Immigration Policy in Sweden: Part One

For those of you who are interested to learn more about Swedish immigration and integration policy, I’ve written a two part summary from WWII onwards – here is part one.


From 1850 to 1930 Sweden was largely a nation of emigration, with over 1.3 million Swedish citizens emigrating to the United States of America, Australia and Canada (Migrations Verket 2009). This trend was to change with the outbreak of World War II and Sweden’s ability to remain, at least officially, neutral. This neutrality shifted Sweden from being a nation of emigration to one of immigration as a result of accepting refugees from neighbouring countries during 1938 to 1948, including 30,000 Nazi concentration camp survivors (Westin 2006).

Immigration to Sweden continued to grow substantially from 1948 to 1971 as a result of labour immigration. This too was as a result of Sweden’s neutrality during the World War II. While most of Europe’s devastated industries were recovering, Sweden’s infrastructure remained intact and the nations’ export industry was experiencing growth (Westin 1996). At this time, Sweden had a free immigration policy regarding labour immigration and during this period 550,000 Finns, 60,000 Yugoslavs and 20,000 Greeks moved to Sweden for labour employment purposes (Westin 2006).

In 1951 an agreement was reached allowing Nordic citizens the right to live and work within any of the other Nordic nations, ensuring a supply of labour from Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. Sweden did not have an official integration policy during the 1950s and early 1960s, with labour immigrants expected to integrate themselves into Swedish society. As there was a plethora of available jobs and opportunities, this did not constitute a problem at the time (Westin 2006).


While no formal policy was implemented during this period, that is not to say Sweden ignored immigration policy altogether. Rather, Sweden made the decision at the end of the 1960s that immigrants should be considered permanent residents and that immigration policy was to ensure that these immigrants be on equal terms to native Swedes (Hammar 1985). This consideration of immigrants as potential citizens was in stark contrast to the German Federal Republic and a number of other European countries at the time who implemented guest worker policies.

During this time the government also worked closely with the powerful Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) in order to ensure that foreign labourers were paid the same as Swedes in order to prevent cheap labour importation from other parts of Europe. In 1968 the Swedish Trade Union Confederation was able to influence the Swedish Social Democratic Party to implement more restrictive immigration policies that required non-Nordic citizens to obtain work permits before they arrived in Sweden (Malm 2005). This effectively reduced the amount of non-Nordic foreign labour entering Sweden (Migrationsverket) from this point onwards.

In 1968 the government established the Swedish Immigration Board which was created to regulate migration and was responsible for the integration of immigrants and refugees (Geddes 2003).

In 1975, an immigration policy was implemented which focused on multiculturalism as an important element in Swedish society and was based on the principles of equality, freedom of choice and partnership. ‘Equality’ represented the intent to give immigrants the same standards of living as the rest of Swedish society and ‘freedom of choice’ represented initiatives by the government to ensure that immigrants of ethnic and linguistic minority groups would be given a genuine choice between retaining their cultural identity or taking on a Swedish cultural identity. Lastly ‘partnership’ represented the mutual benefits of immigrant and minority groups working together with the native population (Ålund & Schierup 1991).

This policy also allowed foreign citizens the right to vote in local elections, but not national elections (Ålund & Schierup 1991). Rather Sweden introduced dual citizenship in order to allow previously non-Swedish citizens the ability to vote in national parliamentary elections (Westin 1996). Equality, freedom of choice and partnership allowed immigrants the ability to access the welfare state benefits while at the same time maintaining their cultural identities (Ålund & Schierup 1991 p.3). This multicultural policy also intended to prevent the occurrence of ethnic conflicts and the formation of segregated immigrant communities within Sweden. This policy was considered proof that Sweden was becoming a multicultural society (Westin 1996).

The 1975 immigration policy was primarily aimed at the integration needs of southern European labour migrants. However by the time this policy had been passed, the majority of immigrants to Sweden were not labour migrants. This was as a result of the 1973 oil crisis which reduced the need for the recruitment of foreign labour to Sweden as unemployment levels rose and immigrants were not able to find jobs as easily as native Swedes (Geddes 2003). Rather, refugees from developing countries became an increasingly large group within Sweden from the 1970s onwards, and consequently family reunification increased measurably as well. This resulted in organisational problems in Sweden due to lack of qualified translators and language teachers (Geddes 2003).

During the 1980s asylum seekers arrived in Sweden from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Somalia, Kosovo and a number of Eastern European nations with numbers reaching upwards of 20,000 to 30,000 a year (Lemaître 2007). After 1985 Swedish immigration policy began to shift away from a multicultural focus to one that was based around Swedish language learning and culture.

For those of you would would like to read about this is more details, I’ve included my references:

Geddes, A 2003, The Politics of Migration and Immigration in Europe, Sage Publications, London.

