Sweden – a new melting pot?

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.

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