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.”

The points system on which immigration into Canada is largely based reflects these goals. The aim of the system is to sort out people who have the best potential to boost the Canadian economy. Moreover, to become a Canadian citizen, the landed immigrant needs to pass both a knowledge test and a language test. In Sweden, such policies would be very contentious. Some years ago, political parties in Sweden saw Canada’s immigration program as exemplary. They sent delegations to Canada to learn about its successful integration of immigrants. However, these delegations stopped crossing the Atlantic when they learned more about the differences between how the two countries perceive immigration. Instead of being a model, Canada is now treated in the Swedish debates as an example of a self-centred and unfair immigration system.


The fundamental difference is that the basis of Swedish immigration policy is the needs of the immigrants, not of the Swedish economy, with priority given to the needs of refugees. In presenting its policy, the Swedish government states, “Sweden must have a humane refugee policy and be a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution and oppression. Sweden’s aliens legislation offers more protection than is required by international agreements. This policy has strong support in the Riksdag.”1

An immigrant who would like to become a Swedish citizen need only have a permanent residence permit, be over 18 years of age and have lived in Sweden for five years. He or she is not required to take a language or knowledge test, nor declare any oath of loyalty towards the new country. The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), which compares integration policies, finds Sweden to be the most generous of the 34 countries assessed (Canada is ranked third).2 As we can see in table 1, Sweden comes in first in number of refugees per capita, twice Canada’s figure.


The generous Swedish system and the displacements of ongoing wars have combined to make Sweden a heterogeneous country. The stereotype of Swedes as blond and blue-eyed was already out of date at the beginning of the new century, when the proportion of foreign-born citizens was 11 per cent. Today the proportion is 17 per cent. One fifth of Swedish children were either born outside Sweden or have two parents born outside Sweden. Sweden is still below Canada’s proportion of foreign-born citizens (21 per cent), but is well above the United States (13 per cent). As we can see in figure 1, the number of residence permits granted in Sweden has increased steadily since the mid-1990s.

The changing politics of immigration

Sweden’s generous policy toward refugees can be described as elite-driven. When asked, citizens have consistently been reticent to accept more refugees. Since 1990, when political scientists at Gothenburg University started to survey Swedes’ attitudes towards immigration, more people have stated a preference for less generous immigration policies, but this number has not risen proportionally to the number of immigrants arriving. Figure 2 combines the proportion of citizens


who think it is a very good or fairly good idea to accept fewer refugees. (The rest favour – or at least are not opposed to – current policy.) As we can see, the proportion favouring less generous immigration policy has fallen below 50 per cent in recent years: the latest survey, in 2012, found that 45 per cent favoured reducing the number of immigrants.

According to a recent investigation, Swedes express less concern about legal immigration than the EU average.3 Another survey shows that, among Europeans who believe that immigrants are net receivers (rather than net contributors), Swedes are more favourable to welcoming immigrants from poor countries outside the EU than those in other countries. In several countries (for example Finland), those who believe that immigrants are net contributors are less favourable to accepting immigrants from poor countries outside the EU than Swedes who believe that immigrants are net receivers.4 Overall, the elite position of welcoming refuges is reflected in the attitudes of a substantial portion of the Swedish population.

There is more than enough negative opinion toward current immigrant policies to exploit politically, but with the exception of the Liberal Party in the 2002 election, none of the traditional parties have sought to politicize the issue of refugees. In that election, the Liberals made the proposal – uncontroversial in the Canadian context – that immigrants who wanted to become Swedish citizens should be required to pass a language test. The campaign paid off in the sense that voters ranked the question of immigration as one of the most important in that election, and the Liberals got their best election result in almost 20 years. Yet the other parties did not take up the cause and the proposal went nowhere.

The most recent election, in 2010, changed the playing field. For the first time an anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, entered parliament, winning 5.9 per cent of the vote. Until then, Sweden had been among the few European countries able to welcome a large influx of refugees without the presence of an anti-immigrant party in the legislature.

However, the election of 2010 should not be characterized as one where the question of immigration was a major focus, or one where the voters looked for a party to express their alienation from the political process. The immigration issue placed a distant seventh when respondents to the Swedish National Election Study were asked to rank the most important issues – which were, as always, welfare and labour market policies. Moreover, citizens’ trust in politicians was at an all-time high and voter turnout increased for the second election in a row.

The main reason that the Sweden Democrats entered parliament was simply that opponents of existing immigration policies had a real alternative for the first time. Though the Sweden Democrats are one of the oldest anti-immigrant parties in Europe, having been founded in 1988, they were unable to establish themselves for a long time on the national arena because of their Nazi roots. When the current party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, took over the leadership in 2005, the party tried to remake itself and distance itself from its past. The makeover process has been a bumpy ride, but the party has been able to establish itself as the fourth largest party (out of eight) in the opinion polls with around 9 per cent of voter support.

It might be expected that, taken together, the riots, the generous immigration policies, the lukewarm opinion toward these policies and the establishment of an anti-immigrant party in parliament constitute a set of conditions for a questioning of existing policy. But not in Sweden.

Indeed, since 2010, the Swedish government has made immigration policies even more generous. Almost immediately after it was reelected, the centre-right minority government together with the Green Party created new and more generous rules for work permits. The regulations are now the most liberal in the OECD. The same constellation of parties also voted to give refugees without papers access to health care and prescription drugs. These developments are quite the opposite of those in the other Nordic countries, which became more restrictive after anti-immigrant parties entered their parliaments. Recently, the Swedish government decided to grant permanent residence to all refugees from Syria and their families.

Immigrants without jobs?

