Sweden¹s Rising War Against Foreign Immigration

Sean Michael Smith

After the Allied victory of the Second World War, both Canadians and Americans returned to their homelands which were spared the destruction of their infrastructure from years of bombing. Europe was devastated. Throughout Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy, clean-up and rebuilding was needed to restore their war torn villages and cities. Benefiting from a solid infrastructure like the North Americans, Sweden was fortunate to have remained neutral; the Swedish government played the Allied and Axis powers against each other, granting use of its railroads to Nazi troops en route to destroy Norway, while selling materials to the Americans. When the war ended, Sweden was one of the beneficiaries of the Marshall plan, devised to help Europe recover while systematically placing American bases throughout the continent to contain the Soviet communist threat. In order to satisfy the increased demands of post-war industrial growth, Sweden called on guest workers from oth er countries, welcoming 54,083 immigrants during the 1950¹s and 1960¹s (Westin 3). However, employment opportunities soon vanished as the rest of Europe finished its reconstruction. As Sweden enters the twenty-first century, unemployment rises, social programs are diminished, and racism amongst its ethnic groups flourishes. In order to maintain a humane, liberal Swedish model and to avoid the rise of extremism and social unrest, a new preventive, moderate approach toward the immigration/refugee policy must be formulated.

Identification Of The Problem

Movement of ethnic groups from one country to another places social strains on the host country. In an effort to lend a cooperative hand to the hopeful refugee, Sweden has been a model for many throughout the world. A failing economy, rising unemployment and high social benefits for refugees mix in a country with a population of less than 9 million, making an explosive conflict seem on the brink. In order to avoid a deadly social war, Sweden must reorient its immigration policy.
During the last 50 years, Germany has been the European nation which has received the most media attention whenever anti-immigration sentiment has risen. However, Sweden has also been heavily impacted by refugees. In fact, Sweden receives the third highest number of asylum seekers in Europe, behind Germany and Austria (Belt 30). With a population of less than 9 million, Sweden received 75,000 asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia in 1992 (Europa 530). These numbers have begun to impact the country and its culture.
Sweden is an interesting case when studying immigration and racism. Throughout their history, the Swedes have been known for being a humane, tolerant people. Policies of liberal human rights have attracted refugees largely from the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Even more attractive for these refugees is how well they are cared for after their arrival in Sweden. While their residency status remains undetermined, the refugee is allowed certain amenities. They are given clean, warm housing; are taught Swedish; receive a governmental allowance, and medical care; and their children are allowed to go school. All of these benefits are paid for by Swedish taxpayers; thus the average taxpayer spends approximatly $200 per year for the refugees (Belt 30). As Tim Tilton points out:
Immigration policy is in many ways an ideal example to illustrate the force of ideology in shaping a distinctive Swedish policy. Unlike Continental models, Swedish policy treats foreign workers as immigrants (invandrare), not as guest workers (Gastarbeiter). The goal is to integrate them into Swedish life by making language instruction available for free, making social services available on equal terms, gradually extending voting rights, and publicly condemning racial incidents. Above all, foreign workers are not viewed as expendable labor power to be sent home in periods of economic contraction. This inclusive, integrationist approach flows naturally from Social Democratic values; it has not been entirely successful, but it demonstrates a marked improvement over Continental efforts (Misgeld 425).
While the Social Democrats have attempted to persuade the Swedes to be tolerant, liberal people, the average Swede today appears discontent with the refugee acceptance policies.
This is not to say that Swedish people are racist. On the contrary, the average Swede would argue vehemently that they are some of the most modern, open-minded people in the world. Faced with increasing prospects of unemployment and reductions in basic social services, numbers of immigrants can easily be seen juxtaposed against the small population of Swedish citizens. Many Swedes find it ironic that they end up paying for refugees, and at the same time see their own prospects diminishing.

Background on Immigration

As was previously mentioned, the recovery plan of Europe was largely based upon George C. Marshall¹s program to ³combat hunger, poverty, despair and chaos² (the Marshall Plan) throughout the continent. In return for aid, the United States was able to establish military bases to physically contain the spread of the Soviet¹s Communism while extending US corporate interests. Sweden, sustaining an established post-war industrial sector, was ready to export goods and raw materials to help their neighbors regain social order and to rebuild their economies. In order to meet the increased demand of production for Swedish goods and materials, the government invited foreigners to live and work within the country¹s borders. Eventually, Swedish traditions and foreign culture conflicted. An idealized marriage between the immigrants and the local population never came to light. Instead of interacting with one another, the immigrants tend to live in small ethnic communities and associate prim arily with members of their same culture.
Riots in the black urban ghettos of the United States during the 1960s and reports of growing tensions between the native-born population and immigrants in various countries of Western Europe were signs that such developments were possible (Westin 1).
After the need for foreign workers ended, Sweden continued to receive foreigners. Finland, Norway, and Denmark have contributed the most immigrants to Sweden due to a 1954 free Nordic labor market provision. Sweden began to restrict workers entering their borders in 1972. Refugees, on the other hand, continued to trickle in, attracted by Sweden¹s liberal interpretation of the term (Belt 30).
Since the late 1980s, Sweden has been overwhelmed by refugees seeking asylum. Increased cries from unemployed or distraught natives began as Sweden faced a recession along with the rest of the world. Combined with a decrease in social programs for the first time, the local worker looks around and discovers that the older segment of the population finds it harder to make ends meet. According to him, the refugee lives in prosperity, receiving education and health benefits while receiving a significant governmental living stipend. All of these benefits, combined with the fact that the asylum applicant is not employed, have created a sense of bewilderment amongst the Swedish population; in many cases, this bewilderment has turned into a breeding ground for racism.

