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IN DEPTH: The shifting sands of Sweden's immigration debate

Lee Roden
Lee Roden - [email protected]
IN DEPTH: The shifting sands of Sweden's immigration debate

The Local's Sweden In Focus series looks at the shift in Sweden's immigration debate since the dawn of the refugee crisis.


In 2014, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's speech calling on Swedes to "open their hearts" to asylum seekers could have been read as just another chapter in Swedish openness to immigrants. Four years on, it is far more difficult to imagine a leader of the country's biggest parties using the same rhetoric in their efforts to win the 2018 election.

Moderate PM Reinfeldt's summer 2014 speech came in a year when an increasing number of refugees were looking to Sweden and its generous asylum policies for shelter. Twelve months later the full scale of just how many there were heading north was evident, culminating with a record 163,000 people applying for asylum in the Nordic nation in 2015.

SWEDEN IN FOCUS: An in-depth look at what makes this country tick

Fredrik Reinfeldt speaking in 2014. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Fast forward to the present, and the numbers have dropped immensely, last year hitting an eight-year low of 25,666 following a significant tightening of policy. The tone has also changed notably, with election talk from the Moderates focusing on solving the Swedish "problem" rather than opening hearts, and speaking of foreigners living on subsidies and failing to speak Swedish. Main rivals (and current senior government party) the Social Democrats meanwhile promise to make studying Swedish an obligation in order to claim benefits should they be elected, and to halve refugee numbers with further policy restrictions.

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Has the Swedish approach to immigration really changed to the degree that juxtaposition suggests? Andreas Johansson Heinö, political scientist and head of publishing at free market think tank Timbro, certainly thinks so.

"There has been a dramatic shift in the discussion in the last four years. 2014 is remembered for Reinfeldt's 'open your hearts' speech but what primarily marked that election was that the established parties wanted to avoid discussing the immigration and integration question. 2018 is the first election where immigration-related questions take centre stage in the debate," he tells The Local.

Andreas Johansson Heinö. Photo: Timbro

The latter point isn't difficult to prove. The front pages of the official websites of the Social Democrats and Moderates (traditionally Sweden's two major governing parties) both prominently refer to integration. The Sweden Democrats (SD), which have been running on an anti-immigration platform for some time, meanwhile are predicted to be the biggest rival to those two in the next election, according to the polls.

Some would argue that recent talk from the Social Democrats of a "language obligation" for immigrants, and Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson's decision to use his Christmas speech to emphasize that "in Sweden we speak Swedish" are a shift towards populism taken straight from the SD playbook in an effort to win back votes lost to the latter party.

READ ALSO: Study Swedish or lose welfare, Social Democrats propose

Johansson Heinö thinks there is a risk of the two traditional political powerhouses further turning to populist rhetoric in an electoral panic, after what he sees as several years of not sensibly discussing immigration from both parties.

"The change (in asylum policy approach) in 2015 didn't have so much to do with SD. What we saw was an almost panicked adaptation to a reality that changed very quickly. But in the run-up to this year's election both the Social Democrats and Moderates have moved closer to SD's rhetoric. Voters haven't bought it so far, with the opposite happening and SD having an upturn in opinion polls."

"It's inevitable that a country that has had such extensive migration sooner or later has to respond to the consequences of it. It's also clear that many have been forced to rethink the self-image of Sweden as a tolerant and open country to immigrants. There were some blockages in the debate which could be due to dogmatism, like when during the previous mandate period it was very difficult to discuss the scale of immigration," he adds.

It's common in Sweden to hear the idea that it was previously not socially acceptable to discuss immigration with a sceptical stance. But Pieter Bevelander, professor of International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö University, who has researched policy towards immigrants in Sweden, argues that an immigrant-sceptical approach is not new to the country, and that rather the tone has gone in waves.

"It seems like the Moderates and Social Democrats are reverting to their politics from the past, pushing for a more hard-line approach to integration, and restrictive migration. This has happened several times before in history: in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and now again. So there's nothing new – some of the rhetoric of today was also used in 1990," he explains to The Local.

