The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Sweden: A Historically Multiculturalist Country Forced to Turn to Civic Integration Measures?

July 19, 2019

Abstract


In 2015, 162,877 migrants reached Sweden during the height of the European refugee crisis, making the country the largest receiver of refugees per capita. With Sweden’s historically open immigration policy and multiculturalist integration policy, migrants were welcomed with a rights-based approach. This included opportunities to freely choose where in the country to settle, to access native-tongue education in public schools, and to benefit from the Swedish welfare state on the same universal basis as citizens. A few months later, the government reformed its historical policies when reverting to the EU minimum quota of refugees and introducing “indirect deterrence” measures to make their borders harder to reach. Moreover, their integration policy was made more stringent: shortening residence permits and limiting social benefits in family reunification became part of a strategy to lessen the burden on the welfare state. This article examines whether the measures taken by the Swedish government following the refugee influx in 2015 constitute a shift in policy paradigms from their historically multiculturalist approach to the European trend of civic integration, thus fulfilling Joppke’s “liberal convergence thesis” (2007). It subsequently finds that despite increased conditioning of immigration and integration policy, both in concrete policy and in the normative realm, the temporary nature and small reach of the measures and the political refusal to accept civic integration rhetoric render it too soon to place Sweden in the civic integration paradigm.
 


Starting in the summer of 2015, Europe experienced the height of an influx of Syrian refugees, headed from a war-struck Middle East to Western safety. Despite obstacles along the way, many – 162,877 to be exact (Swedish Migration Agency, 2017) – made it to Sweden. With a population of about 9.5 million at the time, Sweden accepted the highest number of refugees per capita in Europe. The Social Democratic government stuck to their open immigration policy until late November the same year, when Deputy Prime Minister Åsa Romson tearfully announced that Sweden simply could not do any more and would revert to the EU minimum quota of refugees (Crouch, 2015). In order to enforce the more closed immigration policy, the Swedish government did not stop accepting asylum seekers per se, but instead implemented various policies that can be characterized as “indirect deterrence”, or efforts to make the country seem as unattractive as possible to asylum seekers (Gammeltoft-Hansen, 2017: 105). This paper examines whether these measures constitute a shift in Swedish integration policy from a multiculturalist approach focused on immigrant’s rights, to a more civic integration approach focused on immigrant’s obligations to the state (Borevi, 2012: 709). First, a historical analysis of Sweden’s integration policy is called for, before looking into the civic integration trend occurring across the European continent. Second, an analysis of Sweden’s new integration policies brought about by the refugee crisis follows, arguing that the crisis has prompted both practical and normative changes that can be linked to the civic integration paradigm.


Swedish integration policy: a multiculturalist approach

 

To avoid repetition of a dark period in Swedish history concerning their treatment of the indigenous Sámi people, the focus of the country’s integration policy when the first immigration influx came in the 1970s was to avoid “Swedifying” new minority groups (Borevi, 2012: 711). Instead of emphasizing the need for immigrants to assimilate into society, Sweden transferred the universalist and egalitarian values from their social democratic welfare state into their integration policy, granting immigrants’ respective cultures the right to exist on the same terms as native Swedish culture (ibid.: 712). Specific policies related to this were government support and promotion of immigrants’ organizations, funding of newspapers in immigrant languages, and native tongue education in public schools. Furthermore, it was explicitly expressed by the Swedish government that the welfare state’s universal nature pertained to immigrants on equal basis as natives. Thus, Sweden’s multiculturalist approach to integration can be seen as the promotion of a national identity in which immigrants are granted means to stay in touch with their home culture, which then becomes a part of the new country’s make-up. This has been done through top-down policies led by the state, accommodating for a welfare state that drives integration through social inclusion and equal treatment (Ibid.: 7).


The granting of these rights came with certain conditions. “Activation policies”, or a focus on getting people into employment as productive members of the labor market, have been historically prominent in Sweden (Breidahl, 2017: 2). In Swedish society, there is an expectation of self-sufficiency, leading to the condition of having to find an adequate job before applying for permanent residency (Borevi, 2012: 711). However, neither the acquisition of further immigration statuses, nor the obtaining of social assistance, have had formal requirements found in many European counterparts such as knowledge tests of Swedish society or language (Borevi et al., 2017: 2). A premise for the mildly-conditioned provision of social assistance was tight monitoring of immigration. The Swedish state’s objective was to be consistent with their generous policies, which required regulation of immigration influxes in accordance with the welfare state’s capacity (Borevi, 2012: 710). Nonetheless, Sweden has had a tradition of an open-door immigration policy accompanied by a largely rights-based integration process, with both widely uncontested among mainstream political parties (Bergmann, 2017: 170).


The long-term paradigm of multiculturalism likely contributed to the substantial volume of refugees made their way to Sweden. According to Brekke (2004), asylum seekers usually do not have in-depth knowledge about immigration and integration policies of possible destination countries, but do have a general image of certain countries’ immigration and integration narrative. Seeing that Sweden has led such liberal policies over a long-term period, certainly allowing for an outward narrative that frames the country as generous and accepting of new cultures, Sweden has  gained an appropriate reputation among asylum seekers, which led large volumes of Syrian refugees northward (Ostrand, 2015: 267).  


