Analysis

Even Sweden Doesn’t Want Migrants Anymore

Sweden’s generous response to the 2015 refugee crisis may have permanently dented its moral worldview.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Migrants sit by a fire near the Belarusian-Polish border.
Migrants aiming to cross into Poland warm themselves by a fire on the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region on Nov. 16. MAXIM GUCHEK/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, Swedish Minister of Finance Magdalena Andersson delivered her maiden speech as head of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and thus, the presumptive successor to longtime Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. Andersson began, predictably enough, by celebrating the triumph of the Swedish welfare state over the neoliberalism of the “grinning bankers on Wall Street.” Then, in a turn that shocked some loyal party members, Andersson directly addressed the country’s 2 million-odd refugees and migrants. “If you are young,” she said, “you must obtain a high school diploma and go on to get a job or higher education.” If you receive financial aid from the state, “you must learn Swedish and work a certain number of hours a week.” What’s more, “here in Sweden, both men and women work and contribute to welfare.” Swedish gender equality applies “no matter what fathers, mothers, spouses, or brothers think and feel.”

In 2015, Swedes took immense pride in the country’s decision to accept 163,000 refugees, most from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “My Europe takes in refugees,” Lofven said at the time. “My Europe doesn’t build walls.” That was the heroic rhetoric of an all-but-vanished Sweden. The Social Democrats now deploy the harsh language only far-right nativists of the Sweden Democrats party used in 2015. Indeed, a social democratic organ recently noted with satisfaction that since “all major parties today stand for a restrictive migration policy with a strong focus on law and order,” the refugee issue is no longer a political liability.

Five years ago, I wrote a long article about the tide of refugees arriving in Sweden with the inflammatory title (which I was not consulted on) “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth.” Sweden plainly hasn’t died since then, and last week, I contacted many of the people I spoke to then with the expectation of issuing a mea culpa and acknowledging that social democracies have more resilience than I was prepared to acknowledge. I was, it turned out, wrong about being wrong.

Earlier this month, Swedish Minister of Finance Magdalena Andersson delivered her maiden speech as head of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and thus, the presumptive successor to longtime Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. Andersson began, predictably enough, by celebrating the triumph of the Swedish welfare state over the neoliberalism of the “grinning bankers on Wall Street.” Then, in a turn that shocked some loyal party members, Andersson directly addressed the country’s 2 million-odd refugees and migrants. “If you are young,” she said, “you must obtain a high school diploma and go on to get a job or higher education.” If you receive financial aid from the state, “you must learn Swedish and work a certain number of hours a week.” What’s more, “here in Sweden, both men and women work and contribute to welfare.” Swedish gender equality applies “no matter what fathers, mothers, spouses, or brothers think and feel.”

In 2015, Swedes took immense pride in the country’s decision to accept 163,000 refugees, most from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “My Europe takes in refugees,” Lofven said at the time. “My Europe doesn’t build walls.” That was the heroic rhetoric of an all-but-vanished Sweden. The Social Democrats now deploy the harsh language only far-right nativists of the Sweden Democrats party used in 2015. Indeed, a social democratic organ recently noted with satisfaction that since “all major parties today stand for a restrictive migration policy with a strong focus on law and order,” the refugee issue is no longer a political liability.

Five years ago, I wrote a long article about the tide of refugees arriving in Sweden with the inflammatory title (which I was not consulted on) “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth.” Sweden plainly hasn’t died since then, and last week, I contacted many of the people I spoke to then with the expectation of issuing a mea culpa and acknowledging that social democracies have more resilience than I was prepared to acknowledge. I was, it turned out, wrong about being wrong.

Sweden had opened itself to the desperate people fleeing Middle Eastern civil wars and tyranny not because, like Germany, it had a terrible sin to expiate but rather out of a sense of universal moral obligation. Their Europe did not build walls. But, of course, the actual Europe of 2015 did just that, leaving very few countries—above all, Germany and Sweden—to bear the burden of what I then called “unshared idealism.” Nevertheless, Sweden’s leaders, like Germany’s, were prepared to shoulder that burden. Loyal social democrats, I found, were confident, almost complacent, about Sweden’s ability to integrate vast numbers of barely literate Afghan children and deeply pious and conservative Syrians, just as they had with cosmopolitan Bosnians and Iranians in past years. “A strong state can take care of many things,” the head of Sweden’s Left Party reassured me.

Swedes have learned since 2015 that even the most benevolent state has its limits. In recent years, the country has suffered from soaring crime rates. According to a report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, over the last 20 years, Sweden has gone from having one of the lowest to one of the highest levels of gun violence in Europe—worse than Italy or eastern Europe. “The increase in gun homicide in Sweden is closely linked to criminal milieux in socially disadvantaged areas,” the report said. Gangs—whose members are second-generation immigrants, many from Somalia, Eritrea, Morocco, and elsewhere in North Africa—specialize in drug trafficking and the use of explosives. Crime has become the number one issue in Sweden; before she said a word about migration, Andersson boasted that her party added 7,000 new police officers, built more prisons, and drafted laws creating 30 new crimes. She decried “those who claim that it is certain cultures, certain languages, certain religions that make people more likely to commit crimes”—yet her own government has substantiated those claims.