Lemaître, G 2007, ‘The Integrations of Immigrants into the Labour Market: The Case of Sweden’, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 48.

Malm, T 2005, ‘The Impact of Immigration on Europe’s Societies: Sweden’, The European Migration Network.

Migrations Verket, ‘History of The Swedish Migration,’ The Swedish Migration Board.

Westin, C, 2006, ‘Sweden: Restrictive Immigration Policy and Multiculturalism’, Centre for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations, Stockholm University.

Ålund, A & Schierup C 1991, Paradoxes of Multiculturalism – Essays on Swedish Society, Avebury, Aldershot.

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Itchy Feet

For those of us who have moved multiple times, sometimes saying in one place can be the hardest thing of all.

This is especially true for me when times get tough. When I have bad days, when I’m lonely, or frustrated, one thing that always pops into my head is ‘life could be easier if you just moved to (insert city/country that is my flavour of the month)’. It’s not that I actually want to run away from my problems, and in fact I’ve never actually followed though with these thoughts, but they are always there, in the back of my mind – you could just move, leave it all behind, start again – it would be better next time, somewhere else.

I also like to research other countries and cities that I’d like to live in. At the moment for example, I like to read about the thoughts and experiences of people that live in Berlin. I’m sure if I moved there from Stockholm, I’d be looking up what life might be like in another city, and probably missing aspects of life in Sweden. (In an attempt to remedy this desire, I’m going to Berlin to explore/work for a week rather than permanently – to my husband’s great relief, I’m sure).

The same thing goes for language. I used to love the Swedish language when I lived in Australia. I’d watch movies, read books, and look forward to my Swedish lectures at university. Lately – the last 3 or 4 months, I’ve grown tired of learning Swedish. Maybe I’ve hit that point where it’s harder to see progress, where I can do almost everything I need to do in Swedish, and so I stop feeling as motivated – which then leads to me thinking of all the other languages I would like to learn instead. 

It can really be a challenge – this experience of life across so many cultures – you grow to love so many different places, to make friendships with people who scatter across the globe, you become comfortable with the process of being new (an outsider), and almost addicted to it. It becomes hard to settle, to grow roots – or rather, to take pleasure from these roots – they can seem at times stifling, and yet at the same time something you deeply crave.

I sometimes wonder (out of sheer curiosity, and only very very rarely, a hint of envy) how it must feel to have always lived in one place, to be part of a community you have grown up with, to know where you belong and where you want to remain. I have no idea where I will be in five years time, on which continent I will be living, which language I’ll be learning. But the thought of not knowing makes me feel comfortable rather than fearful.

I just hope I can learn to take pleasure from where I am now, this very moment, rather than imagining everywhere else, anywhere but here. 

Everyone should be an immigrant once

I firmly believe that everyone should be an immigrant at least once in their lives. 

People should know how it feels to be new to a country, to know no one, to not even know how to do fairly routine things that at home would not be given a second thought – like how to make a doctors appointment, or how to go food shopping – in Austria for example, you have to weigh your own fruit and vegetables at the supermarket before you pay, and place the price sticker on the bag otherwise you will be yelled at by the woman at the check-out, while the people in line behind you roll their eyes in frustration as she then needs to run back to the machine and weigh them for you (learnt from personal experience).

Anti-immigrant sensationalism in the media (and by far right political parties – and more worryingly by mainstream political parties) is increasing by the second, and sadly there are many people who are adopting these points of view without really looking into the facts and figures. Yes, I get it, ‘evil immigrants taking over our country and causing chaos’, sells newspapers (and conveniently creates a scapegoat for many economic and social issues), and newspapers are a business, and they need people to buy their papers, but I think the media has a lot to answer for in this respect.

One insight that really resonated with me in response to the increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe was this:

“If they knew how difficult it is to live abroad, they wouldn’t think that. It’s ten times as hard if you are coming from Africa. It’s hard enough if you are German or a French person… I have to say, it’s nice to move, but sometimes it’s very tiring and very depressing and very challenging” (Eurostars and Eurocities by Adrian Favell)

I am glad that at the age of 28 I have lived in four countries so far, that my grandparents were immigrants, that I can understand the difficulty of moving to a new country, the struggle of learning a new language, of negotiating the minefield that is integrating into a new society. But most of all I am glad that I can put myself into the shoes of those that are new to a country, to empathise and not to judge so harshly, because like it or not, we need immigrants in our ageing societies, as Hein de Haas wrote recently:

“Indeed, the only way to drastically reduce immigration is to wreck the economy.  A prolonged economic recession is therefore the only recipe to reduce immigration.”