Despite – indeed perhaps because of – Sweden’s ambitious and open immigration policy, there are integration problems. Segregation has clearly increased. In some suburbs, nine of ten inhabitants have roots in a foreign country, and there are schools where virtually no children have Swedish as their mother tongue. Segregation also appears in unemployment numbers. For the Swedish-born population, the unemployment rate is 7 per cent, but for the foreign-born it is as high as 17 per cent. The problems are even more severe when it comes to young people among the foreign-born groups. One third are unemployed and the number is increasing, while the trend among non-immigrant Swedes is the reverse. According to OECD statistics ranking countries by the gap in employment rates between immigrants and non-immigrants, Sweden is in the top half of that list.

Naturally, the immigrant groups are highly diverse and thus their situation varies considerably. Nevertheless, studies reveal that the immigrant population as a whole faces a problem in getting jobs. Employers are apparently less willing to employ applicants with “non-typical Swedish names,” while immigrants cannot count on their educational credentials being accepted in Sweden.5

Another problem is that Sweden has an advanced economic system with little need for a low-skilled work force. The number of positions involving less skilled work has been steadily declining. Employers and unions have focused on development in high-tech sectors, and have gradually phased out the low-skilled jobs. This development has it origin from what is called the Rehn-Meidner model. This influential model was developed during the 1950s, and its application in the decades that followed transformed Swedish industry. Growth focused on those technologically advanced manufacturing sectors capable of being internationally competitive and paying high salaries, not the areas where immigrants tended to be employed. And given the relatively high salaries and costs per employee, firms are reluctant to hire less qualified workers.

Since low-skilled immigrants cannot compete in the highly specialized Swedish job market, some have suggested making it a priority to develop more low-skilled jobs in the service sector to encourage the integration of immigrants into the job market. Such ideas meet with opposition since for many Swedes such jobs – doormen, housekeepers, delivery boys – are seen as an expression of a class society, one that is drifting apart. Refugees from Iraq or Syria thus face a huge challenge in trying to find a solid place in the Swedish labour market. They need to learn to speak good Swedish and attain university or vocational degrees. Yet, even then, they may be passed over in favour of applicants with Swedish names.

Traditionally, the Swedish way of adjusting to a changing job market has been by retraining less skilled workers. However, Swedish training programs have been heavily criticized for their incapacity to distinguish effectively between highly qualified and illiterate immigrants. There is clearly much room for improvement in matching the skills immigrants bring to Sweden and the needs of the Swedish job market.

The generous refugee admission policy is not a hot topic in the Swedish debate. As the government states on its website, “This policy has strong support in the Riksdag.” The anti-immigrant party is the only one that is against the current policies. Since the other parties do not want to politicize the question of refugee reception and thereby give the Sweden Democrats the spotlight, we are left with a consensus among the political elites. And when civil-society organizations get involved, it is only to call on the government to do more to open Sweden’s borders to refugees.

Refugee immigration is a question of humanity, and as such it is a matter of humanity versus inhumanity. Here it is all the established parties against the Sweden Democrats, and any move toward less generous policies to refugees would be understood as playing into anti-immigrant views and thus legitimizing the Sweden Democrats.

However, there is a clear duality in the Swedish immigration debate, and this positive situation applies only to the admission of refugees. When it comes to the political parties’ discussion of job-related immigration, we see something quite different. While an altruistic desire to offer immigrants a chance to improve their life conditions is a factor, the lively debate among the political parties takes place primarily along ideological lines.

The Left Party and the Social Democrats are harsh critics of the new and more open policies concerning work permits that were negotiated by the centre-right government and the Greens. They see the new rules as a threat to the Swedish Model, where labour market regulations are negotiated between the employers’ organization and the unions. They fear that since employers prefer cheaper immigrant workers, they will ultimately bypass their agreements with the unions. Consequently, a large influx of immigrants with work permits would undermine the unions’ capacity to negotiate with the employers, and thus force Swedish workers to accept lower wages. Another argument from the left is that the new regulations invite ruthless employers to exploit vulnerable immigrant workers who long for a job in Sweden.

Now, one year before the next national election, the opinion polls suggest that the current centre-right government will lose. However, the Social Democratic Party will be able to enter the government offices only if the Green Party is willing to hold the door for them – which will mean negotiations. For the moment it is an open question as to whether the Green Party will be willing to change the current conditions for work permits.

Whatever the case, under a new Social Democratic–led government, Sweden will still have generous refugee policies and a strong welfare system. And the Swedish integration process will still be in need of new ideas and creative solutions.


1 Government Offices of Sweden, Asylum, updated March 4, 2011, retrieved here.

2 Migrant Integration Policy Index, Countries, retrieved here.

3 German Marshall Fund of the United States, Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2013, p. 39, retrieved here.

4 European Social Survey data, reproduced in OECD, International Migration Outlook 2013, p 127, retrieved here.

5 Stefan Eriksson and Jonas Lagerström, “Detecting Discrimination in the Hiring Process: Evidence from an Internet-Based Search Channel,” Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy, Working Paper 2007:19, retrieved here; Jens Agerström, Rickard Carlsson and Dan-Olof Rooth, ”Ethnicity and Obesity: Evidence of Implicit Work Performance Sterotypes in Sweden” Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy, Working Paper 2007:20, retrieved here.

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.

Patrik Öhberg is a postdoctoral scholar at the Department of Political science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and currently visiting scholar at the Canada Research Chair in Electoral Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Montreal.

Top Photo: An immigrant who would like to become a Swedish citizen is not required to take a language or knowledge test, nor declare any oath of loyalty towards the new country. Stockholm’s Hatice Erkal immigrated to Sweden in the 1970s, photo courtesy Tricia Wang/Flickr