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Opinion: ‘Why Swedish migration policy badly needs an overhaul’

Sweden's immigration policy fails to accept or cater to the diverse nature of migration and people who migrate, writes columnist Lisa Bjurwald.

Opinion: 'Why Swedish migration policy badly needs an overhaul'
Sweden's migration policy desperately needs an overhaul, but how? Photo: Simon Paulin/

As much as we cosmopolitan, travel-obsessed Swedes love the big, exotic world outside our Northern nook, we don't seem to know what to do with it once it comes knocking on our borders. The result is an immigration policy that even native Swedes struggle to understand.

Last month, cross-party talks on an overhaul of this policy – something all parties agree is needed – broke down. The ruling Social Democrats and the more hardline Moderate party are edging closer than ever to each others' respective positions, but they failed to reach an agreement on one crucial detail: a cap on the number of refugees allowed annually.

Another reason behind the collapsed talks is purely strategic. The immigration-friendly Green Party threatened to bring down the Social Democratic government in the event they struck a deal with the conservative bloc on a stricter immigration policy. 

The upcoming mid-August deadline for a multi-party proposal is thus starting to look a bit too optimistic, but it's still possible that the Social Democrats and Green Party could bring forth a proposal together with the Centre Party and the Liberals, their partners in the so-called January agreement of last year. 

This official clash on immigration is only the public confirmation of the last couple of years' dramatic political shifts on the issue. Sweden has acquired a reputation for a naively liberal stance on immigration, but in reality, it's frustratingly bureaucratic at best, nationalist at worst.

Behind the latter tendency lie the formerly neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats. Obsessed with foreigners for all the wrong reasons, they've managed to turn immigration into a negatively charged term as well as push it to the top of the political agenda.

Voting slips at the 2018 election. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

Unfortunately, most other major parties have acted erratically as the Sweden Democrats have breathed down their necks, growing from freaks on the political fringe to the third-largest, in some polls even second-largest party in the country. The consequences are all too clear.

The demand from right-of-centre parties that people wanting to set up a long-term home on our soil must learn Swedish is a case in point. The Sweden Democrats, Liberals, while the Moderates say even permanent residents should have to pass a language test.

In contrast with German, Arabic or French, our language is such an odd, tiny one that it's plain awkward trying to force it on strangers, like an overzealous salesman of pointless bric-à-brac.

Most importantly, the average Swede speaks and understands English on a pretty advanced level. Young people even relish practising it. So what's the point in forcing immigrants to learn Swedish — at least those who move here already speaking English, as is the case for most who relocate for work?

The popular political argument that fluency in Swedish is the premier key to integration rings false to many a native ear. Foreign movies aren't dubbed here; we're long-time suckers for English and American culture, and you'll certainly hear more English and anglicised words on our city streets than in, say, Rome or Barcelona.

But at least Swedish is a skill that can be tested. The political debate on the importance of “Swedish values” in new arrivals has been an embarrassment, with even nationalist politicians failing to come up with a definition that makes sense.

Then, there are the Kafkaesque rulings of the Swedish Migration Agency.

Not a month goes by without new cases being reported of stand-up citizens facing deportation over minor, often absurd technicalities (forgetting to take a vacation is a strong contender for the first prize), not seldom to unstable parts of the Middle East. These men and women have made their home here for years, even decades, starting families, purchasing property, climbing the career ladder. And then, out of the blue: A notice to get out, fast.

The phenomenon of deporting high-skilled labour is now so common that there's even an informal name for it: kompetensutvisningar, or the expulsion of competence.

Given Sweden's long-standing global ambition to safeguard democracy and human rights, many Swedes are particularly appalled at the repeat incidents of children being deported or threatened with deportation. It's simply heartbreaking to watch 10-12-year-olds protesting their completely integrated classmates' deportations, calling out the adults on the Immigration Board for acting against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Fresh cases brought to light only this summer involve a 10-year-old girl that could be expelled alone to Turkey, a recent 19-year-old graduate facing the same prospect but to the Ukraine, and an 11-year-old girl who risks ending up with the same family that abused her for years.

