Why The Swedes Have Had Enough

In Sweden, the ongoing migrant crisis means borders are back

Oliver Wiseman

Open-door policy: Police organise a trainload of refugees arriving from across the Oresund Bridge at Hyllie station, Malmo, last November (©Johann Nilson/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1999, Frederik, the Crown Prince of Denmark, met Victoria, the Crown Princess of Sweden, 223 feet above the Oresund strait. On the newly-built Oresund Bridge (now made famous by the eponymous crime thriller) in white hard hats they hugged and celebrated the five-mile-long construction that connected their countries. Few things embodied “ever closer union” more clearly. Since its completion, Swedes and Danes have been whisked back and forth between Copenhagen and Malmo as easily as New Jersey commuters crossing the Hudson River to Manhattan.

Only last March, the border between Sweden and Denmark was thought sufficiently meaningless for Copenhagen’s mayor Frank Jensen to call for Skane county, the southernmost region of Sweden that includes Malmo, to be rebranded as part of “Greater Copenhagen” to make it “an interesting area to locate your European or Scandinavian HQ”. There was some debate over the name, with some preferring the more neutral “Scandinavia Bay Area” but many Swedes saw potential in the idea — roughly equivalent to Dover becoming part of “Greater Calais” — including Dages Industri, Sweden’s largest business newspaper.

A year later, these trans-national plans are distant dreams. The migrant crisis means borders are back. When the Swedish government imposed identity checks on the Bridge in January, what had stood for 16 years as a monument to European openness and Scandinavian cooperation became a symbol of a continent creaking from the strain of its newcomers.

These checks mean 30-minute delays during rush hour, with Swedes working in Denmark now having to change trains at Copenhagen airport, where passengers’ identity cards are photographed and a hastily-built fence divides the platform for trains to Sweden and the rest of the station. Then, at Hyllie Station, the first stop in Sweden, police board the train and IDs are checked again. When I took this journey in late January, the passengers I spoke to were understanding. Many had shared trains with asylum seekers last year, including those without any documentation. “The government had to do something,” said one passenger. And yet, however justifiable the added security, the delays have put on hold the economic integration that these commuters exemplify.

Last year, nowhere in Europe was more generous to refugees than Sweden. Some 160,000 people applied for asylum in the country, more per capita than anywhere else in Europe: 1,575 applicants per 100,000 Swedes. By way of comparison, in Germany there were 520 arrivals for every 100,000 citizens, in Britain just 42. When numbers were at their highest, Sweden took in as many refugees in two weeks as David Cameron has promised to accept from Syria in the five years to 2020.

In November, however, the Swedish government decided it could no longer afford to be so generous. Even after transforming museums, schools and other public buildings into makeshift refugee accommodation, there were no more empty beds. New arrivals slept outside in the Scandinavian winter, triggering an emphatic message from migration minister Morgan Johansson: “Even we have our limits, and now they have been reached.” The deputy prime minister, Green party leader Asa Romson, defended the decision to limit numbers with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat. 

Sweden’s current crisis has been precipitated by the collision of two national principles. On the one hand, there is the country’s commitment to lagom, a guidebook explanation of the national psyche which translates as “just the right amount” and is said to sum up the country’s commitment to fairness and all things in moderation. Then there is Sweden’s idea of itself as a humanitarian superpower, embodied in generous foreign aid commitments and a liberal refugee policy. So great are the numbers arriving that Sweden has been forced to chose between its humanitarian commitments and its moderating instincts. It has opted for the latter. The largest recipient of Swedish foreign aid this year will be Sweden, with money intended for the needy abroad alleviating the strain on resources at home.

There is little to distinguish a dreary red-brick building in Marsta, near Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, from the surrounding office blocks and car showrooms. Yet it is one of the Swedish Migration Agency’s reception centres, where thousands of refugees spend their first night in the country. The interior is stark, dreary and clean. Its plainness is disorienting; the map of Sweden on the wall is the only clue as to where you are. Asylum seekers mill about in reception, some losing patience as they struggle to communicate with staff.

Newcomers register with the centre as soon as they arrive. It is often their first point of contact with the Swedish authorities; their fingerprints are taken and they are given a bed and a kit of essentials — a towel, sheets, a blanket, soap, shampoo, loo roll — and asked to wait. Many arrive with no money and almost no possessions. There are 150 beds, which, in spite of the government’s various attempts to dissuade more migrants from coming, are all full when I visit. Asylum seekers are supposed to stay at the centre for no longer than a few nights, until the Agency finds them more permanent accommodation. But those there when I visit will be stuck in limbo for several weeks, such is the demand for accommodation in Sweden.

Outside the centre, two Iraqi men suck on cigarettes. They are in Sweden because, as one of them puts it, their country is “not so happy”. They tell me of how they made friends on the journey to Sweden and how happy they are to be safe. When I ask them why they travelled all the way to Sweden, rather than stopping in one of the safe countries they passed through, they smile and one says: “Sweden is the friendliest.”

Also outside the centre is Freddie, a 19-year-old Ghanaian who came to Sweden two days earlier. Why has he claimed asylum here, I ask. “My grandfather died and my father died too, so I thought I’d come to Europe,” he said. “There are more opportunities here. A friend said ‘Try Sweden. It is possible there’.” He tells me he would like to go to London eventually. “There are many Ghanaians there,” he says.

Therein lies the challenge not just for Sweden but for all of Europe: muddled in with those fleeing conflict are those doing what people have always done — leave home in search of prosperity, not just security. Last autumn, British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s “Home” became something of a rallying cry for those who thought every European government should be as generous as Sweden. Benedict Cumberbatch recited part of it on stage after performances of Hamlet at the Barbican. (“Fuck the politicians,” he added at one show.) But the poem’s opening lines — “No one leaves home/unless home is the mouth of a shark” — are entirely at odds with the motivations of many of those coming to Europe. Doug Sanders, a journalist who has spent considerable time reporting on cross-Mediterranean migration, has written: “The most insidious notion is the one that holds that the Africans on the boats are starving villagers escaping famine and death. In fact, every boat person I’ve ever met has been ambitious, urban, educated, and, if not middle-class (though a surprising number are, as are an even larger number of Syrian refugees), then far from subsistence peasantry.”

When the Swedish government announced that an estimated 80,000 asylum seekers would have their applications rejected, few Swedes had confidence in the authorities’ ability to prevent them settling in Sweden or somewhere else in Europe. Seven out of ten of those facing deportation simply vanish.

The open invitations offered by Sweden and Germany, coupled with the collapse of the European border last summer, have helped to create a perverse status quo that rewards those rich and strong enough to survive the journey to Northern Europe, while refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey remain perilous and underfunded. This year, the Swedish government will spend nearly as much on Afghans in Sweden — including a large number of unaccompanied minors — as the Afghan government’s entire budget, including defence spending. Well-intentioned policymakers have created a Darwinian process for sorting those they help from those they ignore.

Kent Ekeroth has had enough. “This is the most insane country on the planet — except maybe North Korea,” he tells me. Not a tinpot dictatorship or a banana republic. Not a repressive monarchy or a corrupt plutocracy, but inoffensive, bland Sweden. I laugh at his claim but Ekeroth, a 34-year-old member of parliament for the Sweden Democrats, isn’t joking. His words jarred with the scene around him when we met in a blandly-decorated café in the Rikstag. Neatly turned out parliamentary officials sip subsidised coffee. Outside, slabs of ice drift downstream, past parliament and towards the Baltic Sea. Stockholm looks affluent, orderly and well looked after. This is the country Ekeroth wants to preserve; it is also the country he thinks has gone mad.

The far-right Sweden Democrats have neo-fascist roots and have long been shunned by the country’s mainstream. But they have been the political beneficiaries of discontent among Swedes about the numbers seeking asylum in the country. In 2010, the party won its first members of parliament, passing the 4 per cent threshold needed. Today, it tops the opinion polls. A YouGov survey in late January put the party on 28 per cent, seven points clear of the next most popular party, the governing Social Democrats.

They would not have been able to exploit the migrant crisis — fertile soil for all far-right parties — had it not been for its leader, Jimmie Akesson, a kind of far-right David Cameron who has focused his energy on detoxifying the party’s image since he became leader at 26, more than a decade ago. And only the most hardline Sweden Democrat would dispute that there was considerable detoxifying to be done. The party was born from the “Keep Sweden Swedish” party. One of its early leaders, Anders Klarström, had also run the Nordiska rikspartiet, or Nordic Reich Party. The Sweden Democrats had close links with Sweden’s White Power music scene as well as Viking rock bands spouting lyrics such as “vad gör ni här era blattesvin”, which translates as “what are you doing here, you fucking Paki scum?” Akesson swapped fascistic rock for feel-good pop and the party’s old logo, a burning torch, was replaced by a blue and yellow flower. He has avoided raising a clenched fist while saying “keep Sweden Swedish”, as one predecessor had done.

For Ekeroth, Akesson’s modernisation was a cosmetic process: “We’ve changed a lot. We’ve become more professional, but policy-wise we were never extreme. There was never anything racist in our party programme but the picture, the appearance, the media and the professionalism are much better.” Ekeroth is Jewish yet he is remarkably unfazed by his party’s neo-Nazi roots or its more unsavoury supporters. There are, he says, “a few rotten eggs. It’s too important to stop immigration to this country so I don’t care. As long as they are kicked out.”

When he makes the case for his party, Ekeroth mostly sticks to a formula that will not surprise those familiar with other European far-right parties. Immigration, they say, is costly both economically and culturally; we can’t afford an open-door immigration policy, nor do we want one. There is little to distinguish his patter from that of a British UKIP politician. Indeed, the Sweden Democrats sit in the same group as UKIP in the European Parliament. 

But is the claim that today’s Sweden Democrats promote nationalism of a civic sort convincing? What does Ekeroth want to do about integrating those that are already here? “We want them to go home.” When I ask him about those that are Swedish citizens, he admits: “That is a problem.” But he goes on to list the various grounds on which his party would like to revoke Swedish citizenship. Ekeroth and his colleagues want “Sweden to remain Swedish.”

And when it comes to the downside of immigration, it’s the “little things on the tram, on the bus, in the school yard, these things that people think it’s too petty to talk about. If there’s a bunch of immigrants sitting next to you screaming and shouting or whatever, you feel uncomfortable, you think what the fuck is going on?”

And what does Ekeroth predict for the future of Sweden and its politics? “The Sweden Democrats will continue to grow and strengthen. When it comes to Sweden, I think it is going to crumble  fast. This summer is going to be a civil war. You see it now. They are running wild. Rapes and murders and stabbings.” It was a fear of this sort of xenophobic politics that created the climate in which Sweden opened its arms to refugees — and shut down criticism of that policy. That a conspiracy of silence existed in Sweden was clear when, after the New Year’s Eve violence in Cologne, it emerged that the Swedish police had played down the problem of sexual harassment at a music festival in Stockholm last summer because the perpetrators had primarily been young Afghan men.

Tino Sanandaji, an economist who runs a blog on Sweden’s immigration debate, told me: “You do have a serious problem of a racist subculture in Scandinavian culture. Worse than in Britain.” The spectre of far-right terrorism in Scandinavia has loomed particularly large since Anders Breivik killed 77 young people at a summer camp in Norway in 2011. Last October, a Swede suspected to have far-right sympathies killed a student and a teacher with a sword on a high-school rampage in Trollhätten, near Gothenburg. But what began as admirable opposition to the ideological backdrop to attacks of this sort has mutated into an un-reflexive anti-racism in which any divergence from bien pensant opinion on immigration is labelled racist. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell people it is not respectable to say certain things and the respectable will avoid saying them, leaving only the far-Right and creating the illusion of a justification for your censorious instincts.

For his blog, on which he complained about the “unscientific” way in which statistics about immigration were used by the government and the media, Sanandaji has received considerable negative press. “I was provoked because they were just lying,” he said. In one case, Sanandaji was stirred to action when Swedish television reported that 40 per cent of Syrian refugees were highly educated. He pointed out, as the broadcaster had failed to, that this 40 per cent included anyone with any education or vocational training after school, including six months in the Syrian army as a mechanic and other basic vocational qualifications. “Readership just exploded,” he said, “even though it is poorly written and not well edited or designed. A lot of smart people started saying, what is going on with our media, with our society? What is happening? It feels like a nightmare to them. Suddenly the Swedish media sounds like East Germany.”

Sanandaji was born in Iran. He arrived in Sweden with his parents when he was nine. “We came to Sweden as refugees but I would not call myself a real refugee because we did not have grounds for asylum,” he said with characteristic bluntness. His background has served as useful body armour in Sweden’s increasingly shrill immigration debate. “Because I have brown eyes and I’m an immigrant with a PhD from the University of Chicago, I could write about this and get away with it.” What works on blue-eyed Swedes doesn’t work on him, he says. “It shuts them up if they threaten to destroy your reputation and call you a Nazi in public. Because Swedes are so sensitive on this issue, it’s sort of like McCarthyism: just accuse them of being racist and a lot of them shut up.

“We have this perception that critics of immigration are populists or the unwashed masses and that enlightened people support immigration,  but in Sweden today, it is the complete opposite. The more evidence-driven you are, the more well-read you are, the more anti-immigration you are.”

So he feels trapped between two uncompromising groups: “Either they are racists — but there are very few of them at the end of the day — or they are pro-immigration. They are the ones with the know-nothingism and they scream and shout and they shut down debate.”

If the Swedish establishment is set on defeating the far-Right, it could start by taking seriously the challenge of building a successful, integrated multi-racial society. The elephant in the room in the immigration debate is the socio-economic outcomes of those who have already settled in Sweden. According to Statistics Sweden, 50 per cent of refugees are not in work seven years after arriving in the country. Even after 15 years, 40 per cent are still without a job. The unemployment rate for immigrants is more than two and half times that of native Swedes, the second biggest gap in the OECD. The skills gap between adults born abroad and adults born in Sweden is bigger than anywhere else in the OECD.

A recent documentary, The Swedish Theory of Love, written and directed by Erik Gandini, which explores the problem of loneliness in Swedish society, offers clues to the root of the integration problem. The film is a wide-angle snapshot of a country in which people increasingly live alone, have children alone and die alone, a country in which “help is supplied solely through official channels. You don’t cry on someone’s shoulder, you fill out a form.” Gandini follows officials from a distressingly large government agency dedicated to tracking down the next of kin of those who die alone (one in four Swedes), sometimes discovered long after their death in a flat no one — neighbours, relatives, friends — has thought to call on.

To consider what this society looks like to outsiders “for whom Sweden is seen as a promised land . . . a country worth taking great risks for”, he follows Nhela, a Syrian immigrant who teaches Swedish to new arrivals. “Swedes love short answers,” she tells a group of bemused students from more gregarious cultures in Africa and the Middle East. She tells them that when a Swede asks, “How are you?” they should just reply, “Fine.” She adds: “No need to go on any longer.” They should answer questions with a yes or a no — no discussions. Her students tell her they don’t see the point of these classes. “I never get to meet any Swedes,” they tell her.

One of the victims of Sweden’s failed integration policies is Rosengard, a suburb of Malmo built in the 1960s as part of the Miljonprogrammet — the Social Democrat government’s drive to build a million new homes in a decade. What was designed as a social democratic utopia has become an economic sinkhole. Eighty-six per cent of Rosengard’s residents are immigrants or the children of immigrants. The countries they come from reflect Sweden’s generous refugee policy: in 2010, the four largest groups of foreign-born residents were from Iraq, former Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Somalia. Less than half of Rosengard’s residents work, crime levels are high, the quality of the housing is deteriorating and educational standards are slipping further behind those of the rest of Malmo.

Local politics in Malmo, the most diverse city in Sweden, have an ugly, ethnic flavour. Ilmar Reepalu, a Social Democrat and mayor from 1994 to 2013, won while repeatedly denying the veracity of reports of anti-Semitic violence, claimed the Sweden Democrats had “infiltrated” the city’s Jewish community to turn it against Muslims, and appeared to see    Zionism and anti-Semitism as morally equivalent  “extremes”.

Almgarden, a suburb adjacent to Rosengard, is a Sweden Democrat stronghold filled with ethnic Swedes concerned about their neighbours’ problems spilling into their community.

Bejzat Becirov, originally from Macedonia, runs Rosengard’s Islamic Centre, which contains the suburb’s mosque. He is frustrated by the censorious approach the establishment has taken to the immigration debate. When I meet him in his office at the centre, rebuilt after a mysterious fire one night in 2003, he tells me that he organised a hustings there during the last election campaign and invited candidates from all the major parties, including the Sweden Democrats, to take part. When the other parties refused to attend as long as the Sweden Democrats were there, he had no choice but to retract his invitation to the far-right party. “Parties go up and down,” he says, drawing an undulating graph with his finger. “What is more important is that Swedes have a conversation about their different backgrounds. I have no problem debating with politicians from the Sweden Democrats.”

The Swedish establishment should learn from Becirov’s commitment to engaging with all voices, including the far-Right, which is particularly impressive given that his centre has been the target of several xenophobic attacks — bricks through his windows and pigs’ heads dumped in front of the mosque.

The scale of immigration last year and the rise of the Sweden Democrats has forced mainstream Swedish politicans to join the conversation the Swedish people have been having for years. The challenge they now face is swapping platitudinous multiculturalism for robust integration policies which build a successful society that finds more than just a bed for its new arrivals. 

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