Sweden has one of the most generous welfare systems in the world. It has also, per capita, received more asylum seekers than any other country in Europe. Is there a tension between these two things? Is it possible to be generous to your own citizens, or welcoming to those in need from elsewhere, but not both?
In the recent Swedish elections, migration and welfare were two of the biggest issues for voters. Recognising this, Swedish politicians from across the political spectrum have been taking an increasingly tough line on refugees in recent years. The country has been tightening its borders with Denmark, and introducing restrictive new laws aimed at making Sweden seem like a much less welcoming country. In 2017, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Sweden hit an eight-year low of roughly 25,000 (a massive fall from the record 162,877 asylum seekers in 2015). The government has also been very public about how it is expelling roughly two-thirds of asylum claimants, so just because people are applying does not mean they are automatically granted refugee status.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Gävle, a city of roughly 100,000 people in Sweden. Gävleborg County (of which Gävle is the regional capital) has the highest unemployment rate in Sweden (almost double the national average of 5.9%). Surely Gävle highlights the concerns of ordinary Swedes, who do not want to over-burden a generous welfare system? On the other hand, foreign-born migrants coming to Gävle in 2017 (i.e. not just refugees, but all migrants) represents less than 1% of the population.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Mathew, who says: “I live in Sweden and I can assure you that Sweden is not a racist [country]… The reason why Sweden is becoming tougher with the refugee situation is because it has already taken so [many people] and is running out of resources to make sure those refugees accepted will have the same level of living as all other citizens.”
To get a response, we put Mathew’s comment to Kristina Winberg, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) with the anti-immigration, anti-refugee Sweden Democrats. Her party increased its share of the vote from around 13% to roughly 18% in the most recent elections (though it under-performed compared to expectations). What would she say?
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Michael Williams, Vice Chairman of the Swedish Network of Refugee Support Groups (FARR). How would he respond to Matthew’s comment?
Well, I would agree with him that Sweden is not a racist country in its policies, but we do see a growing number of people who join groups who are xenophobic and very anti-immigrant. But he is correct on the whole, we can’t characterise Sweden as a racist country. His explanation of why we are cutting back is understandable in one way, but in one way the arrival of refugees has created resources and led to lots of people getting employment. During 2015-2016 [Sweden took] care of refugees, and the Swedish economy at present is in a very good state. It’s not the economic reason.
My feeling is that Sweden was hoping, in the autumn of 2015, that the solidarity mechanisms within the European Union would click in and that, for instance, the Dublin Regulation would be implemented. But when the EU failed to deliver collectively, with an instrument of solidarity, the government then changed their position and with consultation of the opposition groups put forward three temporary laws, which severely restricted the rights of recognised refugees and also led to border controls so people who try to come into Sweden from Denmark were expected to seek asylum in Denmark. This meant that, in the last two years, the figures have dropped from just under 163,000 asylum seekers to around 23,000 projected for this year. Last year there were 25,000…
One idea in Matthew’s question that I would disagree with is that there is not a limited number of resources for a country in material terms, because you can’t say ‘In global terms, we can only accept 55 million refugees. Now there are 65 million, therefore 10 million will starve to death.’ The whole nature of refugee law is respecting basic human rights, which came into being after the Second World War when we saw so many millions of innocent people seeking refuge who weren’t able to do so.
Next up, we had a comment from Hector, who says that refugees can potentially create new jobs or fill jobs for which there are not enough domestic workers, making a positive contribution to a country’s economy and bringing about a win-win situation. Is he right?
Finally, how would Michael Williams from the Swedish Network of Refugee Support Groups respond to the same comment?
[…] Refugees are all kinds of people with many different individuals profiles – so you cannot say that collectively that they would immediately fit [job descriptions] in Sweden – but many of them spend their early years retraining, mastering the Swedish language, and then choosing from their own interests the subjects they would like to study that could give them professional qualifications they need. So that means that the long-term contribution they make [can be] positive. But it takes time to get there.
Those who want to be entrepreneurs – and there are many in the migrant group, they are over-represented; about 1/5th of firms in Sweden are run by migrants and they employ up to 300,000 people and those people are not necessarily just their own people, they employ a lot of people who have lived here a long time and who perceive themselves as native Swedes. But they do have structural problems, because it’s difficult to learn the rules about how to start a company, it’s difficult to get finance, because even if you have a good financial record in your home country it’s worthless here in Sweden. You need Swedish references for your capabilities and managing a business, and we have lots of laws and regulations that may have not been present in their original country.
So, when they launch their companies, they can have problems in understanding the market. They need to know the regulations, they need put together financial statements and they need good bank contacts and investors. Because they haven’t grown up in Sweden, they lack the networks that other people have. So it takes more effort and more time. But we do have government structures that do lend money to small businesses to start and give them a lot of advice. So it’s not as if they’re left completely alone. There is also an institution of immigrant entrepreneurs in Sweden (IFS.a.se). They give support and advice in a number of different languages to people who wish to start companies…
Do refugees put a significant burden on social welfare systems? In the general scheme of things, are there so few refugees that they don’t make a big difference either way? Or do they make a positive contribution to a country’s economy (and hence to government tax receipts)? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!