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What lessons can Sweden learn from its Yugoslavian refugees?

Lee Roden
Lee Roden - [email protected]
What lessons can Sweden learn from its Yugoslavian refugees?
Refugees from Yugoslavia arriving in Ystad, Sweden in 1993. Photo: NTB Scanpix

Two decades ago thousands of refugees fled war in Yugoslavia and made Sweden their home, where today they are a well-integrated part of society. The Local explores what Sweden can learn from that experience, as part of our Sweden in Focus series.


During the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, many of those fleeing the conflict looked to Sweden for protection, with just over 100,000 coming to the Scandinavian nation at the time. In 1992 alone, 70,000 people from the former Yugoslavia applied for asylum in the country – a record high number for a calendar year until it was surpassed in 2015.

More than two decades later, the refugees who came to Sweden from the former Yugoslavia are held up as an example of successful integration in the country, and with good evidence. A 2016 study showed that a significantly higher proportion of Bosnians (who made up the bulk of the refugees from the Yugoslav wars) are employed in Sweden compared to other foreign-born residents. In the 20-24 age bracket, employment was at virtually the same level as native Swedes, and the proportion of those employed aged between 25 and 29 was even slightly higher than people born in Sweden.

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UN peacekeepers and refugees near Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia. Photo: AP

The success of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in Sweden is not only evident in statistics, but also in the number of important figures in the country with origins there. Jasenko Selimović, an MEP for the Liberals and former state secretary to centre-right integration minister Erik Ullenhag, was born in Yugoslavia and fled from the war as a teenager. Aida Hadzialic, who fled as a refugee at the age of five, became Sweden's youngest ever cabinet minister when she took up the position of adult education minister in 2014. Social Democrat Jasenko Omanović, who also came as a refugee, is a sitting MP in the Riksdag. Away from politics, there are also several Yugoslav refugees in important positions at leading Swedish companies like Nordea, Ericsson and Volvo.

But what lessons can Sweden learn from its successful integration of Yugoslavian refugees? Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the experience is that a good match between the people coming in and the systems of their new home is worth its weight in gold. One thing all the experts The Local spoke to for this article highlighted was the harmony between the general makeup of those who came from former Yugoslavia to the Scandinavian country, and developments in Sweden, which was moving towards a knowledge-based economy at the same time.

Similarities in level of education was particularly vital to the long-term success: Yugoslavia's education system, where primary schooling was compulsory until the age of 15 and students were encouraged to follow upper secondary education until the age of 19, was not dissimilar to Sweden's, where school is compulsory until 16, and most pupils then go on to upper secondary school.

"Sweden had the system it had and received a highly educated and strong group from the former Yugoslavia," Emina Pasic, President of the APU Network Association for academics, entrepreneurs and artists of Bosnian-Herzegovinian background in Sweden, explained to The Local at the Swedish Energy Agency's office in Stockholm, where she is now a senior advisor.

"We ranked well compared to similar countries and had a lot of foreign students in Bosnia and Herzegovina who came there to study, which is very important. And I'm not just talking about higher education: but also basic education, high school. We had a very strong education system which put very high demands on kids from a young age and they were graded early on. Not everyone had the same experience – of course some probably found it very tough here ­– but considering the high demands back in Bosnia, it felt quite natural when later in life here, at Swedish high school (gymnasiet) there were demands. We came to the country accustomed to a high level, and that meant we could develop."

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Emina Pasic. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Sweden was apparently well aware of that suitability at the time. A Swedish government document from 1993 optimistically points out that "the integration of these people should be made easier in that it is the question of a relatively homogenous and well-educated group".

A comparable standard of education not only made it easier for those from former Yugoslavia to adapt to Sweden's own education system, but also for them to go on and become employed.

"When we studied what had worked at the Department of Integration when I was state secretary, we looked at different groups and how they adapted to Swedish conditions," former state secretary Jasenko Selimović recalled.

"What it showed quite clearly was that ethnicity means nothing – the first wave of Iraqis to come here, the diaspora that Saddam Hussein threw out of the country who were very highly educated adapted perfectly well for example, the second wave who came after the education system had been destroyed had big problems."

The first major wave of Iraqi refugees in Sweden came during the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, and the actions of Hussein's post-war government which forced many to flee. The second wave was caused by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

"It's not about ethnicity, or religion or anything else, it's two main questions: educational level, and the possibility of recognizing the system of the country as being similar to your country of origin. These two things were similar for refugees from the former Yugoslavia, and that's why they succeeded," he continued.

Government measures were also taken to try to ease the transition, like when in 1993 the Swedish government stepped up its mapping of the educational background and employment experience of the refugees in an effort to get them on the correct road to employment.

"These measures during the introductory period mean that the chances of Bosnian refugees integrating well in Swedish society after moving to a municipality will increase," it argued.

Economic support for municipalities increased too, as the government warned that "even those who learn Swedish and have a good chance of doing well could have a difficult time supporting themselves", due to the financial crisis gripping Sweden in the early 1990s.

"There was quite a lot of emphasis on employment policy measures for refugees from Yugoslavia to help them into the labour market," noted Jan Ekberg, professor emeritus in economics at Linnaeus University and an expert of the economics of migration.

Sweden didn't get everything right however. Far from it. A policy of distributing the refugees across Sweden in an effort to avoid creating concentrated groups, and by extension encouraging quicker integration, did not take into account the fact that some municipalities were suffering more than others from the high unemployment that followed the financial crisis. It backfired.

"That's one thing Sweden could have done better: they could have made sure not as many Bosnians were placed in the Malmö area. Unemployment there was very high in the mid 90s," he said.

Jan Ekberg has written extensively about the integration of Yugoslavian refugees in Sweden. Photo: Jan Ekberg

A lack of local knowledge and language ability means immigrants take time to settle and enter the labour market in their new home, and with unemployment high in the aftermath of Sweden's financial crisis, refugees were at a heightened disadvantage. Of the Bosnians who were given a residence permit between 1993 and 1994, only 24 percent in the 20-59 age bracket had found employment after four years.

As the new millennium arrived things improved significantly, but with notable regional differences. So while by 1999, 90 percent of male and 80 percent of female Bosnian refugees aged 20-59 living in in Gnosjö, Gislaved, Vaggeryd and Värnamo were employed, the corresponding figure for Malmö was 37 percent and 28 percent respectively.

By 2013 the regional differences had decreased dramatically (71 percent of both men and women in Malmö were employed), and it is reasonable to conclude that the integration process for those who ended up in the southern Swedish city would have been quicker if they had been placed in regions with a better economic outlook from day one.

"Swedish authorities should from the start have avoided placing Bosnians in the Malmö area where unemployment was higher, though in the end it still went well for them," Ekberg concluded.

The issue of lost time is one that APU Network President Pasic also recognizes. Though like many refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina who came to Sweden with secondary education, she still had to undertake basic compulsory courses which she believes were a waste of resources.

"Our first encounter with Sweden was a language course for all refugees, but you sat there and learned how to do things like use a toilet, brush your teeth… simple things that a highly educated person didn't need, but were obligatory," she recalled.

"You thought 'where have I ended up? What kind of country is this?' You accepted it: OK, it's obligatory, so that's it. But on the other hand I think, how much did Sweden lose with that? The time spent on that for a highly educated person regardless of whether they needed it or not could have been much better used. As soon as someone becomes active in the labour market, earns money, and pays tax, then Sweden is a winner, and you start changing the attitude of society that refugees are a burden. Which is what extremist parties make gains from – the idea that people are coming here to take advantage of what Sweden has to offer," she insisted.

