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Current Trends in Immigration to Sweden | Sweden |

Sweden Introduction Historical Development Current Trends Immigration Policy Immigration / Circular Migration Integration Policy Citizenship Asylum and Refugees Irregular Migration Future Challenges References

Current Trends in Immigration to Sweden

Bernd Parusel

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Sweden's history of immigration dates back to times before the creation of the nation-state in its current boundaries. In more recent years, the immigration of family members of migrants already resident in Sweden dominated. In addition, the number of asylum seekers has risen significantly.

Syrian refugee in front of the Swedish embassy in Ankara. In recent years, family reunification and family formation have been the most common purpose of migration among immigrants coming to Sweden from countries outside the Nordic Council and the EU. (© picture-alliance, AA)

During recent years, immigration to Sweden reached record levels. In 2014, a total of 126,966 people came to Sweden and took residence in one of the 290 municipalities. This figure includes both people from other EU Member States, countries outside the EU and Swedish nationals who have lived abroad and returned to Sweden that year. As a rule, all persons who stay, or can be expected to stay in the country for at least one year are registered in the Swedish population registry, which serves as the basis for official population statistics, including immigration and emigration. Hence, tourists, seasonal workers, students from other countries or other groups of mobile people whose stay is only brief and temporary, are not included. More than 26,000 of the immigrants arriving in 2014 were refugees from Syria, and 15,000 were returning Swedes.

Emigration from Sweden was at a level of more than 51,000 people in 2014. It was thus on par with numbers last seen during the great wave of emigration to America at the beginning of the 20th century. Almost 63 percent of those who emigrated during 2014 were people who had previously migrated to Sweden. The remaining 37 percent were Swedes, the majority of whom emigrated to Norway, the USA, the United Kingdom and Denmark.

Table 1: Immigration 2014 by country of birth

Country of birthNumber of immigrants
Syria 26,113
Sweden 15,194
Eritrea 5,322
Poland 5,138
Somalia 4,372
Afghanistan 3,436
Iraq 3,391
India 3,069
Finland 2,573
China 2,572
Other countries 55,786
Total 126,966

Source: Externer Link: Statistics Sweden (data from population registry).

Immigration for Family Reasons

Figure 1: Immigration 2014 by reason of granting a residence permit. Source: Externer Link: Swedish Migration Agency (data from residence permits database). (© bpb)

In recent years, family reunification and family formation have been the most common purpose of migration among immigrants coming to Sweden from countries outside the Nordic Council and the EU. Such persons often are close relatives of people who were once admitted as refugees. The examples of Syria and Somalia illustrate this clearly: of the 42,435 people who came to Sweden in 2014 as migrants for family reasons, 7,518 were Syrian nationals and 2,682 were from Somalia. These two nationality groups have also been among the predominant nationalities of asylum seekers in Sweden. A majority of all residence permits granted on the grounds of family reunification concerned so-called "newly established relationships": Swedish citizens or foreigners resident in Sweden marrying a person of foreign nationality, who then acquires the right to permanent residency. In the remaining number of cases, a family relationship already existed before migration.


Short, temporary stays, e.g. of asylum seekers or seasonal workers, or on the basis of a Schengen visa, are not included. "Other reasons" mainly includes people who have no right to stay in Sweden but who could not be returned to their country of origin. "Free movement rights EU/EEA" includes, for example, nationals of third-countries who have a long-term resident status in another EU Member State and moved further on to Sweden. EU citizens and Swedish nationals are included in Table 1, which is based on data from the population registry, but not in Figure 1, for which data on residence permits were used.

Immigration of European Union Citizens

Alongside family members of non-EU immigrants, persons from EU countries and countries within the European Economic Area (EEA) are an important immigrant group. The biggest group among the EU and EEA citizens in 2014 were Poles, followed by people from Finland, Germany, Norway, Romania, the United Kingdom and Denmark.

The EU enlargement in May 2004 had an immediate impact on Sweden. Sweden was one of the few countries of the "old" EU not to put any transitional arrangements to limit the free movement of citizens of the "new" states into effect. Contrary to Germany or Austria, for example, people from the new member countries were immediately able to travel to Sweden and work there without first needing to apply for a work permit. When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Sweden did not introduce any restrictions either. That expansion once again resulted in a conspicuous increase in immigration, particularly from Romania. Many Romanian immigrants come from poor regions of their home country and belong to disadvantaged ethnic minorities. In Sweden, they often do not find ordinary work but try instead to make a living through begging. As this phenomenon did not previously exist in Sweden to any larger extent, there have been intensive public debates about EU migrants, begging and squatting, and a number of reports have been produced to study the causes of this phenomenon and possible reactions. Some municipalities are now trying to engage EU migrants in community services and offer them temporary accommodation. At the same time, the Swedish government maintains talks with Romania and provides aid funds in order to improve the situation of disadvantaged minorities in Romania. A countrywide begging ban was also discussed but finally rejected.

Immigration of International Students

Foreign students also make up a significant proportion of new immigrants. During the academic year 2012-2013, almost one quarter (24 percent) of all people starting higher education at Swedish universities and university colleges came from other countries. Around 12,900 came from other EU-/EEA-countries, and a further 6,100 students came from third countries. Within the latter group, most foreign students came from China and India.

Between 2005 and 2010, study-related immigration to Sweden increased strongly and steadily. In 2010, a total of 14,188 residence permits for study reasons were granted. In 2011 and 2012, however, the number of third-country nationals who were granted a residence permit for study reasons was at a much lower level, mainly due to the introduction of tuition fees in 2011. That year, only 6,836 permits were granted. Since then, however, the numbers have been rising again. In 2013, 7,559 residence permits were granted, and 9,267 in 2014. The Swedish tuition fees still provoke controversy, however, not least because they only apply to incoming free-mover students. University education is still free of charge for students from EU countries, those who participate in official academic exchange programs, and people who have their usual residence within Sweden.

Labor Immigration

Labor immigration from countries outside the European Union also hovers at a considerable level despite the fact that it decreased slightly in 2013 and 2014. In 2012, a total of 19,936 labor migrants from third countries were granted a residence permit in Sweden. 19,292 such residence permits were granted in 2013, and 15,872 in 2014. Most labor immigrants in 2014, as in previous years, came from India, Thailand, China, Syria and Turkey. Thai citizens are a particularly strong group among labor migrants because they come to Northern Sweden in late summer each year to work as seasonal laborers picking cranberries and cloudberries, prized as a delicacy. After a few weeks, at the end of the picking season, they leave again. Indian labor migrants often take temporary or more long-term employment as computing specialists.

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



  1. Apart from the EU countries, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are also members of the EEA.

  2. E.g. Länsstyrelsen i Stockholm (2014).

  3. Universitetskanslersämbetet (2014), pp. 60f.

  4. Cf. Swedish Migration Board (2012), p. 22.

  5. Source: Swedish Migration Agency.

  6. Swedish Migration Agency (2015a), p. 19.


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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: