Sweden – a new melting pot?

As Sweden opens its borders to a new wave of labour migration, the country is becoming more diverse than ever before, writes Olle Wästberg, director-general of the Swedish Institute.

Sweden – a new melting pot?

Saffron and dates have long been part of the Swedish Christmas food tradition. But nowadays many families in Sweden can be found mixing their dates and saffron with meze and bulgur, rather than the usual lutefisk, herring and ham.

In December, Sweden’s major supermarkets and food stores stock plenty of Christmas alternatives for people rooted in food traditions other than the typically Swedish. This mirrors a new Sweden.

Formally, the Evangelical Lutheran Swedish Church is the biggest religion in Sweden, even though most of its members are religiously indifferent. This is probably not the case with most of the 250,000 Muslims or the 35,000 Syrian Orthodox.

The different religions sometimes meet and create new Christmas traditions. In the Stockholm suburb of Fisksätra, Lutherans and Muslims – who last year held joint ceremonies – now have a crib together.

To many Swedes, Christmas is more of a food and family gathering than a religious holiday. But Swedes really have different backgrounds. Every third newborn Swede has at least one parent or grandparent born in another country.

From the close of the Second World War to the end of the sixties, Sweden was open for labour immigration. The large Swedish industrial companies like Asea, Alfa Laval and Atlas Copco had recruitment offices in Italy and Yugoslavia. But in 1968, Sweden closed the borders for workers. Since then, the overwhelming majority of immigrants have been refugees.

Statistics show that the three dominant countries of origin for immigrants now living in Sweden are Finland (181,000), the former Yugoslavia (146,000), and Iraq (83,000). But there are also 37,000 immigrants from Turkey, 23,000 from Lebanon and 18,000 from Somalia. And the stream of refugees from Iraq is remarkable. Sweden has admitted more refugees from Iraq than either the US or Great Britain.

December 15th, 2008 marked the starting point of a new era in Swedish immigration policy. As of Monday, Sweden is once again open for labour migration from countries outside the European Union. Foreign students who study at Swedish universities may stay on and work after their exams. Foreigners may come to Sweden and – for a limited period – try to find a job on the Swedish labour market.

Right now, unemployment rates are rising, but in the long run the ‘old world’ is living up to its name. In forty years’ time, the average age in Sweden will be twenty years higher than that of the populations in Canada and the US. That’s why Sweden will need more engineers, more doctors, and more people in the care sector in general. And that’s why the Swedish parliament made a nearly unanimous decision to embrace the new principle of labour immigration.

Sweden is changing. If I look back at previous generations on my father’s side, I find two names reappearing in every generation since the seventeenth century: Olof Persson and Per Olsson. This is the case for many Swedes. But the proportion of Perssons, Olssons, Larssons, Erikssons, Mattssons and Anderssons will be much smaller in the future.

A new country has emerged that fits the description: “Sweden – the melting pot.”

Olle Wästberg, Director-General of the Swedish Institute


‘Stockholm has to fix its housing problem’

With the clock ticking on the lease for her current home in Stockholm, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt reflects on how Sweden needs to improve the housing situation for visiting students, researchers and other skilled workers.

'Stockholm has to fix its housing problem'

I read a recent piece in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (also run on The Local) arguing that the government bureaucracy plays a large role in discouraging foreign talent from moving to Sweden.

In this article, the Swedish Institute (SI) argues that students, researchers and other skilled workers are an important part of Sweden’s economy, innovation and future; however, they are being held up by the bureaucracy of visas, taxes and rules.

While bureaucracy is no doubt a significant hurdle, I can think of another problem here in Stockholm that causes frustration and panic once these foreigners cut through the red tape: housing.

The student housing crisis in Stockholm has made the news quite a lot lately, but the incredibly tight rental market reaches farther than just students. All of these visiting researchers and workers Sweden wants to attract also have to find rentals as they settle in.

So what does it take to rent a place in this city? I can tell you it takes more than time and patience. These past two months, we got our own taste of the housing shortage.


Two years ago we arrived in Sweden assuming we’d just rent a place for a few years before made our Big Decision. Actually, we didn’t have that much of a choice— without a few Swedish tax years under our belt, the banks we checked with were reluctant to loan us anything near what we’d need to buy something in Stockholm.

We just didn’t think renting in Stockholm would be dramatically harder than in other cities around the world.

We had been warned by other expats that the rental market would be tough, and it was. We signed up for a couple of the housing queues when we first arrived and still haven’t heard back.

But since we were open to living anywhere in the Stockholm area, we eventually found a house in a great little neighborhood and settled in.


Just how lucky we were became much clearer when, this summer, just after signing onto another year in the house (and right in the middle of our vacation), we got an email: the family we are renting from wanted their house back.

Their overseas plans had fallen through, and they were coming back to Sweden. Now. How soon could we be out?

When we looked for housing two years ago, we were open to just about any neighborhood within a reasonable commuting distance to work. But now our family has settled in to this community. We have a school, daycare, friends and neighbours that we want to stay reasonably close to.

And to make the house hunt even more exciting, our move-out date is rapidly approaching. I love the fact that summer in Sweden is truly vacation time —generally speaking, things shut down, and many people get time off work. But this made finding a new place to live next to impossible.

After two months of replying to listings on Swedish buy-sell site Blocket and other rental sites, we have gotten only a handful of responses. One was from the owner of an absurdly expensive townhouse unable to get his asking price but unwilling to go down. Another response looked like this:

“I’ll only be in town for one day, so I want to make sure you’re serious about the place. If you want me to hold it for you, immediately deposit 7,500 kronor ($1,150) into my account.”

Hmm…We’re not that desperate. Yet.

I’ve heard friends blame the tight rental market on many things, including rent control, environmental concerns, geography and politics. But one thing they all agree on is this: the problem has been around for as long as they can remember. And it’s not likely to change any time soon.

Now, with the clock ticking on our current house and no prospects in sight, we’re suddenly faced with our Big Decision earlier than we were ready for: do we buy something here in Stockholm, or do we move back to California? Do we dare enter the notoriously difficult buyers’ market? I’m not even sure it’s possible to buy before our move-out date.

Every immigrant family we know has struggled with this same issue. If Stockholm wants to encourage the influx of visiting professors, students, researchers, and colleagues, these need a place to live.

Sorting out Stockholm’s housing problem is just as important as addressing the bureaucracy that the Swedish Institute criticizes.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.