Refugees at a temporary camp erected to house them in Rinkaby, Skåne in 1992. Photo: Staffan Löfstedt/SvD/TT

At this point it is worth recalling that as far back as 1993, the Swedish government was supposed to have stepped up its assessment of the education and employment experience of refugees in order to get them on the right road to employment, which should have helped avoid time-wasting like Pasic's tooth-brushing example.

In 2014 however, a National Audit Office study pointed out that time was still not always being effectively used when recognizing the qualifications and skills of refugees, and the overall conclusion was that there were inefficiencies in the state's measures. Sweden has subsquently taken steps to become more flexible in the kind of introductory programmes it provides in order to try and speed up the integration process, with one example being the Public Employment Agency's "fast track" (snabbspår) programme of work experience and training designed to help Swedish employers better weigh up a new arrival's qualifications from an early stage. 

Sweden's experience with refugees from former Yugoslavia not only shows that the ability to weigh up a newcomer's qualifications is important in the process of integration however, it has also been suggested that familiarity can play a part. Unlike many of the groups to come to Scandinavia in recent years, Yugoslavian immigrants were not a new phenomenon in Sweden when refugees started arriving during the war: by 1990 there were already 50,000 from the country living in Sweden, with many coming to the country as much-needed labour migrants in the aftermath of the Second World War.

MEP Selimović has concluded that being able to call upon an established network in Sweden for example, which some of those from former Yugoslavia could do when they arrived, was important to their employment prospects and therefore the potential to integrate.

"Something that helped me a lot is that in Sweden you get the job in informal ways, everything is informally checked. So you phone someone to check out how the candidate is, and they give you quite honest information about the applicant. That's how Sweden works. The problem with other refugees or foreigners coming to Sweden is they don't have anyone who can provide that information," he said.

"In my case, I had it. My mother was here before me, she worked at the Yugoslavian embassy before the war. That network was enough. In my opinion, one of the important improvements we could make is to accept the idea that we work in a global world, competing with other people coming from other countries, and that things can't be underneath the surface because immigrants will be disadvantaged. You have to believe in formal methods," he added.

Jasenko Selimović. Photo: Jasenko Selimović.

Academics have also concluded that long-standing roots meant Yugoslavian refugees probably faced less suspicion when competing for employment than other refugees from groups not previously established in the Swedish labour market.

Sweden's experience with refugees from former Yugoslavia was a positive one, but there are still important lessons to be learned. A correlation between the Sweden of the 1990s and the nature of the people coming in eased the process, as the country's labour market was a good match for the competencies of the largely well-educated refugees at that time, and that suggests that the successful integration of the present generation of asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere will also depend on how capable Sweden is of matching them to jobs – something the Swedish government has previously pointed out to The Local.

The Yugoslavian experience also shows however that even if there is a good match between Swedish society and the skills of those attempting to enter it, the process can still be hindered by counter-productive policies, like placing refugees in areas suffering from high unemployment. Notably, the potential to waste valuable time by not effectively assessing the skills of newcomers was an issue Sweden was aware of as far back as 1993, yet by 2014 had still not comprehensively solved. Today, there are some signs that the Nordic nation is starting to do better when it comes to more quickly recognizing the abilities of the people it has brought in, but work still needs to be done.

The issue of discrimination meanwhile is not unique to Sweden, but still one that requires tackling. Refugees from former Yugoslavia may have had their cause eased by their compatriots already being a well-established presence in Sweden by the early 1990s: other refugees cannot yet call on that capital. Sweden's Employment Minister has openly recognized that discrimination is a key problem for foreign workers trying to get jobs here today, and APU Network President Pasic warned that a general attitude change is still needed in her adopted home.

"We need to actively work on and have a migration policy that sees migration as a positive process for Sweden, with good communication. Otherwise it can go in the wrong direction and help extremists grow – which we're seeing not just in Sweden, but the rest of Europe. That's migration policy failing: it's something we have to fight against," she emphasized.

This article is part of The Local's Sweden in Focus series, an in-depth look at what makes this country tick. Read more from the series here.


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