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Swedish Integration Policy

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Swedish Integration Policy

Bernd Parusel

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Sweden has long since recognized the fact that immigrants often do not only temporarily stay in the country, but remain in Sweden permanently. Unlike many other countries that recruited so-called "guest workers" in the 1960s and 1970s, Sweden therefore fostered an active integration policy from the outset. Nevertheless, in recent years, high numbers of immigrants provoked some serious challenges.

Muslim protestor at the Stockholm Pride Parade 2014. The new integration policy stresses less on multiculturalism, but intends to play down cultural differences and focuses more on social cohesion. (© picture-alliance, IBL Schweden)

Swedish integration policy has internationally been regarded both as one of the most ambitious and successful. In the public discourse, achievements and challenges with regard to the integration of migrants are largely framed in terms of practical issues: jobs, housing, language acquisition and the take-up of social benefits. While the Scandinavian welfare state is today an eager advocate of free trade and a liberal market economy and also accepts growing income inequality, it still boasts a relatively large public sector offering comprehensive social security systems. These are available to all registered inhabitants, irrespective of their nationality. Equality, solidarity, cooperation and consensus are core aspects of this system, which has, however, come under scrutiny many times in recent years.

Challenges Regarding Immigrant Integration

Strongly increasing immigration, especially since 2010, has raised questions as to whether the Swedish labor market has been strong enough to absorb newly arrived migrants. There is also a severe lack of affordable housing. While this has been a problem in the larger metropolitan areas within Sweden for a long time, even less dynamic municipalities in remoter regions now face serious shortages. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the Swedish Migration Agency normally uses ordinary apartments as accommodation for asylum seekers. Those who are granted protection are required to move out of the Agency’s reception facilities, but in practice, they will most often need the same type of housing even after the asylum procedure. Thus, there is competition between similar groups of newly arrived migrants at different stages of the immigration process for a more and more limited segment of the housing market. Other groups with financial means below average, such as pensioners, students and young people leaving their parents’ households, also compete in the same market segment. As a result of not being able to find affordable housing or work, many refugees with an established right to stay risk getting stuck in the reception system for asylum seekers, and in passivity. The government now envisages that 250,000 new, cheap rental apartments be built until 2020. Efforts to speed up and facilitate labor market integration are also being discussed.

In earlier periods, such as during the 1960s and 1970s, immigrants had less difficulty finding jobs and a place to stay in Sweden. To be attractive as employers, companies with labor needs sometimes provided recruited immigrants with accommodation and trade unions assisted with integration measures. In school, children from foreign families had the right to be taught in their mother tongue for a certain number of hours a week. This still exists, but due to a lack of resources and the broad variety of languages spoken among immigrants today, municipalities are sometimes not able to provide sufficient mother tongue tuition. Municipal libraries have also played an important role for integration, in earlier times by, for example, purchasing lexicons, newspapers and books in the major immigrant languages. Today, they are popular among newly arrived migrants also because they offer access to computers and free internet.

