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‘Swedish society forces ‘immigrants’ to emigrate’

Swedish society is failing its "immigrants", many of whom, such as football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, are forced to look elsewhere to build successful careers, social commentator and author Tove Lifvendahl argues.

'Swedish society forces 'immigrants' to emigrate'
Photo: Albert Bonnier förlag; Luca Bruno/Scanpix (file)

“I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic” – this is no way to express oneself in Sweden, if you are aware of the silent, strict codes in order to be accepted (editor’s note: in reference to the title of the autobiography of the Sweden and Milan star).

I was once told how the former US ambassador to Sweden Lyndon Olson paid a visit to a daycare a couple of days after arriving in Sweden. He was baffled to see how the children, dressed up as pieces of pie in papier-maché hats, sang that they were part of the pie.

“This would never happen in America! There they would say ‘I am pie!”

Swedes possess, aside from their reputation as the Scandinavian Japanese (quiet, polite, punctual, conflict-shy, nature-lovers) a characteristic which ethnologists continually return to: Sweden is the country where similarity is appreciated more than anywhere else.

This peculiarity causes us trouble when faced with that which constitutes the contrast to similarity: difference. People who differ – for example, immigrants, emigrants, returning Swedes, odd personalities, those with high ambitions or unwillingness to adapt to the social regulations – are at high risk of being met with negative attitudes.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Lagercrantz’s readable book is not primarily about Sweden – even if some who have read it, amazingly enough, seemed to have missed at least ten years of debate on integration filled with stories of how social exclusion appears to many, naively treating this part of the book as “dynamite”. Wake up, like.

The comments and reviews by which the main character is met, both now and previously, are however illustrative. One person gets hung up for a large part of their review on Zlatan’s admission that he has not been interested or heard of some famous Swedish football players, and the reviewer concludes, after a long explanation, that Zlatan can’t be telling the truth. No one can surely be in the dark about Ravelli! (editor’s note: Sweden’s national team goalkeeper in the 1994 World Cup).

One thing is certain: We can bask in the glow of Zlatan, but not take any of the credit.

Sure, we like football and are happy to praise our heroes when successful. But Zlatan hasn’t succeeded because of Sweden and Swedish society, but despite it – or possibly hardened by the mistrust, the questioning, the complaints, protest lists, and other negativity that he has encountered.

The support he has received in Sweden has come from from certain individuals who have chosen inopportunistically to defy the entrenched norms.

In New York, there are currently around 25 other Swedes who meet to play football. Not as a pros, but as happy recreational amateurs. The team is called Blatte United, and consists mainly of Swedish-born guys who, when they lived in Sweden, were regarded as immigrants (sometimes classified into second or third generation…).

We lost them to foreign shores, because they diverged from Swedish norms and were never given a chance.

They thus chose to build their lives elsewhere. Today, they run lauded, world-renowned restaurants and advertising companies, or hold senior positions within banking and finance. Some of them can, without exaggeration, be called “Zlatans” within their respective fields.

We hold them up as Swedes who have succeeded internationally, but the truth is we bullied them away and showed them the door.

Sure there are a large number who look elsewhere as a natural part of a career choice.

But this completely new category of immigrants which Sweden has created are successful, global citizens who play football in their freetime, and who look back to reflect on Sweden, wondering when we’ll understand that the suppressed, sometimes hissing, envy and the difficulty in overcoming differences, is characteristic of our societal culture for which we are paying a very heavy price.

Tove Lifvendahl is 37-years-old and lives in Uppsala. She is the head of communications at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and the author of a new book on national identity, development and emigration.

This article was originally published in Swedish on the Aftonbladet daily. English translation by The Local.

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OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.


Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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