Pieter Bevelander. Photo: Malmö University

A 1990 opinion piece by prominent Swedish diplomat Sverker Åström illustrates Bevelander's point well. Published in popular newspaper Dagens Nyheter, it called for a cap to be put on immigration, insisting that Sweden "evidently can't take in everyone or even a fraction of those who want to settle down here" after fleeing the Yugoslav wars.

Cultural requirements should be placed on immigrants, he argued, and assessments made on whether "he or she came from a country or a culture whose customs and practice are so alien that a somewhat harmonious adaptation is difficult or impossible".

Those words could fit perfectly into the contemporary immigration debate in Sweden almost 30 years later. Similar too is some of the context: over 100,000 Yugoslav refugees came to Sweden in the early 1990s, and not everyone welcomed them with open arms. Much of the scepticism towards them has since faded, with people from the former Yugoslavia now championed as an example of successful integration in Sweden.

IN DEPTH: What can Sweden learn from its Yugoslav refugees?

"Opinions on Finns, Yugoslavs and others from earlier were negative in the beginning and changed over time," Bevelander notes.

Refugees from Yugoslavia arriving in Yustad in 1993. Photo: NTB Scanpix

Thorough research on how opinions on immigrants in Sweden has evolved is not plentiful, but a new report on the changes in attitude towards immigration between 2014 and 2016 was published only last month by Sweden's Migration Studies Delegation.

The results suggest that opinions on immigration in Sweden did not shift as significantly or quickly as the change in rhetoric and policy between 2014 and 2016, and that rather, people had already formed their opinions before then.

"You could have thought there would be a bigger change when it comes to opinions on these questions given how high they were on the agenda, how much immigration changed in that time, and how the political rhetoric was," Nora Theorin, one of the authors of the report, tells The Local.

Instead of a dramatic change from one side of the argument to the other, the report shows that people who were generally positive towards immigration grew slightly more positive, while those who were negative grew slightly more negative – a process of entrenchment that will sound familiar to anyone following debates on Brexit or Donald Trump, for example.

"It's important not to exaggerate how much more polarized Swedes became about immigration during the time period of the study as the changes were quite small. But what we saw was that certain groups – women, politically interested people, people who sympathize with the Left party or Feminist Initiative – became somewhat more positive, while at the same time the opposite happened for certain groups that were more negative from the start. But it's only from one study and quite a limited period, so more research is needed to see whether we are becoming more polarized," says Theorin.

Nora Theorin. Photo: Gothenburg University

A third key point from the study is that Swedes seem to be more positive towards those coming from culturally closer regions like Europe or the Nordics than they are to those from Africa or the Middle East. A majority said that "too often immigrants have traditions that don't fit Swedish society", and in general cultural similarities appeared to be more important in shaping attitudes towards immigrants than their economic contributions.

"There seems to be more evidence that cultural differences explain why people feel worried about immigration rather than economic issues, but at the same time we can also see that most people in the study think immigration enriches Sweden culturally. So it's not as simple as to say that people generally think that immigration from different cultures doesn't work at all – though there does seem to be some doubts in the area," says Theorin, adding that further research is needed.

The phenomenon is in any case one that is supported by other studies beyond Sweden:

"There is research which suggests people are generally more positive towards immigration from parts of the world they believe to be culturally or ethnically closer to their country. That there's a difference in attitude towards 'culturally remote' or 'culturally close' immigrant groups."

Newly arrived refugees in Malmö in 2015. Photo: Anna Karolina Eriksson/TT

That may partially explain why people from the former Yugoslavia, who were initially met with some scepticism over concerns their culture would not be adaptable to Sweden (as expressed by diplomat Åström), were eventually embraced to the degree that they can now successfully run for office to represent Sweden – about as significant a barometer of public acceptance as there is. Many of the original fears were dispelled in the long-term.

It remains to be seen whether today's immigrants will achieve the same, and leave history absolving Reinfeldt's optimistic approach. Or if the opposite will occur, and the more cautious approach of 2018 is vindicated. Either way, the debate on immigration in Sweden will certainly shift again in the future – the past has proven has much.


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