Political Thought Guiding Integration Policies

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sweden was markedly influenced by social democratic thought, and policies were based on the assumption, that immigrants would stay. As early as 1968, the egalitarian approach already outlined was anchored in the first governmental bill about immigrant policy objectives: immigrants were to have the opportunity to achieve the same living standards as the rest of the population. It was argued that immigrants were to have the right to maintain the language and culture of their country of origin, but that the state needed not actively support this; rather, the migrants themselves were able to attend to the matter. In 1975, the government granted foreign residents the active and passive right to Interner Link: vote in municipal and provincial parliament elections. Third-country nationals may participate in elections after three years of legal residence in Sweden. EU citizens, Norwegians and Icelanders have this right after only 30 days of residence in Sweden if they notify their municipality about their wish to vote.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the influx of refugees and family members migrating to Sweden for reunification was growing, the image of generosity and equality that had developed over the years was increasingly felt to be a burden. The government felt obliged to demonstrate that Sweden was able to restrict immigration. Stricter immigration control was now deemed a prerequisite for successful integration. In line with restrictions in asylum and immigration legislation introduced at the time, the strategy adopted with regard to integration was also changed; whereas previously multiculturalism had been stressed and at times fostered by the state, this policy was considered to have accentuated cultural differences between Swedes and immigrants, thereby gradually reinforcing mental and social boundaries. The new policy was intended, instead, to play down such differences, stress similarities and focus on social cohesion. As a result, asylum seekers recognized in Sweden as refugees or granted a residence permit for humanitarian reasons must today, if they do not want the integration benefits be cut, attend an obligatory "Swedish for Immigrants" course, which is offered and paid for by the municipality in which they take residence. The course not only aims to teach the Swedish language but to provide knowledge of the social system and Swedish traditions. It concludes with an examination, which is deemed an important requirement for finding a job. The policy also considers the best form of integration into Swedish society to be rapid integration into the labor market. Education and training, as well as active job placement, are therefore of the utmost priority in today’s integration policy. There are a number of apprentice- and internship initiatives and the state also subsidies employment for people who have been unemployed, so-called "step-in" jobs (instegsjobb). Still, much remains to be done with regard to labor market participation. The unemployment rate among third-country nationals was almost 30 percent in 2012, more than three times as high as for Swedish nationals, and further to this, there are also signs of a massive brain waste, with newly arrived migrants often performing work far below their levels of qualification.

"All Sweden" Policy

To prevent disproportionate concentrations of the immigrant population in certain places, the government once attempted to disperse newly arrived asylum seekers and recognized refugees throughout the country under what was known as the "All Sweden" policy. This was intended to counteract a strong trend in more remote regions, especially in central and northern Sweden, towards ageing populations and the de-population of smaller towns as a consequence of young people moving to the cities and the South of the country. In the course of the last decade, however, the "All Sweden" policy has brought about a dilemma: municipalities in regions suffering from emigration and ageing declared their readiness to take in asylum seekers and refugees; however, there was often a shortage of jobs in such places, with the result that migrants accommodated there often tried to move on to bigger cities as quickly as possible. In cities such as Gothenburg, Malmö or Stockholm there may indeed be more jobs available, but there is limited low-cost housing, leading to an increased concentration of migrants crowded into the suburbs, which contributes to social tension. High-rise buildings in the suburbs of Stockholm and other cities are symbolic of this situation, having been erected between 1965 and 1975 under the so-called "Million Program" (Miljonprogrammet). Today some of these areas are run-down. As the rents are comparatively low, many socially disadvantaged groups live there, such as migrants, low-income single parents and poor pensioners. Social scientists speak of this as marginalization and social segregation. Today, the "All Sweden" approach has been softened. There is no mandatory distribution system for asylum seekers, but all municipalities are encouraged to provide accommodation for asylum seekers. Those who have relatives or friends in Sweden may however chose to stay with them. In order to counteract segregation, the central government pressures the wealthier municipalities in the metropolitan areas of Stockholm and other bigger cities to receive asylum seekers.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile Sweden.



  1. In the 2015 edition of the "Migrant Integration Policy Index" (MIPEX), Sweden ranked first among a total of 38 countries examined, see For other analyses and more information on Swedish Integration policies, see e.g. Hammar (2003), p. 238; Statistiska Centralbyrån (2013), p. 127-130.

  2. Andersson/Weinar (2014), p. 9.

  3. Boverket (2015), p. 7.

  4. ”Här är regeringens strategi för hållbart asylmottagande”, Dagens Nyheter, 15. July 2015.

  5. Cf. Benito (2007), p. 336.

  6. Cf. Dahlström (2006), p. 16.

  7. Cf. Dahlström (2006), p. 16 and Soininen (1999), p. 687.

  8. Cf. Hammar (2003), pp. 244f.

  9. European Commission/European Migration Network (2014), p. 81.

  10. Migrationsverket (2013), p. 21.

  11. Cvetkovic (2009), pp. 101f.


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Dr. Bernd Parusel is a political scientist and migration and asylum expert. He works for the European Migration Network (EMN) at the Swedish Migration Agency and as a research officer at the Swedish Migration Studies Delegation (DELMI) in Stockholm. Email: E-Mail Link: