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How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?

Lee Roden
Lee Roden - [email protected]
How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?
Asylum seekers learning Swedish at Swedish For Immigrants classes. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Sweden has received some 280,000 asylum applications since 2014, a significant number for a country of 10 million people. Integrating all of those granted asylum into Swedish society is a big task, so just who exactly is responsible for trying to make that happen? What is being done to pull it off, and what are some of the challenges as well as opportunities created along the way? In the first of our Sweden In Focus series, The Local attempts to answer those questions.


How best to approach asylum policy is arguably the most polarizing issue in Sweden of recent years. It is certainly one of the most important on a political level, exemplified in the rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. After first entering parliament in the 2010 election with 5.7 percent of votes, they went on to claim almost 13 percent in the 2014 election, and have polled as high as 21 percent since.

The pertinence of the issue can also be seen in the marked change in discourse from the more mainstream parties. That has meant the abandonment of Sweden’s "open door" attitude towards asylum seekers and the introduction of border controls designed to keep numbers down. Reports of crime and religious extremism in inner-city suburbs, where the foreign-born population is often high, have gained enough attention that even the country's Social Democrat Prime Minister felt obliged to give a speech on the matter last summer.

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Sweden granted protection to 69,350 people last year alone – so the subject is clearly not going to go away. Instead, the question of how best to integrate the newcomers will likely be one of the key points of debate in the 2018 Swedish election.

Asylum seekers at Malmö's Hyllie station during the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

But what is integration in the first place? Depending on who you ask, the definition can vary. Is a person integrated if they have a home, a job and pay taxes, or is it about something more? Perhaps it's about accepting the social norms of a society?

The Swedish Government department with the prime responsibility for integration is the employment ministry, led by Minister for Employment and Integration Ylva Johansson. In a meeting at the ministry's head office in central Stockholm, Johansson's press secretary Natalie Sial explains their definition of integration:

"For the Red-Green government and Social Democrat leadership, integration means people coming to Sweden being given the right conditions to establish themselves within and become a part of Swedish society."

"It's about having respect for basic Swedish values – you have both rights and duties here – and also having the right opportunities to establish yourself in Swedish society. The chance to learn the language, start working for example," she adds.

READ ALSO: More about our new Sweden In Focus series

The key to newcomers being able to establish themselves within Swedish society is access to employment, the employment ministry believes, after which the process of integration starts to move forward. That explains why the Swedish government handed the overarching responsibility for integration to this department in the first place.

Employment and Integration Minister Ylva Johansson. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

But it's not going to be easy. Figures from Sweden's Public Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen) show that as of March 2017, the unemployment rate among Sweden's foreign-born population was 22.2 percent, compared to 4.1 percent among Sweden-born citizens. The rate is even higher in areas judged by police to be "particularly vulnerable".

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With many of the people who sought asylum in Sweden during the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 only now being given their residence permits, the challenge of trying to get them into work is only just beginning. And it's important to understand that those asylum seekers are not a homogeneous group.

Their degree of work experience and education varies from person to person just like any other group of people, which also means the chances of finding work will vary. The Public Employment Agency's attempt to solve that conundrum is the Introduction Programme (Etableringsuppdraget), a plan tailored according to each individual.

So while one newcomer to the country may need further education in order to have the best chance of success in Sweden, another may require work experience. The goal is to best meet each person's needs on an individual level – complicated, but also something Sweden believes will create the best possibility of integrating in the long term.

"The idea is that when the programme is finished the person can then go on to work or pursue further education. And it's important to point out that it's work or studying, because going straight into work isn't always best for a person if they don't have an education suitable for Sweden, which a large section of the people who came here recently don't have," Fredrik Möller from the Public Employment Agency’s Integration and Establishment Department tells The Local.

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"It's very important for those people to get a good education, because in the long term if they don't have that they won't be an established part of society or a stable part of the labour market. On the other hand, there are people who came with a very high level of education and have worked in advanced jobs like being a surgeon or a teacher. For them, it's important to try and reduce the time before they start working as much as possible," he adds.

As such, there is a different programme designed specifically for those newcomers with a good degree of previous skills or education – the "fast track" (snabbspår) programme. Created in collaboration between the employment ministry, employers and unions, the fast track programme delivers work experience and training which, when completed, should make it easier for a Swedish employer to accurately weigh up whether a new arrival is suitable for a job.

This graph charts the total number of people registered in the Introduction Programme. Note the sharp rise in 2016 and 2017 as more people were granted residence permits. Photo: Arbetsförmedlingen

With the majority of people who sought asylum in Sweden from 2015 onwards only now entering the Public Employment Agency's jurisdiction, just how successful these programmes are will be seen in the long term. It's no secret that long waiting times are a reality of Swedish life – not only for asylum seekers – but when it comes to that group in particular, making the best possible use of their time from the day they first arrive in the country is another key to helping their chances of integrating, the employment ministry's Sial emphasises.

"We've made it so that – with the help of civil society organizations who have been given economic resources to offer language education – people can already start to learn Swedish when they're in an asylum centre. We've also started mapping skills, so that people can easily register what their work experience is as early as possible," she says.

Language issues are a major factor in the time it takes for a newcomer to Sweden integrating into the country's labour market, according to Professor Pieter Bevelander, an integration expert from the Malmö Institute of Migration, Diversity and Welfare. On a comparative level Sweden is performing fairly well, he points out, but it could still take as long as a decade for the majority of that group to be integrated.

"The available evidence in Sweden suggests between five and ten years to achieve up to a 60-70 percent employment level. The time is due to language learning, as well as other specific knowledge needed to get a job according to education. Compared to our neighbouring countries of Denmark and Norway, Sweden is mostly doing a bit better in labour market integration of refugees though. It's doing quite well so far, and certainly not worse than its neighbours," he says.

Plenty is being done in Sweden to try to aid the side of integration linked to employment, but what about less quantifiable questions of culture and social norms which some would argue are equally important?

It's those things that Mustafa Panshiri focuses on in his work. A former police officer, he recently quit his job to focus full-time on travelling around Sweden and speaking to lone refugee children (more than 37,500 have come to Sweden since 2015) about the process of adapting to their new country. In his opinion, helping the kids to get a proper understanding of Swedish values is vital if they are going to integrate.

"A job is important of course, but integration is also to do with respecting Swedish society's values and rules. What I focus on is what it means for someone who comes from Afghanistan for example to enter a democratic society. How can that transition impact a person's view of life? How can the ideas they bring with them collide with ideas in Sweden? I try to find a common ground between the kids and Swedish society," he tells The Local.

Mustafa Panshiri. Photo: Mustafa Panshiri

Panshiri understands the process better than most. Originally from Afghanistan, he came to Sweden when he was 11, and he tries to tap into his personal experience when helping kids from a similar background who have arrived today.

"In my meetings with the kids I go back and think 'what was weird for me when I came to Sweden?' and start from there. In our conversations I notice it's the same questions they have," he explains.

Being a relatable figure also helps.

"When I walk into the room I look like the kids, speak the same language as them. And you know, when we speak about these things – things we take as a given here in Sweden like equality of the sexes, for example – it can be a challenge for them. But that reduces to some degree when they speak with me. I can say to them 'I made that journey'."

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In Panshiri's opinion, Sweden has in the past been guilty of not properly addressing the cultural challenges for newcomers. On his Creative Integration (Kreativ Integration) Facebook page, the ex-police officer tries to illustrate the reality of the integration process for these young people – both the positive stories he encounters on a daily basis, and the problems that also arise.

So while there are tales of triumph and inspiring encounters with youngsters, there are also honest accounts of conversations with kids who at first found it difficult to grasp concepts like freedom of expression, only eventually coming round to the idea after a dialogue was created. Integration is sometimes not possible without an initial degree of friction, he argues.

"This subject is very polarized at the moment. On one side there's Donald Trump and Fox News talking about Sweden from afar, and on the other politicians in Sweden saying there's no problem. I try to show that the truth can be found somewhere in the middle, we have to work towards that," he says emphatically.

Another person who dedicates time to helping younger refugees with a big challenge in adapting to Sweden is Mohammad Arvan. An actor by trade who moved from Iran to Sweden when he was six, every Wednesday he holds a class in Örebro where asylum seekers can receive advice on how to interact with women according to Swedish social norms. 

That's not a trivial subject, Arvan believes, as the home cultures of people who sought asylum in Sweden can sometimes be significantly different to that of their new home when it comes to gender norms.

"The class started because one day one of the refugee kids from Afghanistan asked me about the subject," he recalls.

"I think it's good that someone explains these things. They have no idea about it. That's why you see so many stories of things happening at concerts and swimming pools where refugee kids are said to be involved," he adds. 

With that, Arvan is referring to stories from 2016 of groping among young people at music festivals in Sweden, where newspapers like Dagens Nyheter alleged the perpetrators were young refugee males

"They ask me stuff like 'if someone is standing at a bar, how should I go forward and speak with her?' Or it could be on the street, in the shops, wherever. How do you start a conversation? Most people think I'm doing a good thing by teaching people how life is here in Sweden."