The ten-thousands strong Sweden-wide network “We can't stand it but we'll never stop fighting” pretty much sums it up (although they focus mainly on unaccompanied minors), and they have the support of prominent politicians such as Hans Blix and Jan Eliasson. Moulded by the more humanitarian society of former Prime Minister Olof Palme, they're an increasingly rare sight in the Swedish political landscape.

All parties are now gearing up for the 2022 general election. If the media doesn't succeed in holding our politicians accountable for recent failures, including in healthcare, the election is likely to be a race to the bottom of the always handy blame-the-immigrant game.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here. Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Member comments

  1. Citizenship is a state tool for inclusion and exclusion. Sweden once stood out as one of the most progressive countries when not demanding language test as a part of citizenship – this was a result of a truly progressive spirit. However, the ideal of a progressive Sweden is now being eroded by right-wing populist hacking. Politics is a battle field among antagonistic forces. If the progressive left cannot fight back, the battle will be won by right-wing forces – and the result can easily be predicted: Look at the current destructive US! Look at the bewildering Britain after their “revolutionary” government has taken their country back from the EU! Look at the dismantling of democracy and the turn back to dictatorship in Poland and Hungary! Will it be the future of Sweden when the Moderate Party together with the Sweden Democrat govern Sweden? Not surprisingly, they have become the second and third largest parties in Sweden, and linguistics is one of their rhetoric to win voters. I have a friend, living in Sweden for ten years, speaking a fluent Swedish, having a master’s degree in the social sciences at one of the leading Swedish universities, but my friend couldn’t find any proper job – despite her excellent Swedish. This means that language is not a deciding factor to land a job. Remember that the Swedish job market is rigged and divisive (some job sectors are more “welcoming” for migrant workers because those sectors are not competitive, are not well-paid, or simply because the Swedish do not want to do such jobs or do not have enough skills to do so). In the end, my friend decided to take a nursing course. And here the story goes: nursing is one of the “great” areas for migrants – the migrants come and take care of our Swedish people from childhood to aging but still being despised by our Swedish.

  2. What about people who aren’t “refugees”? Is there any discussion of “unfair” for individuals like myself, who love Sweden, have many friends there, have spent much time there over more than 2 decades, and have a more than adequate guaranteed income (3 separate pensions), but am denied official uppehållstillstånd because my citizenship is US, not something EU. I’m told that I am required to have (in advance) either a “job” or “family” in Sweden, but simply being willing and able to contribute — both socially and financially — to Sweden is not enough.

    Maybe my chances for acceptance would be better if I waited until after the US election and then applied as a “refugee”?

  3. Such interesting and important comments. Thank you. This, for example, is well-worth following up on for me or other journalists, pref. putting the dilemma straight to our politicians: “I’m told that I am required to have (in advance) either a ‘job’ or ‘family’ in Sweden, but simply being willing and able to contribute — both socially and financially — to Sweden is not enough.” It sure should be enough! /Lisa B.

  4. I completely agree with all the above commenters (pre 5th Aug – time of my writing). The increasing back-turning by most European countries away from refugees is tragic and abhorrent.

    Beyond that however, I’m completely at a loss to understand why Sweden would make coming here and contributing to the economy just so difficult for people, apart from the fact that there is racism and xenophobia at its core. It’s simply backwards, and sadly, an increasing trend in other parts of the world too, including the UK (to varying degrees of course).

  5. I just applied for the right to be a resident in Sweden after having been married to a late Swedish National, Reading all the above comments, it is certainly making me doubt whether I want to live in Sweden or not after Brexit. Beyond all my personal narrative, (my apologies for this long preamble) I would like to ask all of the above commenters, where do you experience racism and xenophobia … on people’s mind? their hearts? or immigration officials? completely three different worlds … please let us join the dots …

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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

But the most common recurring story reflect Sweden’s longstanding guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.