Is it useful to compare Canada and Sweden’s policies, as set out in these next two articles, when it comes to taking in refugees? Yes and no. Both countries are relatively rich and open to outsiders. Both have programs in place to integrate newcomers. And both – especially Canada – are relatively sparsely populated. Yet there are crucial differences.

Sweden’s open border policy, as described in the article by Patrik Öhberg and Elin Naurin, resulted in the arrival between 2013 and 2016 of approximately 320,000 asylum seekers – more per capita than any other Western country – including 35,000 unaccompanied minors in 2015 alone, the vast majority of them young males. This for a country of 9.5 million. By contrast Canada, a country of 35 million, had brought in some 33,000 Syrian refugees as of June 2016.1

Sweden has also been per capita one of the biggest exporters of jihadists in Europe – during this period more than 300 people left Sweden to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While it is too early to know if the two are related, reports on the situation of young Muslims in Sweden raise this worrisome possibility.2

In Canada the number of jihadists leaving for the Middle East is negligible. But Sweden is far closer to the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. In her contribution, Julia Smith suggests that Canada’s longstanding efforts at integration in the context of its multiculturalism policies are the explanation of the relative absence of would-be terrorists. But if that is the explanation, then Sweden, which has a wide range of services to assist newcomers to integrate, should have produced far fewer jihadists. Clearly, as Smith recognizes, distance from the terror centres from which refugees flee has enabled Canada to be selective and keep numbers within bounds.

There can be no doubt that Canada is turning out to be effective at integrating a still modest number of asylum seekers. This is best reflected in the fact that there is nothing like the backlash we have seen in much of Europe, and even the United States, which has taken in far fewer refugees than Canada.

The Swedish case is more complex. In the context of rising European anti-refugee sentiments, even in a traditionally welcoming country like neighbouring Denmark, Sweden stands out as especially generous. But Sweden overreached.

In the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Inroads, Patrik Öhberg and Elin Naurin told readers that in Sweden asylum policy was not to be publicly questioned since as “a matter of humanity versus inhumanity” any move to less generous policies toward refugees would be understood as playing into anti-immigrant views and thus legitimizing the populist, nationalist Sweden Democrats. Yet they predicted that while Sweden would continue to have generous refugee policies, the underlying challenge of combining these policies with a strong welfare system would only grow more intense.

For two years numbers continued to rise, placing increased stress on welcoming institutions and generating increasing resistance at the grass roots. Yet nothing changed in policy, or even the willingness of elites to consider reducing the flow. Then almost suddenly, in November 2015, everything changed. In this follow-up contribution, Öhberg and Naurin tell us about this change, how and why it happened, and what it means for the future of Sweden as a “humanitarian superpower.”


1 Canada, Immigration and Citizenship, #Welcome Refugees: Canada Resettles Syrian Refugees, retrieved here.

2 See, e.g., Yalda Hakim, “How Sweden Became an Exporter of Jihad,” BBC News, October 7, 2016, retrieved here.