The Problem is Urgent

The rise of hatred towards the refugees is a relatively new problem. Where in the past immigrants were welcomed into Sweden as contributing workers able to help Sweden develop economically, the refugee is now seen more as a leech on the taxpayers pocket. Unless the Swedish government faces the challenge of revamping Sweden¹s refugee policy, there will be a surge in clashes between the pro-Nationalists and ethnic gangs, resulting in social upheaval.
The Swedish taxpayers already pay among the highest taxes in the world. As they continue to see their social programs diminishing along with rising unemployment, their discontent and frustration with foreigners will continue to rise. Throughout the Swedish media, focus is consistently placed on the rising war between nationalistic youth groups and refugee gangs. Some Swedes believe that this attention is creating more of a problem than actually exists. However, each year numbers joining extremist groups continue to rise, as well as the number of hate-related crimes. According to Belt, one of the major concerns of the police chief of Ludvika, a small city of 29,000 in the county of Dalarna, is the number of hate crimes on his books - ³assaults, rock-throwing incidents, firebombings, and cross burnings² (Belt 30).
During the time I spent in Sweden, there were constant complaints of refugees benefiting at the cost of the Swedes. One noted difference between the old immigrant workers and the new refugee/immigrants was often repeated: the guest workers had respect for the Swedish culture and attempted to adapt, whereas the new refugee/immigrants remained in their ethnic groups, without willingness to assimilate in any facet of Swedish culture. As more Swedes are finding dissatisfaction with their immigration policy, and increased differences push the refugees farther away, action for a new policy must be immediate.

If No Resolution

Unfortunately, due to economic stagnation and recent depression, Sweden cannot afford either economically or socially to maintain such an extensive refugee acceptance policy. In proportion to its population, Sweden receives more unskilled immigrants with fewer job opportunities than most industrialized countries. Even Canada, currently leading the industrialized world in its welcoming newcomers, has recently begun to reassess its immigration policies:
³Canada will be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come,² Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier boasted in a 1904 speech, predicting that the country¹s population would grow to at least 60 million in the lifetimes of those in his audience. Today, with a population of half that, Canadians say they have had enough (Gooderham 1).
Indeed, like Canada, it would seem that Sweden has also had enough. The Swedes face many of the same problems: large numbers of unskilled immigrants dependent on welfare handouts flood the borders, intolerant cultural differences exist between the groups; and increases serious crimes are linked to, or blamed on, immigrants. Subsequently, there is a danger of serious clashes between the immigrants and the Swedes. Whereas past immigration has helped build Sweden, recient immigration is a drain on Swedish society, through the welfare system. As Georges Mathews, an economist and demographer at L¹Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal stated:
You can¹t maintain exponential growth indefinitely. At some point there¹s a level where integration problems start to be perceptible. . . I think we¹ve [Canada] reached that. (Gooderham 7).
The point of saturation has been reached in Sweden as well. Some sort of restriction is needed in order to assure the social and economic future of Sweden.

