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Sweden: A utopia for refugees?

This blog was written by young volunteers from C.A.R.E , a charity and WONDER partner working with migrants and refugees in Sweden.

Rushing to the dance floor whenever your favourite ABBA songs come on. Spending hours scouring through instructions for IKEA flat-packed furniture. Eagerly awaiting the latest episode of True Blood for your weekly dose of Alexander Skarsgård. These are just a number of ideas that might pop into your head when you think of Sweden.

Now, here are a few things which refugees might associate with life in Sweden:

  • Its global reputation as a humanitarian utopia.
  • A track record of welcoming refugees throughout history, from Word War Two to the Yugoslav Wars.
  • A generous welfare and social benefits system, including free ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ language lessons.

Located in the Scandinavian Peninsula of Northern Europe, Sweden is often celebrated as a safe haven for many seeking a life free from persecution. The centre-left nature of its government, coupled with its history of generosity and political neutrality, has provided the ideal conditions for refugee immigration and integration to prosper.

With the latest waves of refugee migration, Sweden set an impressive example to its European counterparts, with the number of asylum applications doubling between 2014 and 2015 to around 160,000, including more than 35,000 from unaccompanied minors. As a result, Sweden received more refugees per capita than any other European country in 2015.

But why is Sweden such a popular country for refugees?

For many years, it operated an open-door policy, as well as being the first country in Europe to grant permanent residency to asylum seekers from Syria. The Swedes extended a welcoming hand to refugees and migrants through free language lessons, monetary support, the right to health care and for those whose applications for asylum were still pending, free housing was provided. This compassion went beyond the higher echelons of government policy and into local led politics in municipalities, in which policies were directed towards building temporary housing and creating employment for refugees.

It is clear to see why Sweden has been perceived as a ‘humanitarian superpower.’

However, the continuation of the refugee crisis in 2016, has brought a number of challenges to Swedish policy-makers. The media has been awash with headlines such as ‘The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth’ and ‘Sweden’s backlash: Why the tide is turning for refugees,’ which suggests a crucial change in Sweden’s outlook to its influx of refugees.

Indeed, as of November 2015, Swedish policy has dictated stricter border controls and compulsory identification checks on all modes of transport, signalling an end to its commendable open-door policy. Controversial medical tests are now used to determine the age of unaccompanied minors and the promise of permanent residency is now only applicable to UNHCR quota refugees. In addition to this, the country is also experiencing a rise in right-wing, nationalist politics, with the Sweden Democrats and its far-right stance on immigration coming into prominence. This political realignment signals a shift in public opinion towards refugee migration: immigration was the principal concern for 40% of Swedes, surpassing native concerns over education, employment and welfare standards.

So where did it all go wrong for Sweden? Many have concluded that an open-door policy resulted in limited restrictions on the sheer volume of refugees entering the country, with the President of Sweden, Stefan Löfven proclaiming: ‘We simply cannot do any more.’ Others have criticised the role of the European Union for not being able to spread refugees more evenly around Europe.

However, the changes in Swedish policy and public opinion should not be oversimplified to just these reasons. After all, many Swedes are deservedly proud of their country’s track record in welcoming refugees and migrants. The answer lies in a multitude of factors, with the most significant being inadequacies in integration policy and practice.

Language and integration are central to Sweden’s immigration policies, with refugee children being dispersed among different schools and neighbourhoods in an attempt to avoid creating ‘ghetto’ schools. There are many opportunities to learn and develop skills, especially with the implementation of the ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ and ‘Swedish from Day One’ education programmes, as well as opportunities to undertake vocational training. These initiatives give the impression that integration into Swedish society will be a success. However, with Sweden as a prime destination for many refugees, the sustainability of these integration policies must be questioned. They might be successful in the short term, but with the number of refugees in Sweden set to rise, the long term challenges need to be taken into account. Policies need to be revised and updated to adapt to the needs of natives, refugees and the systems on which both their livelihoods depend.

Sweden set the standard for welcoming refugees, and it certainly eclipsed its European counterparts in providing a humanitarian ‘utopia.’ However, to accept refugees is not enough and if this utopia is to be preserved, the public and political spotlight must now focus on sustainable integration and we, as young people, need to be part of that. 

This blog is part of the EU-funded "A Refugee Like Me" project, and you can read more about it here. 
Do your bit to make refugees welcome through education. Help our partner the Baytree Centre provide English language classes for vulnerable refugee women: