Eine Frau geht an einer Weltkarte, die aus Kinderporträts besteht, am Freitag (18.06.2010) im JuniorMuseum in Köln vorbei.

26.11.2015 | Von:
Bernd Parusel

Immigration in Sweden: Future Challenges

In recent years, immigration to Sweden reached record levels. This has provoked challenges that have to be solved. Especially on the housing and labor market, immigrants compete with other population groups. In the political system, the xenophobic "Sweden Democrats" party has gained increasing influence. Nonetheless, the government has (so far) maintained its open immigration policy.

Temporäre Erstaufnahmestelle für Flüchtlinge in einem Dorf in Dalarna/Mittelschweden. Die ausgesprochen hohen Zahlen von Asylsuchenden, die in den Jahren 2013, 2014 und im Laufe des Jahres 2015 in Schweden eingetroffen sind, haben zu Engpässen im Aufnahmesystem geführt.Temporary accommodation for refugees in a village in Dalarna. The exceptionally high numbers of asylum seekers that arrived in Sweden in 2013, 2014 and in the course of 2015 have created bottlenecks in the reception system and challenges with regard to integration capacities. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

In sum, Swedish policies on immigration, integration and asylum are characterized by a progressive and pragmatic stance, an overall positive view of migration and its possible effects on Swedish society, and a willingness to help people fleeing from war and persecution. Important attributes of the Swedish approach are equal treatment, trust in market economy values, and humanism. The factual immigration flows to Sweden during recent years show that many migrants use the immigration channels that Sweden has opened up for them. There are, however, some serious concerns.

High Numbers of Asylum Seekers

The exceptionally high numbers of asylum seekers that arrived in Sweden in 2013, 2014 and in the course of 2015 have created bottlenecks in the reception system and challenges with regard to integration capacities. On the one hand, the Swedish Migration Agency has so far been able to cope with the task of processing a rising number of applications and to provide the newly-arrived with a roof over their heads, also because the central government has been willing to increase funding on short notice and allowing the Migration Agency to employ hundreds of new case-workers. On the other hand, there is a severe lack of affordable housing and jobs. Not being able to find a permanent place of residence or work, many refugees with an established right to stay get stuck in the reception system for asylum seekers, and in passivity. Recently, the government has announced a number of new integration measures and investments into the construction of new houses. In some regions, pilot projects have been started to quickly assess the qualifications of newly arrived asylum seekers, and to offer them internships and complementary education in order to absorb them into public sector jobs where additional manpower is needed, especially in hospitals and retirement homes. Meanwhile, the issue of brain waste, with newly arrived migrants often performing work far below their levels of qualification, also needs to be addressed.

Public Discourse: Shifting to the Right?

When it comes to the public discourse about immigration, Sweden is, in a comparative perspective, characterized by a high degree of political correctness. Politicians, journalists, academics and other public figures often take pride in emphasizing the fact that Sweden has received, in relation to the size of the country’s population, more asylum seekers than any other country in the European Union, and that there were no refugee crisis if other countries acted like Sweden.[1] There is also a tendency towards highlighting, sometimes from a standpoint of moral superiority, Swedish openness and generosity in comparison to restrictive policies and "nationalist" approaches in neighboring Nordic countries, especially in Denmark, and elsewhere in Europe. However, a parallel discourse is on the rise in Sweden, predominantly taking place outside mass media, in blogs, discussion fora and social media, for example, where immigration can be openly depicted as a burden on the welfare state, and as a threat to social cohesion. In this line of thought, politicians and government agencies are accused of ignoring the many "problems" associated with immigration and asylum, to lie about its costs, and to neglect the needs of Sweden-born workers and pensioners. Along these lines of argument, the radical right-wing "Sweden Democrats" (Sverigedemokraterna) are gaining increasing support among the electorate. While they have been represented in municipal and regional bodies for many years, they recently managed to establish themselves both in the European Parliament and, with almost 13 percent of the votes, in the Swedish Riksdag. There, they hold a key position. As neither the governing red-green coalition nor the center-right and liberal block hold a majority in Parliament, the Sweden Democrats can, each time a government bill is voted, chose to either help the governing coalition to pass it, or join the opposition and make the government fail. This role gives them a lot of public attention, and the media now increasingly accept the party’s representatives as "normal" politicians and frequently invite them to debate shows and news programs. Thus, while the Sweden Democrats have long been isolated and labeled as extremists, they have now become house-trained. It is thus very likely that their influence on the design of policies will further increase and that, at some point in the future, they may even become part of a coalition government.

Meanwhile, the established parties attempt to bolster the high levels of immigration with a functioning integration policy and to correct deficiencies. The situation is particularly urgent in the so-called "problem suburbs" of the bigger cities, where problems such as unemployment, a lack of prospects, a feeling of being sidelined and neglected, and hopelessness among the young people sometimes spill over into attacks on the police, vandalism and arson. Moreover, jobs will need to be created, the housing market to be improved and the recognition of foreign skills and qualifications facilitated.

Future prospects

If the Swedish municipalities, the central government, civil society and economic actors manage to resolve these challenges, recent immigration to Sweden may become a success story; the Scandinavian country could stand out as a role model for being able to absorb and integrate a high number of migrants, and for treating them fair. If they fail, and the upswing for the xenophobic Sweden Democrats continues, as it already did for similar parties in neighboring Denmark, Norway and Finland, Sweden might turn towards a more restrictive and less idealistic approach on immigration.

In autumn 2015, reacting to unprecedented inflows of asylum seekers and increasingly skeptical public opinion, the Swedish government announced a number of policy changes. During the month of October 2015, almost 40,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden, and it became obvious that the provision of sufficient accommodation, even by means of temporary solutions, had become almost impossible. Despite quick recruitment of new officers, the Migration Agency barely managed to register all arriving refugees. The Minister of Justice, Morgan Johansson, declared on 5 November that Sweden could no longer guarantee all new applicants a roof over their heads, and the Minister of Finance, Magdalena Andersson, called on refugees to stay in Germany instead of travelling on to Sweden. The minority government reached an agreement with the center-right opposition parties, which foresees, among other measures, shorter processing times for asylum requests, a harsher approach to rejected asylum seekers and the granting of temporary residence permits, instead of permanent ones, to single adult refugees and couples without children. Claiming that the pressure on the Swedish asylum system was disproportionately high, the government also issued a plea to the EU to relocate people in need of protection from Sweden to other Member States.[2]

On 24 November 2015, the minority government announced further plans for a more restrictive approach to international protection. Swedish asylum law were to be adapted to minimum standards as required by EU directives. More generous Swedish standards were to be phased out. Asylum seekers would also be required to present identity documents when boarding trains, busses or ferries to Sweden from other EU Member States.

This text is part of the country profile Sweden.


In the run-up to the last parliamentary election in 2014, then prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called Sweden a "humanitarian superpower", see "En öppenhjärtig Reinfeldt", Dagens Nyheter, 17 August 2014. As another example, see "Tala med stolthet om Sveriges insats", Svenska Dagbladet, 22 August 2015.
"Flüchtlingskrise in Schweden: 'Die Aufnahmeeuphorie nimmt ab'", Spiegel online, 2 November 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/fluechtlinge-in-schweden-die-aufnahmeeuphorie-nimmt-ab-a-1060177.html (accessed: 11-9-2015); Measures of the Swedish Government and the opposition to tackle the refugee crisis (English translation): http://www.government.se/contentassets/f8effa03946941c5987f7ae76b356a02/agreement-measures-to-tackle-the-refugee-crisis.pdf (accessed: 11-9-2015).
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