After the refugee crisis
the struggle to defend what is Swedish
When Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt ran for re-election in 2014 he urged Swedes to open up their hearts and welcome refugees even if it meant there would be little room for budget reforms.
That message, however, did not resonate in a nation that had long welcomed refugees to its shores as Sweden propelled the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats into parliament as the country’s third-most popular party.
The rise of the Sweden Democrats revealed divisions over what it means to be Swedish and stoked fears that cultural diversity could threaten what had long been a cohesive society.
As with many other European nations, the influx of migrants looking to escape conflict zones such as Syria has thrust Sweden into difficult debates over national identity and the country’s role in addressing a growing crisis.
“Immigration has become the most important political debate in Sweden,” said Anders Sannerstedt, who researches attitudes towards multiculturalism and refugees at Lund University. “The Swedish people has split, and there are now two sides that think very differently.”
On one side, opinion polls show that overall Sweden has become a more tolerant country over the last decades. According to the SOM Institute, which has been surveying Swedish opinions on a yearly basis since 1986, attitudes towards immigration have grown more positive since their lowest level in the early 90’s, when many refugees from the Balkan wars resettled in Sweden.
However, the most recent SOM survey measured attitudes just before the arrival of 163,000 people seeking asylum in 2015 – almost double of the previous highest number of asylum requests from 1992, when 84,000 people reached Sweden.
The definition of Swedish is adrift
Sweden built up an image over the years, both abroad and at home, as the ideal social democratic state, and the country’s egalitarian welfare system was built to include refugees who were offered housing, health care, education, unemployment insurance and maternal leave - all the same social benefits a Swede would receive.
Sweden welcomed Chileans fleeing Pinochet, Iranians fleeing the Shah, Eritreans fleeing forced conscription and Iraqis fleeing war. When Yugoslavia collapsed into bloody civil wars, over 100,000 people came to Sweden.The welcoming of refugees has been a cherished national symbol of a collective pledge to moral good.
“My Europe does not build walls,” the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, declared at a rally organised in solidarity with refugees, just a couple of days after the pictures of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body had forced governments around the world to recognise the crisis in Syria.
Two months later, Sweden closed its border to Denmark.
More than 50 years had passed since last someone had been asked to prove her or his identity when entering Sweden from Denmark. The enforced control of identity papers went against the Schengen regime of free movement, one of the most important achievements of the European Union. Other wealthy governments in Europe, such as Denmark and Austria, soon followed with similar policies.
The closed border was the first step along a new path of stringent Swedish immigration policies. “Swedish institutions and authorities need some breathing space”, Löfven said when the country passed a number of new asylum laws in July 2016.
Now, most refugees can only be granted temporary residency permits that are to be reviewed after thirteen months, and higher demands are put on economic self-sufficiency for immigrants who want to reunite with their families in Sweden.
While the Sweden Democrats called for the new laws to become permanent, several human rights organisations said the new rules could be psychologically harmful as they expose people seeking asylum to even more uncertainty and stigmatisation. The Swedish Public Employment Agency publicly stated that temporary residence permits would make it more difficult for refugees to integrate into Swedish society.
It was not easy for the Swedish government to step-down on its national commitment to international solidarity. The Vice Prime Minister cried when she announced that Swedish immigration laws would be adapted to the minimum level allowed by the EU, and the commotion that followed in Swedish media revealed a big crack in Swedish opinion.
While leftist commentators accused the government of being disgraceful and cowardly, the right wing, which for years had been calling for more stringent immigration laws, proudly declared that they had known all along that Swedish immigration policies were unsustainable. The leader of the Sweden Democrats held a speech called, “We were right”.
‘We’re at a crossroads’
Just before the border closed, Swedish people watched the hopeful welcoming of refugees turn into a crisis with no easy solutions. Asylum seekers were forced to sleep outside in the cold as authorities scrambled for empty beds in the country, and major backlogs of asylum applications meant that people had to wait for months for their claims to be processed. Reports of stabbings, rapes, arsons and even murder came from overcrowded shelters for people seeking asylum. Swedish authorities were not able to properly take care of the people they were trying to help.
“The Swedish welfare system was on its knees,” Sannerstedt said, stressing that at that point not only the reception but also integration of refugees became a hot topic of discussion. “We have known for years that unemployment figures are higher among immigrants, and that children of immigrants have more problems in school,” he said.
Speaking on a podcast made by the Spectator entitled ‘The Swedish Model: How not to welcome refugees,” Swedish liberal commentator Ivar Arpi said that the sheer number of asylum seekers revealed structural problems with Swedish immigration policies that had existed for long. “Swedish idealism ran into a big wall called reality”, he said.
In the city of Malmö, where many asylum seekers first arrive, 64 per cent of refugees have not been able to get a job after ten years. There are few jobs for people without a higher education in Sweden, and many say that the country needs to introduce more low-wage jobs in order to integrate refugees.
This in turn has angered the strong work unions, which are afraid a liberalised work market would erase the relative high level of life that blue-collar workers in Sweden enjoy. “We’re at a crossroads, and we have to defend the Swedish model that has given us the highest employment rates in the EU,” said Torbjörn Hällö, economist at the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.
In late July, the Swedish Migration Agency announced that “control measures” were having a desired effect on the number of people seeking asylum in Sweden. “The international refugee crisis continues, but it becomes less visible for us here in Sweden as fewer people will reach our borders,” the then head of the Agency, Anders Danielsson, said in a statement.
Sweden still remains a desired destination for many people fleeing, and the Migration Agency said it was expecting to process between 30,000 and 50,000 asylum applications in 2016.
For Sweden, the refugee crisis is over, but what is left is a bipolar struggle to defend that perceived to be Swedish.
Immigrants represent a threat to Swedishness for some, and for others it is nationalism and xenophobia that cannot be part of Sweden. Both sides are in midst of a struggle to defend what is Swedish.
As the Swedish Sociology Professor, Fereshte Ahmadi, said during a public discussion on xenophobia: “We just want to believe again that Sweden is a safe place”.