Sweden used to be a sanctuary for refugees. No longer
The once-reviled Sweden Democrats are no longer alone in criticizing Muslim immigration. The whole political spectrum has swung their way
Earlier this month, Swedish Minister of Finance Magdalena Andersson delivered her maiden speech as head of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and thus, the presumptive successor to longtime Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. Andersson began, predictably enough, by celebrating the triumph of the Swedish welfare state over the neoliberalism of the “grinning bankers on Wall Street”. Then, in a turn that shocked some loyal party members, Andersson directly addressed the country’s 2 million-odd refugees and migrants.
“If you are young,” she said, “you must obtain a high school diploma and go on to get a job or higher education.” If you receive financial aid from the state, “you must learn Swedish and work a certain number of hours a week.” What’s more, “here in Sweden, both men and women work and contribute to welfare.” Swedish gender equality applies “no matter what fathers, mothers, spouses, or brothers think and feel.”
In 2015, Swedes took immense pride in the country’s decision to accept 163,000 refugees, most from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “My Europe takes in refugees,” Lofven said at the time. “My Europe doesn’t build walls.” That was the heroic rhetoric of an all-but-vanished Sweden. The Social Democrats now deploy the harsh language only far-right nativists of the Sweden Democrats party used in 2015. Indeed, a social democratic organ recently noted with satisfaction that since “all major parties today stand for a restrictive migration policy with a strong focus on law and order”, the refugee issue is no longer a political liability.
Five years ago, I wrote a long article about the tide of refugees arriving in Sweden with the inflammatory title (which I was not consulted on) “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth”. Sweden plainly hasn’t died since then, and last week, I contacted many of the people I spoke to then with the expectation of issuing a mea culpa and acknowledging that social democracies have more resilience than I was prepared to acknowledge.
I was, it turned out, wrong about being wrong.
Sweden had opened itself to the desperate people fleeing Middle Eastern civil wars and tyranny not because, like Germany, it had a terrible sin to expiate but rather out of a sense of universal moral obligation. Their Europe did not build walls. But, of course, the actual Europe of 2015 did just that, leaving very few countries — above all, Germany and Sweden — to bear the burden of what I then called “unshared idealism.”
Nevertheless, Sweden’s leaders, like Germany’s, were prepared to shoulder that burden. Loyal social democrats, I found, were confident, almost complacent, about Sweden’s ability to integrate vast numbers of barely literate Afghan children and deeply pious and conservative Syrians, just as they had with cosmopolitan Bosnians and Iranians in past years. “A strong state can take care of many things,” the head of Sweden’s Left Party reassured me.
Swedes have learned since 2015 that even the most benevolent state has its limits. In recent years, the country has suffered from soaring crime rates. According to a report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, over the last 20 years, Sweden has gone from having one of the lowest to one of the highest levels of gun violence in Europe — worse than Italy or eastern Europe. “The increase in gun homicide in Sweden is closely linked to criminal milieux in socially disadvantaged areas,” the report said.
Gangs — whose members are second-generation immigrants, many from Somalia, Eritrea, Morocco, and elsewhere in North Africa — specialize in drug trafficking and the use of explosives. Crime has become the number one issue in Sweden; before she said a word about migration, Andersson boasted that her party added 7000 new police officers, built more prisons, and drafted laws creating 30 new crimes. She decried “those who claim that it is certain cultures, certain languages, certain religions that make people more likely to commit crimes” — yet her own government has substantiated those claims.
It’s hardly surprising that newcomers lag behind Swedes on every index of well-being, but the gap is very large. In a recent book, Mass Challenge: The Socioeconomic Impact of Migration to a Scandinavian Welfare State, Tino Sanandaji, an economist of Kurdish origin who has become a leading critic of Sweden’s migration policies, writes “foreign-born represent 53% of individuals with long prison sentences, 58% of the unemployed, and receive 65% of social welfare expenditures; 77% of Sweden’s child poverty is present in households with a foreign background, while 90% of suspects in public shootings have immigrant backgrounds.” Figures like these have become widely known; the number of Swedes who favor increased migration has dropped from 58% in 2015 to 40% today.
Sweden is no longer a welcoming country and does not wish to be seen as one. In June 2016, the country revised its longstanding policy to deny refugees permanent asylum; those admitted were given temporary permits of either three months or three years, figures dictated by the minimum permissible under European Union rules. The law was meant to be a temporary response to the crisis of the previous fall, when the country literally ran out of places to put asylum-seekers; it has since been renewed.
Last year, the country accepted only 13,000 refugees, the lowest number in 30 years. A recent study written by a senior Swedish migration official concludes that Norway and Denmark, both notoriously inhospitable to refugees, are “increasingly seen as positive examples of how to deal with refugees and international migration”.
Social Democrats are hardly alone in their shift to the right. The center-right Moderate Party now works with the Sweden Democrats on migration issues, though they are not formally affiliated. Diana Janse, a diplomat and former government official who is running for Parliament as a moderate, complains the ruling party has kept the Sweden Democrats at the margins of Swedish politics by what she calls “brown-smearing — labeling party members as fascists or ‘Brownshirts.’” Janse held a much less sympathetic view of the right-wing party when we spoke six years ago. The Sweden Democrats have held steady at around 20 percent in polls and in Parliament; the number almost certainly would have grown had many factions in the center of the spectrum not adopt the party’s rhetoric on migration. “What was extreme in 2015 is mainstream today,” Janse put it.