Swedish house debates migration policy

Sweden's parliament debated the agreement on migration and asylum policy between the Alliance coalition government and the Green Party at the request of the Sweden Democrats on Wednesday.

Swedish house debates migration policy

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson opened the debate by arguing that Sweden’s immigration policy was “extreme” and “irresponsible” in an EU context.

“It is obvious that generally speaking (the government) wants to see an increase in immigration to Sweden,” he said, arguing that the agreement is a document in favour of “unfettered mass immigration”.

Migration minister Tobias Billström underlined that the agreement provided for a legal basis for long-term migration policy.

“The government and the Green Party has taken a joint responsibility for migration and asylum policy. A regulated immigration. An orderly process… Which recognises that there is another migration aside from the involuntary.”

Billström devoted much of his time at the speaker’s podium to underlining the responsibilities of the EU in formulating a joint migration and asylum policy and argued that the agreement was a contribution to this.

“Yes Sweden takes in a large number of asylum seekers – but that is not the problem. The problem is that a small number of states do a lot, while a large number do very little,” he said during the debate.

He laid out several initiatives contained in the agreement including more resources to ensure that those denied asylum leave the country, as well as a review of the situation of the “papperslösa” (literally: without documents) to access emergency healthcare.

Billström argued that Sweden could be a model to other EU states to resist the insular winds blowing across the continent, pointing out that the key to Sweden’s success is its openness and ability to attract newcomers.

Åkesson later complained at the use of the Swedish term “papperslösa” (Literally: without documents), calling it “newspeak”, in a reference to George Orwell’s 1984.

“They should be called what they are – illegal immigrants,” Åkesson said, arguing that the agreement encouraged illegality by making it easier for those who have not applied nor been accepted for asylum to access Swedish welfare.

In a opinion article in the Svenska Dagbladet daily on Wednesday morning, Åkesson claimed that there were 60,000 people in Sweden who had been denied asylum but remained in the country, based on the number of completed deportations.

Tobias Billström rejected the figure, saying that it ignored the fact that most people who are denied asylum leave the country of their own free will.

Fredrik Federley of the Centre Party attacked the Sweden Democrats line of reasoning on welfare and challenged Jimmie Åkesson to confirm that he stood behind an agreement which gave, for example, pregnant women the right to give birth at Swedish hospitals regardless of status.

Federley also underlined the importance of labour migration to ensure that Sweden’s demographic challenge is met and questioned why qualified immigrants seek their success elsewhere.

“Why do migrants leave for England or Canada – because we are not able to contribute and provide opportunities,” Federley said.

Åkesson responded to Federley’s challenge by complaining at the tone adopted in his speech, while thanking the remainder of the speakers for the debate.

A significant part of the continued debate was dedicated to dissenting views of immigrants as an asset or a burden, with Ulf Nilsson of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) following a similar reasoning to the Moderate Party’s Tobias Billström in defending the proposal.

“The Alliance sees inward labour migration as an opportunity, sees the possibilities of the EU to build up a humane asylum policy and an open labour migration,” he said.

“The EU is the possibility we have, we need to give it a chance,” Nilsson concluded.

The agreement has been heralded as a statement that Sweden will not follow the perceived situation in Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti – DF) has managed to gain a profound influence on migration and asylum policy.

Several speakers referred to this “Danish development” and also to research presented at Gothenburg University on Monday which showed that the harder the line adopted by the established parties within migration and asylum policy, the greater the support for the Sweden Democrats.

The study presented by Carl Dahlström and Anders Sundell indicated that the line adopted by the parties on the left of the political spectrum is particularly important, especially the Social Democrats.

The researchers questioned why established parties would adopt a tougher line when they appear to punished for it by the voters. Denmark is used as an example where the views of an anti-immigrant party are “contagious” for the others.

Christina Höj Larsen of the Left Party argued in the debate that this process has already begun and disputed that the agreement constitutes a means of blocking of the “Danish development”.

“Why adopt bad policy, and justify it by saying the alternative is even worse,” she said, arguing that Sweden needs clear answers on how the situation can be improved for many of the more vulnerable groups in society.

Emma Henriksson of the Christian Democrats took up this theme in her rejection of the classification of all those without documents to be “illegal”.

“These are people who reside in our country who have not applied to be here, or have applied and not been approved. But that does not make the people illegal in themselves; this human being retains the full rights to exist,” she said.

The Green Party’s Maria Ferm concluded the debate by expressing a hope that the agreement can form the basis of further constructive cooperation.

Ferm furthermore pointed out that Sweden is a wealthy country and doesn’t need to make a choice between developing social services, addressing poverty and tackling crime, and a humane asylum and open labour migration policy.

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”