Illusory success of Swedish immigration

Immigration is a dominant political issue throughout Europe, but in Sweden, where a general election is to be held on Sunday, the thorny subject has been markedly absent from the campaign.

“The problem is on the agenda but no one from the main parties is trying to win voters on this issue and has never done so,” Marie Demker, a political scientist at Gothenburg University, tells AFP.

There is little to distinguish immigration policies between the two major political blocs in Sweden. Both the left and right support the country’s relatively liberal policy on immigration.

When the European Union expanded in 2004 to include 10 mostly Eastern European countries, only Sweden, along with Britain and Ireland, allowed new members unrestricted access to their labour markets.

The lack of debate in the Scandinavian country is perhaps surprising in a population of nine million, where 800,000 are immigrants and 20 percent are of foreign descent.

Has Sweden’s consensus-based society resolved an issue with which most other European countries continue to grapple?

“For the outside world, we are very successful with integration in Sweden, but I do not think it has been that successful, not when doctors are driving cabs,” says Ivan Daza, a Swede of Bolivian origin who has recently established his own recruitment agency specialising in work for immigrants.

“It is a very open society, we have reached a point where we need to be better with integration,” he adds.

“If we do not succeed, it is total catastrophe.”

A view which Demker shares, saying the most serious problem for immigrants is unemployment as so many fail to obtain a job or work that matches their qualifications.

“If immigrants who are already here do not get these jobs, there could be a process of marginalisation,” Demker says.

Sweden has long been a homogenous society and only began opening its borders to immigrants in the 1950s, when those coming to Sweden were mostly of European origin. Turks, Iranians and Iraqis began arriving in the 1980s.

In 2005 the Scandinavian country welcomed 54,000 immigrants, with Poles, Iraqis and Thais representing the biggest groups of newcomers.

The number of illegal immigrants in Sweden is meanwhile estimated at between 60,000 and 100,000.

Sweden is generous towards its legal immigrants: they enjoy the right to vote in local elections, as well as speedy naturalisation procedures and Swedish and mother-tongue language courses financed by the state.

But the increasingly multicultural landscape has prompted unease among Swedes.

“We have more and more groups with strong religious affiliations and that has scared many people in Sweden,” Demker says.

A party on the far-right is seeking to capitalise on this fear, but so far it has had little success, in contrast to neighbouring Denmark where the Danish People’s Party has 24 MPs.

“We think (immigration) has caused a lot of problems … we want less immigration,” the leader of the Swedish Democrats, Jimmie Aakesson, tells AFP.

The party, which is also opposed to accepting refugees, especially from other European countries, is credited with 2.5 percent of votes in opinion polls in the run-up to the election, below the four percent required to secure parliamentary seats.

But successful integration would greatly strengthen Sweden, says Ivan Daza. If the country fails to rise to the challenge, “it will become at least like the problems in French suburbs. Maybe not now, but in a few years.”

Francis Kohn