Elements of an Action Plan

1) Increased Reduction of Immigrants. Sweden must severely reduce the number of immigrants it takes in each year; yet this should not be seen as isolationism. Sweden simply cannot afford to provide for its current population and continue to provide refugees with generous benefits. Although Sweden has provided humanitarian relief, a realistic approach must define the political system as at the mercy of its economic recovery.
2) Recruitment of immigrants for specialized work areas under-represented and in demand. The Swedish government may look toward proposals in the Canadian system for help in changing the role of the immigrant from refugee to that of a contributing worker:
The [Canadian] plans call for active recruitment of independent immigrants who can speak English or French and specialize in disciplines such as engineering and biomedicine (Gooderham 7).
Substituting Swedish for French, the above passage may well suit the economy of Sweden while maintaining an ability to accept a limited number of foreigners. While still maintaining a number of immigrants, a renewed focus should be on those who can best benefit the society, taking the strain off of social welfare and placing it back in the tax collecting system.
3) Reduce the amount of time a refugee waits in unclassified status. A common complaint among both liberals and conservatives is that refugees must wait a minimum of two years before being granted asylum. It is during this period that they are able to enjoy the social benefits of the liberal, social Swedish system. Reducing this amount of time would help curb many of the ill feelings of the average Swede towards the refugee-immigrant, limiting ³hatred² sentiment to extremists who remain fanatical.
4) Disperse immigrants throughout communities. A major problem that contributes to gang warfare between ethnic groups and pro-Sweden groups is governmental housing provided to the immigrants. The government has been openly criticized for contributing to the division of the population by placing the immigrants in restricted areas. This policy has also contributed to the further isolation of the two groups. Despite attempting to correct this problem by distributing the immigrants throughout Sweden instead of only the major cities, enclaves of ethnic groups remain placed in housing projects, preventing the integration into Swedish society. The Swedes have become more xenophobic. Meanwhile the refugees have no incentives to integrate into Swedish society and continue to exercise their distinct cultural traditions. Dispersing the immigrants throughout the community rather than in isolated housing areas would lead to integration. This is due to the cultural immersion that the refugee would then have to fac e by being forced to recognize and adapt to the culture of the host nation.
5) Maintain current levels of foreign developmental aid. Helping the less developed countries has always been and should remain an important aspect of Sweden¹s foreign policy. Sweden focuses on assisting Third World countries in their struggle to become self sufficient and prosperous. As Sweden decreases the number of refugees granted asylum, public spending can be reduced, thus generating additional funds for development programs for the nations generating the exodus of refugees. Such a policy can be looked upon as increasing prosperity externally, therefore reducing the strain upon Sweden¹s internal structure.
6) Commitment to listen seriously to the concerns of the Swedish citizen. Finally, a renewed commitment must be made by the government to listen to the concerns of its citizens. This is an important step for Sweden. Traditionally, the notion of what a ³typical Swede is² has made it nearly impossible for an individual there to think openly or differently than popular opinion. Typically, severe reprimands and criticism for thinking differently than other Swedes will come from friends or colleagues. The trait is to ³go with the flow.² In regards to immigration policy, any person speaking publicly suggesting restrictions in the matter are deemed racist or nationalistic. The government should be aware, however, of the actual beliefs held by the typical Swede.
If these reforms are implemented, Sweden will toughen its stance on refugee-immigration. The policy outcome will result in the deterrence of unqualified immigrants. By enforcing a stricter policy on prospective immigrants, Sweden will be sending out a message that immigrants will no longer be given a free ride. The emphasis of these programs should not be on the immigrants or refugees currently in Sweden. The brunt of the programs should re-focus the current policy to a preventive, external perspective.


Sweden, like many other nations throughout the industrialized world, is facing a rising crisis that threatens its social stability. While other nations begin to re-asses their own abilities to handle the influx of immigrants and refugees vis-a-vís economic recession, inflation, unemployment, and huge deficits, Sweden cannot ignore the similarities and rising unrest within its own borders. Sweden joined the European Union late last year, hoping to benefit from the mutual trade agreement that will insure economic survival for the small Nordic nation. They must be careful not to imitate the rest of Europe and maintain their own unique culture. However, a lesson should be learned from the increased social problems inflicting many of these other nations.
The Swedish government should not ignore the media which reports incidents of hate crimes, whether the aggressors are Swedish or immigrants. Therefore, a moderate policy should help to prevent further social disintegration, allowing the country to heal and recover from its current cornucopia of problems. This policy should include the following steps: 1) further reduction of immigrants and refugees by toughening lax asylum laws and liberal interpretation of ³refugee;² 2) reduction of time a political refugee waits in unclassified status; 3) maintaining current levels of developmental aid, thus contributing to external efforts for global peace and development; 4) disbursement of immigrants throughout communities instead of ethnic groupings; and, 5) a commitment to listen to the concerns of the Swedish citizen.
The government must address the concerns of its citizens before further pursuing policies that lead to a deterioration of its social system. It is ideal to create a melting pot of cultures when it is permited by the circumstances, but Sweden is not in this situation. It must find a way to seek a middle path through the turmoil that is dividing the population. Canada is taking a renewed look at its immigration policies (ironically enough led by a former Argentine immigrant, Sergio Marchi). Revamping Sweden¹s Social Democratic interpretation of the term refugee will not isolate Sweden. Instead, it will allow time for its economic, political, and social infrastructure to return to where it may someday again ask for foreign workers. This policy does not imply that the current foreign born be deported. It begins with simply a voice of deterrence for future asylum seekers. Economically and socially, Sweden is unable to maintain its current refugee-immigration policy. Moderate steps must be taken in o rder to prevent a full-blown hate war.

Works Cited

Belt, Don. "Sweden: In Search of a New Model," National Geographic 184(August 1993)2: 2-35.
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Gooderham, Mary ³Canada Pulling In the Welcome Mat,² The San Francisco Chronicle 23 March 1995: [A] 1, 7.
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Westin, Charles. ³Changes in Attitudes Toward Immigrants,² Current Sweden Swedish Institute: April 1992: 388.