance. When Swedes were asked about the extent to which they agreed with the statement “Swedish media do not tell the truth about the social problems associated with immigration,” a clear majority, 60 per cent, agreed. The majority of Swedes were coming to distrust what their elites were telling them. With 80,000 asylum seekers arriving in Sweden in 2014, up from 60,000 the year before, the government had to borrow money, even though Sweden’s economy was doing really well and the unemployment rate was only 4 per cent.

The cost of hosting refugees was increasing. There were also severe problems integrating the newcomers. Today, more than half of all Swedish unemployed were born outside Sweden. Among refugees who have been in Sweden for at least 15 years, only 34 per cent have full-time jobs. Yet, the politicians kept insisting that Sweden had to set an example. In an oft-cited speech, Stefan Löfven told a gathering in September 2015, “We shall never build walls to separate humans from humans … My Europe receives people who flee from war. My Europe does not build walls. That is the Sweden we are proud of.”6 Just two months later, Löfven called a press conference with a different message:

We have taken 80,000 refugees in the last two months, and that is not sustainable for the society. We can no longer handle receiving asylum seekers at the high level we are doing today … Swedish legislation will now conform to the EU minimum level. The legislative changes made to adapt our laws to the EU minimum shall apply for a period of three years.7

The context of this policy reversal was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s late August decision not to abide by the Dublin Regulation’s requirement to send refugees back to the first EU country in which they arrived.8 With her decision, asylum seekers could now move through Europe as they wished, and Sweden was receiving up to 10,000 refugees per week.9 Train stations became refugee camps; migrants lived in tents. It was obvious that policies had to change. Sweden had to abandon its “humanitarian superpower” status. No longer would it send out the “refugees welcome” message that had led so many to travel across Europe until they reached the Swedish border.

The Swedish government now stated that, for a period of three years, no permanent residency would be awarded and no family reunion would be granted unless the refugee had permanent residency. Identity control on the Swedish borders was implemented, a major shift that required exceptional EU regulations.10 Sweden will soon implement medical age assessment of asylum seekers.

The new policies were very controversial, even within the government and especially for the Green Party. In opposition, the Green Party had collaborated on open immigration polices with the Alliance for Sweden. In supporting the changes announced by Prime Minister Löfven, the Green Party leader, Åsa Romson, burst into tears. Later, she resigned and the party took a major hit in the opinion polls.

The most controversial innovaton was probably to test the age of applicants. On the assumption that asylum seekers had little incentive to lie about their age, it had been assumed that those who claimed to be children (90 per cent of whom were boys or young men) were telling the truth. The general practice had been to question only asylum seekers who looked over 40 years old. In more normal years, when several hundred unaccompanied minors came to Sweden, this was not a serious issue. But in 2015 more than 35,000 asylum seekers entered Sweden claiming to be unaccompanied minors – 40 per cent of all unaccompanied minors who entered EU countries.11 The requirements that had to be met for hosting children seeking asylum were expensive. The various services cost as much as the entire Swedish legal system (police, courts and public prosecutors).

Almost 70 per cent of all asylum seekers are men, and the gender gap has lately become an issue. For the first time in Swedish history, there are more men than women in the population. Several international scholars warned Sweden about the potential problem this could create.12 No one knows how to deal with the challenge of many young men who are socially segregated and entirely unprepared for a knowledge-based economy.

Differences between the elite and the public are not rare in democracies. But in Sweden the political elite has largely ignored it, and the divergence persists. One consequence was that citizens who wanted changes in immigration and refugee policy had little choice other than to vote for the Sweden Democrats. Moreover, since the political elite defined the matter as “humanity” versus “inhumanity,”questions about costs and the consequences of a very large influx of low-skilled immigrants into a modern economy were rarely discussed. The objective of opposing the anti-immigrant populists overshadowed the need to prepare for the serious challenges posed by integrating the newcomers – housing, employment, education results and more.

While the flow of new arrivals has slowed in the last few months, the challenge of integration remains. Today foreign journalists come to Sweden and report on these problems, on riots in the suburbs, on deteriorating school performance and so on. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau has been praised internationally for accepting 25,000 carefully selected Syrian refugees. Sweden, with one quarter the population of Canada, has since 2013 taken four times as many refugees – ones who arrived at the Swedish border, not refugees selected by Swedish immigration officials with an eye to their potential for integration.

It’s not easy being a role model.

1   Statistics atökande+2000-2015+samtliga+medborgarskap.pdf; OECD, International Migration Outlook 2014 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014).

2 See Danish-Swedish Refugee Debate with English Subtitles, retrieved from

3 See Henrik Oscarsson and Annika Bergström, eds., Swedish Trends 1986–2015 (Gothenburg, Sweden: University of Gothenburg, SOM Institute, 2015), p. 50, retrieved from

4 A summary of this incident can be found in Damien Bol, Annika Fredén, Elina Lindgren and Patrik Öhberg, “Sweden: An Unprecedented Crisis in a (Lost?) Political Stability Heaven,” Making Electoral Democracy Work, December 15, 2014, retrieved from; the fallout is described in Damien Bol, Patrik Öhberg and Annika Fredén, “Like Turkey not Voting for Christmas: Why Sweden Cancelled the Snap Election,” Making Electoral Democracy Work, February 12, 2015, retrieved from

5 “Reinfeldt Calls for Tolerance to Refugees,” The Local, August 16, 2014, retrieved from

6 “Swedish PM: ‘My Europe Takes in Refugees,’” The Local, September 6, 2015, retrieved from

7 David Crouch, “Sweden Slams Shut Its Open Door Towards Refugees,” The Guardian, November 24, 2015, retrieved from

8 The EU’s Dublin Regulation forces refugees to seek asylum in the European country they first arrive in, and they are not allowed to send their applications to different countries.

9 “Weekly Asylum Claims Top 10,000 in Sweden,” The Local, November 9, 2015, retrieved from

10 One of the cornerstones of the EU is that residents of the union’s member states can move freely within the territory of the union.

11 Eurostat, “Almost 90 000 Unaccompanied Minors Among Asylum Seekers Registered in the EU in 2015,” press release, May 2, 2016, retrieved from

12 Valerie Hudson, “Europe’s Man Problem: Migrants to Europe Skew Heavily Male – and That’s Dangerous,” Politico Magazine, January 5, 2016, retrieved from


Elin Naurin is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. 

Patrik Öhberg is a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Political science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.


About the Author

Patrik Öhberg
Patrik Öhberg is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.


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