Sweden signals radical shift in integration policy

Three leading politicians from the governing Alliance have presented a series of guidelines for the introduction of new immigrants into Swedish society.

Local councils that can offer jobs to newly arrived immigrants will be rewarded with money from state coffers.

The aim of the scheme is to encourage councils with a healthy labour market – rather than those with a generous housing market – to take in more immigrants and refugees.

In a joint statement, Sweden’s ministers for integration, migration and education – Nyamko Sabuni, Tobias Billström and Lars Leijonborg – explained that Sweden is currently faced with challenges similar to those encountered at the time of the war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

The high number of asylum seekers from Iraq presents a particular challenge, they said

Malmö’s Social Democratic councillor Ilmar Reepalu has welcomed the new guidelines.

“Finally an end to refugee policies characterized by indulgent liberalism,” he said.

In order to speed up the introduction of immigrants to the labour market, new arrivals will be encouraged to move to “those municipalities where the jobs are”.

The government has set aside 600 million kronor ($84 million) in its new spring budget to help stimulate the reform. The money is to be used to encourage municipalities in need of labour to sign agreements surrounding the reception of immigrants.

A further 400 million kronor has been earmarked for wage subsidies, which – in combination with funds from the government’s ‘new start’ job scheme – will be used to finance 80 percent of an person’s wage.

To qualify for a grant, local councils must commit to organizing introductory discussions with new immigrants within the first week of their arrival. An agreement will then be reached as to how each individual can best approach the tasks of getting a job, learning Swedish and/or entering the education system.

Councils also have to ensure that their Swedish language courses pass muster, while at the same time keeping a close eye on attendance figures. Any immigrant found not to be learning Swedish or putting sufficient effort into seeking employment may have his or her benefits reduced or completely withdrawn.

Ilmar Reepalu has long been critical off Sweden’s current integration policy. He is positive towards a shift in focus that would prevent asylum seekers from themselves deciding where they want to live – a system introduced by former Liberal Party Immigration Minister Birgit Friggebo in the early 1990s.

According to Reepalu, the system has meant that towns popular with immigrants, such as Södertälje and Malmö, have had a heavy burden to bear.

“Labour Market Minister Littorin has explained that, beginning on July 2nd, unemployed Swedes must be prepared to move to areas where there are jobs. Otherwise they will lose their unemployment benefits. That really has to be the case for people from other countries too,” said Reepalu.

The ministers have not yet gone quite so far with their new proposal. But a new report commissioned by the government to help crystallize its integration policy may well reach the same conclusion as Reepalu.

The report is to be completed by June 2nd, 2008.