Mohammad Arvan. Photo: Mohammad Arvan

For most of us it is probably difficult to grasp the confusion that may be caused for a youngster who, after months or maybe years of fleeing from a troubled country, is then thrust into a culture completely different to theirs, where the social norms and habits are not the ones they are accustomed to from back home.

One of the most innovative attempts to tackle that tricky side of integration for youngsters is Youmo, a recently launched website from Sweden's Youth Guidance Centres (UMOs). Available in the four most commonly spoken languages by new refugee kids in Sweden – Dari, Somalian, Tigrinya and Arabic – as well as English and simple Swedish, the goal is to answer questions they may have about a broad range of subjects, from sexuality to mental health, gender equality and even friendship.

Many of them have fled countries where these subjects are not discussed to a great extent, and as such, Youmo could be the first time they are given vital information.

"We started out with an analysis of what people need to feel secure and strengthen their self-esteem in order to become a part of their new society in a good way. Young people are in many cases keen to become a part of their new country and understand the context, culture and rules," Youmo project leader Lotta Nordh Rubulis details to The Local at their office in Södermalm, Stockholm.

A screenshot from the Youmo website. Photo: Youmo

Putting the site together has been an extensive process. Texts were written in Swedish, translated, then cross-checked by a further translator, and also examined by people who are experts in the areas the texts address. On top of that, young asylum seekers were then asked to check the texts to make sure the language has a style that other youngsters would engage with. No stone was left unturned in trying to maximize the possibility of kids actually going on to use the site after its launch.

Some of the most popular pages so far are those with information about making friends in Sweden. Something that could be a big factor for the youngsters one day integrating into Swedish society.

"We can already see from the few statistics we have that exactly those pages about meeting new friends have been really popular. It's a really important issue: it can often be that someone comes here and perhaps lives in a home and is isolated from other Swedish kids as the home is a bit further out of town. So they're very interested in learning how you go about forming friendships," Nordh Rubulis explains.

"Many of them have also lived a very gender segregated life and perhaps never had a friend from the opposite sex. It's exciting to see (them learning about that)."

It is hoped that Youmo can ultimately provide reliable answers for the youngsters to both serious questions but also more everyday things in Sweden that they are curious about, and therefore help them to integrate.

The challenges of integrating thousands of newcomers into Swedish society are clearly many then, but what about the opportunities it could also create? One of those is the possibility of providing more blue-collar people to employ, with the Swedish ranks in that category almost exhausted, the Public Employment Agency's Möller explains.

"If you look at the labour market, the pool of Sweden-born working class labour is almost empty. So as a result, we have to try and equip the newcomers to the country as best as possible to take the jobs that are available there."

Indeed, the agency's director general Mikael Sjöberg recently predicted that Sweden needs as much as 64,000 immigrants annually if it wants to prevent labour shortages from hampering economic growth, in part because the native birth rate is currently too low.

The Public Employment Agency office on Tunnelgatan in Stockholm. Photo: Emma-Sofia Olsson/SvD/TT

Research suggests that if Sweden can integrate its newcomers into the labour market then it could lead to improved economic growth. A 2016 report by four researchers at Stockholm University into immigration's impact on Sweden's economic development points out that while 15 years ago, Sweden faced the demographic challenge of a population weighted heavily towards those in the 65 plus age bracket, migration between 2000 and 2015 comprised largely of people aged 15-39 means the country's age structure is changing.

"Overall, the results suggest a relatively bright future for Sweden as 15 years of high net immigration have led to an increasing working age population, providing the necessary conditions for significantly faster economic growth than an alternative scenario with lower net immigration," the report states in its conclusions.

That's a point that the Employment Ministry's Sial was also keen to highlight:

"We have big ambitions. We don't just want people to work, we need it. In the past there was talk of the generational shift in Sweden. But most of those who have come in recent years are under 40, so it's a very young population. If we get the matching process between people and jobs to work, it'll be a big opportunity for Sweden. But it's important we get it right."

And that last part is the key. Botch the process of trying to integrate newcomers, and Sweden will not only have wasted money and resources, but it may also further the political fragmentation in the country and increase poverty and crime. Get it right, and in the long run, Sweden could solve some of its big challenges.

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It's a complicated issue, but it's clear that a lot of people, both on a national as well as a local, more individual, level are investing their time and energy to try to make it work.


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