“If and when economic growth resumes in the US and the EU, migration is likely to increase again, but with increasing global competition for migrant labour, governments and societies cannot afford the luxury to just take for granted that migrants will keep on coming – with this attitude, they may be shooting themselves in their own feet.

In many ways, in the future, the question will no longer be how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.”

I realise not everyone has the interest or opportunity to immigrate, but studying abroad, taking an expat assignment, and even travel helps to open your mind, to build tolerance and understanding. Nothing bad can come of that.

Exploring Identity: the challenges of going ‘home’

Going home, back to where you were born, or where your parents were born can have one of the biggest impacts on your sense of identity and belonging.

Many immigrants, refugees and expats living abroad do not identify fully with the culture of their adopted country, identifying more strongly with the culture of their country of birth, or that of their parents’.

An extended visit, or permanent return to their country of origin or that of their parents, can shatter any idealised pictures formed during years away. While we are overseas, our home country is changing and will not be the exact same place when we return, just as we are not the same people when we come back after two or three or ten years. It can cause the person to realise that their new ‘home’ or ‘homes’ are becoming a larger part of their identity, sometimes leading to a sense of not belonging fully anywhere.

Yesterday as I was re-reading Geert Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, I came across a paragraph that summed up my thoughts perfectly:

“A common experience for second-generation immigrants is to identify with their country of origin while they live in the adoptive country of their parents but, in contrast, to feel that they belong to their new country when they visit their parents’ country of origin. This is because they are likely to live by a mix of cultural (hidden) rules from both societies while emotionally needing a primary group with which to identify. To no surprise, they often seek comfort with one another.”

Seeking comfort with people who share similar experiences was one of the main traits I mentioned in my discussion of Third Culture Kids – feeling a sense of belonging to those who have a similar experience of life across cultures, even for those who do not share countries in common.

One of the best examples I have read of this experience is that of Lisa, a girl living in Sweden, but originally from Yugoslavia in Paradoxes of Multiculturalism: Essays on Swedish Society:

“One young girl, Lisa, travels to Yugoslavia to find her ‘real’ homeland. Yugoslavia, often referred to as the homeland, is perceived of in terms of challenges associated with the search for belonging and identity, for one’s own home. For immigrant youth, ‘home’ is a multifaceted metaphor. Lisa travels back home every year with her parents … One year, when Lisa spent a prolonged period in the homeland (Yugoslavia). on her own, she found herself only partly at home. She identified homelessness there with similar forms of homelessness in Sweden.

Eventually she found her path crossed by and resembling that of fellow travellers in her multicultural circle of friends in the Stockholm suburbs from where the trip home had begun. This circle of friends consisted of an ethnically mixed group of girls and boys with shared ongoing journeys ‘home’. Among Serbian Lisa’s best friends were a Turkish boy, an Italian-Swedish girl and a wholly Swedish girl. The rest of her circle included about a dozen youth, mostly boys from the Muslim Meditteranean area.

To retain their identities in the multi-ethnic suburban tenements they actively had to create a cultural consciousness that was more comprehensive than that of their parents. Through its ethnic mix, this circle of friends not only represented most of what could be found in the local community, but also constituted a new kind of community, one which questioned and reworked both the traditional values of the new (Swedish) world, and the established attitudes about masculinity/femininity, friendship/ emnity, etc. of the ‘old’ world.”

We can see that it wasn’t until Lisa spent a prolonged period of time in her homeland, or rather the homeland of her parents, that she realized she didn’t belong fully in Sweden or in Serbia. But she found a sense of belonging with her friends who had shared similar experiences, who were third culture kids, like her.

Tesfay, a refugee living in London explored his sense of rootlessness in the book Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees by Caroline Moorehead:

“If I were to play with words, I would say that I was homeless. Even if I go back to Eritraya now, I will not belong there. I will be strange to people, and they will be strange to me. I have acquired new habits and manners. But here, I lack what I need to feel at home. Wherever I am, for the rest of my life, I will never be entirely at home again.”

It is clear that many adults who live outside of their country of birth often feel as though their identity shifts, that they assimilate parts of the new culture into that of their past, some developing a more cosmopolitan outlook, others feeling rootless, and lost.

These issues of identity will only continue to grow, as migration does.

In Third Culture Kids, Pollock and van Reken predict that “growing up among cultural differences is already, or soon will be, the rule rather than the exception – even for those who never physically leave their home country”. The Schengen Agreement is making it easier for Europeans to relocate and find work in countries not previously as open to them in the past, for work, study, and love. Asylum seekers will continue to arrive in Europe in search of protection and family reunification and immigrants will come to build a better life for their families. This human movement is encouraging a cosmopolitan ethos of interconnectedness and multiculturalism within the European Union, on a scale never seen before.