It’s hardly surprising that newcomers lag behind Swedes on every index of well-being, but the gap is very large. In a recent book, Mass Challenge: The Socioeconomic Impact of Migration to a Scandinavian Welfare State, Tino Sanandaji, an economist of Kurdish origin who has become a leading critic of Sweden’s migration policies, writes “foreign-born represent 53 percent of individuals with long prison sentences, 58 percent of the unemployed, and receive 65 percent of social welfare expenditures; 77 percent of Sweden’s child poverty is present in households with a foreign background, while 90 percent of suspects in public shootings have immigrant backgrounds.” Figures like these have become widely known; the number of Swedes who favor increased migration has dropped from 58 percent in 2015 to 40 percent today.

Sweden is no longer a welcoming country and does not wish to be seen as one. In June 2016, the country revised its longstanding policy to deny refugees permanent asylum; those admitted were given temporary permits of either three months or three years, figures dictated by the minimum permissible under European Union rules. The law was meant to be a temporary response to the crisis of the previous fall, when the country literally ran out of places to put asylum-seekers; it has since been renewed. Last year, the country accepted only 13,000 refugees, the lowest number in 30 years. A recent study written by a senior Swedish migration official concludes that Norway and Denmark, both notoriously inhospitable to refugees, are “increasingly seen as positive examples of how to deal with refugees and international migration.”

Social Democrats are hardly alone in their shift to the right. The center-right Moderate Party now works with the Sweden Democrats on migration issues, though they are not formally affiliated. Diana Janse, a diplomat and former government official who is running for parliament as a moderate, complains the ruling party has kept the Sweden Democrats at the margins of Swedish politics by what she calls “brown-smearing—labeling party members as fascists or ‘Brownshirts.’” Janse held a much less sympathetic view of the right-wing party when we spoke six years ago. The Sweden Democrats have held steady at around 20 percent in polls and in parliament; the number almost certainly would have grown had many factions in the center of the spectrum not adopt the party’s rhetoric on migration. “What was extreme in 2015 is mainstream today,” Janse put it.

The abandonment of old ideals is profoundly dismaying to Sweden’s progressives. Lisa Pelling, head of research at the Arena Ide think tank in Stockholm, conceded “we’ve definitely seen a repressive turn in political language” as well as in policy. Pelling acknowledged—which she did not in 2015—that “there was a need to do something” to stem the immense refugee flow but believes the restrictions should have been allowed to lapse once that tide receded. She pointed out that temporary permits—even if renewed, as they normally are—often prevent asylum-seekers from receiving the kind of long-term vocational training they need to enter the labor market. That is hardly the only impediment to work: Sweden also lacks the extraordinary conveyer belt that carries newcomers in Germany from language programs to vocational training to internships to jobs. Perhaps the state needs to be stronger, but the Swedes have run out of generosity on that front. It’s not hard to sympathize: In 2016, the country spent a stupefying $6 billion on refugees—more than 5 percent of its total budget.

That inflammatory headline was not quite as hyperbolic as I thought. Of course, Sweden remains an enormously prosperous, relatively egalitarian, and quite safe country. It is rather some deep Swedish impulse that has died. Sweden asked too much of itself. Over the last 20 years, an ancient and homogeneous culture subjected itself—without any prior intention or even public debate—to a demographic transformation of breathtaking proportions. The United States slammed the gates of immigration shut in 1924 when the percentage of foreign-born citizens reached about 15 percent. That figure in Sweden is now 20 percent; and thanks to ongoing labor migration and family reunification, the number of migrants continues to grow every year by about 100,000 people (or almost 1 percent of the population). Virtually all of these migrants come from societies radically different from Sweden—less educated, less secular. In response, Sweden didn’t “die.” It changed cherished values to survive.

Sweden is Europe writ large. The European Union responded to growing backlash against the arrival of more than a million migrants in the late summer and early fall of 2015 by reaching a deal with Turkey in 2016 to prevent refugees from crossing into Europe. That solved the political problem without addressing the underlying humanitarian crisis. Since then, Europe has tried, not very effectually, to help African and Middle Eastern nations that now host the overwhelming majority of those who have fled from violence and repression in the region.

The current standoff at the edge of the continent, in which Belarus has sought to blackmail Europe by sending refugees from all over the world into Poland and Lithuania, has been all too telling: EU leaders have voiced full support for Poland’s brutal response, even if it leaves thousands of helpless people exposed to freezing temperatures in forests near the Polish-Belarusian border. No one has suggested vetting their claims of persecution for fear that tens of thousands more would come. In any case, Europe will not serve as the sanctuary of the world’s 70 million refugees and displaced people; the great bulk of those people must be settled closer to home, though wealthy countries will have to foot most of the cost of offering them a decent life.

Democratic societies do not rest on the abstract principles expressed in their founding documents. They rest—as Americans have now learned, to their great chagrin—on the collective beliefs of their own citizens. Abstract principles exercise a strong hold, but lived experience can unmoor people even from values deemed sacred. It falls to leaders not simply to remind people of those values but to curb, harness, and reshape the forces that most deeply threaten democratic principles.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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