Did Sweden Opening Its Borders Backfire?

In the wake of the Swedish government collapsing last week, Leonid Bershidsky reflects on the role played by anti-immigration sentiment:

Contributing to the crisis was the government’s decision to grant immediate residency to refugees from the Syrian conflict. Last year, Sweden took in a record 86,700 immigrants, the biggest number for a European Union country relative to its population, according to a recently released report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In part thanks to the EU’s free movement policy, in part because of the political establishment’s liberal values, European countries take in large numbers of immigrants. The U.S. only allowed in the equivalent of 0.3 percent of its population last year, compared with 0.9 percent for Sweden, 0.8 percent for Austria and 0.5 percent each for Germany, the U.K. and Spain. In absolute numbers, Germany, the U.K., France and Sweden together took in more immigrants than the U.S., though their combined population is 30 percent smaller.

Kaj Leers sizes up the situation:

A social problem is brewing in Sweden. The country has thus far been very welcoming to refugees from wartorn countries such as Syria. Former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt roused Swedes when he bluntly stated that Sweden should accept more asylum seekers, regardless of popular opinion. The Scandinavian country, however, seems stuck in the 1990s.

It continues to accept refugees from countries with different cultures, but it doesn’t seem to have thought through what to do with them. In 2013, riots hit the Stockholm suburbs, with many cars burnt throughout areas populated by refugees. The main reason: unemployment and frustration. Unemployment among asylum seekers and second-generation immigrants is rampant, and the economy isn’t providing enough jobs for all Swedes. Immigrants seem to be concentrated in small areas, creating pockets of discontent, much like in France.

This kind of discontent has proven to be fertile ground for populist far-right parties like the FPO in Austria, the Front National in France and the PVV in the Netherlands. Stefan Lofven – and anyone else hoping to win Swedish elections set for March 22, 2015 – would to well to heed the lessons of Western Europe of the past 20 years.

Joanna Kakissis reports on the Syrian immigrants in Sweden:

Sodertalje now has five Syrian Orthodox churches, two professional soccer teams, and a TV channel that broadcasts in Neo-Aramaic, Arabic and English to eighty countries. One third of the city’s population — 30,000 out of 90,00 people — now hails from all around the Middle East, says city manager Martin Andreae. … Sodertalje’s unemployment rate is twice as high as Sweden’s national rate. That’s partly because refugees are struggling to learn Swedish, a requirement for a job.

And Kay Hymowitz compares the fate of immigrants to Sweden with those to the US:

For much of modern Scandinavian history, immigration was rare. Those who did move to Stockholm or Oslo came from neighboring or other European countries—places with relatively similar cultural habits and understandings. Prior to the 1980s, for instance, Swedes often viewed the word “immigrant” as meaning Finns who had left the Soviet Union. …

In recent decades, Sweden has seen a large influx of immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other non-Western countries. The Norface Research Programme on Migration finds that the children of uneducated, non-Western parents have considerably less success in school than their native counterparts in Sweden (and Denmark); once again, the gap is wider than that between native and non-Western immigrant students in the United States. Worse, and unlike in the United States, things don’t improve over generations. Many immigrants have arrived too recently to trace their children’s trajectory, but the most recent poverty rates for children with a Turkish background born in Sweden are three times higher than they are for native children. Unemployment and poverty are much higher in the immigrant group. “Poverty in Sweden has taken on an ethnic dimension,” Björn Halleröd, a sociology professor at the University of Gothenburg, told the Local, an English-language Swedish newspaper. Sweden remains egalitarian by international standards, but inequality grew by a third between 1985 and the late 2000s—faster than in any other OECD country.

Update from a reader:

The New Yorker firewalls it, but for subscribers, Jane Kramer’s “The Invandrare” (March 22, 1976, and anthologized in her collection “Unsettling Europe”) is worth directing Dishheads to. The boldface is mine and strikes me as as true of Republican America today as Kramer thought was true of Sweden then. Kramer:

Sweden, of course, is a notoriously provincial country. It has no history of cultural multiplicity and no real tolerance for it, and the stolid conformity that confounds tourists who come expecting a nation of sexy girls and broody, philosophical drinking partners is really a reflection of the Swedes’ profound uneasiness with difference. Sweden may produce its Strindbergs and its suicides, but the Swedes themselves seems to regard genius and madness alike as object lessons in the lamentable inability of some people to suppress their eccentricities and become cheerfully, comfortably, the same as everybody else.

Most Swedes, in fact, protectionist for centuries and secure by now in a benign but stultifying xenophobia, seem to regard foreignness itself as something insulting. Over the past forty years they have adopted the most liberal and humane immigration policies in Europe. But those policies, drafted in the name of the new social-democratic ideology, were based in large part on the conviction that the Swedish character and Swedish values, being the proper character and proper values, would instantly convert any foreigner—and that in admitting foreigners they were really adding to their sparse population hundreds of thousands of potential Swedes.

They had none of the Americans’ hard, practical dread of immigrants, nurtured by long and chaotic experience with melting-pot culture. And they had none of the cynicism about immigrants that a history of colonialism in Africa and Asia had developed in people like the French. The Swedes’ only serious colonial adventure in a millennium was a seven-hundred-year occupation of Finland, right next door. They were certainly not prepared for what they got when they began recruiting invandrare from the Mediterranean, and what they got they found unacceptable. They are uncomfortable with their new prejudice, which they suspect contradicts their image of themselves as flawlessly egalitarian, and so for the most part they do not express it. They simply defend themselves against the presence of so many stubbornly foreign foreigners with a kindly but invincible disregard.