Civic integration and its European adoption

 

Broadly speaking, the term “civic integration” constitutes measures utilized by national governments, aiming to “condition, incentivize, and shape through socialization, immigrants into ‘citizens’” (Borevi et al., 2017: 1). More specifically, there is a divide between defining civic integration in terms of a particular series of policies such as tests and conditions related to language, employment, knowledge about the host society, etc., or in terms of a broader normative approach in which you define civic integration as the dominance of the idea that immigrants should be integrated by an active state on the basis of duties and obligations as opposed to rights and freedom of choice (Ibid: 3). Measuring the degree to which a country employs a civic integration model naturally depends on choice of definition. Nonetheless, a clear European trend has been observed using both definitional aspects. Joppke (2007) has proposed a ‘liberal convergence thesis’ on the European continent, claiming that a civic integration approach has prevailed to a large enough extent to make the traditional nationalist assimilation versus multiculturalist integration policy paradigms obsolete. This has been contested by several individual case studies, as well as more broadly by Borevi (2012), claiming that the Swedish model of integration cannot be included in this paradigm despite ideational influence of the trend.


        One of Borevi’s counter arguments to Joppke is presented through a comparative analysis between Sweden and Denmark. According to Borevi et al, if Joppke’s liberal convergence thesis is true, one should be able to see it particularly clearly in the Scandinavian countries due to their similar, intertwined history and political and economic conditions (2017: 2). However, Denmark is at the opposite end of the integration policy spectrum compared to Sweden; with a strong national assimilationist tradition, Denmark has one of the most conditioned integration processes on the continent (Ibid: 2). The Danish micromanage their immigrants from entry to naturalization, enrolling them in mandatory courses pertaining to language, customs and values, require them to obtain employment within certain time limits, and control the dispersion around the country in order to ensure an even spread of the weight put on municipal welfare agencies that comes with newcomers (Myrberg, 2017: 323). Furthermore, Denmark has also been historically different to Sweden in terms implementation of “indirect deterrence policies” towards immigrants, meaning that they have engaged in negative nation branding in order to make themselves seem as unattractive as possible to migrants and refugees (Gammeltoft-Hansen, 2017: 100). This likely further contributed to the burden imposed on Sweden during the European migrant crisis, reinforcing the argument that a country’s long-term narrative concerning immigration and integration matters in refugees’ destination choices (see Brekke, 2004).


Sweden has implemented neither the conditioning policies Denmark has imposed on newcomers, nor have they historically turned to indirect deterrence policies. In fact, both policymakers and public opinion have showed strong reluctance about introducing policies that are demanding and conditioning of newcomers even in the slightest sense (Borevi et al., 2017: 5). That is not to say that the country has been completely untouched by the widespread European paradigm. Sweden first seriously questioned their multiculturalist approach to integration in the 1980s, when politicians became concerned that the model did not ensure an efficient integration into society (Borevi, 2012: 712). A decade later, in 1997, the issue was again up for discussion, now with the concern that a multiculturalist approach deepened the cleavages between “us” and “them” (Ibid). However, none of the instances brought forward concrete policy changes of substance, and multiculturalism continued its reign outside the rhetorical sphere. Thus, one can argue that Sweden has been an outlier in Europe concerning the wide shift to civic integration using the practical policy definition of the term, although the normative influence is apparent in the political and public discourse.


Practical impact of the civic integration trend following the refugee crisis: policy outcomes


After about five months of a pressing refugee influx in the second half of 2015, the Swedish government announced in late November a revert to the EU minimum refugee quota. A visibly upset deputy prime minister held a press conference outlining Sweden’s new policy towards refugees. The policy would consist of various elements, first and foremost tighter border control with a significant increase of police presence at the southern border and a requirement of valid identification documents at all entry points into Sweden, which many refugees do not have (Crouch, 2015). Furthermore, in terms of integration policy, refugees would generally only be granted temporary asylum with the exceptions of quota refugees provided by the EU, accompanied by tight regulations and increased requirements regarding family reunification (Ibid). The policy package was set to last for three years.  


        When analyzing the renewed policies, it is easy to place them into the realm of indirect deterrence, as they share evident similarities with the previously discussed Danish approach of negative nation branding towards migrants. Several deterrence policies were implemented by the Swedish government following the immigration stop; shortening residence permits and cutting social benefits to newcomers arriving through family reunification – in the exceptional cases where reunification was approved in the first place – both match traditional Danish deterrence policies (Gammeltoft-Hansen, 2017: 106). The news about the Swedish immigration stop spread at fast rates. According to theory about refugee destination choice, indirect deterrence policies only work if the potential asylum seekers are informed about the conditions (Gammeltoft-Hansen, 2017: 108). Sweden’s neighboring countries of Denmark and Norway had both run extensive communication campaigns in the Middle East in order to deter refugees from heading their way, running negative ads on their own domestic policies in Arabic newspapers and on social media (Ibid). Sweden did not engage in such a campaign, but arguably didn’t need to with the substantial attention attracted by the immigration stop, enabling Sweden to make a U-turn in their own immigration and integration narrative and subsequent outward image.


In terms of integration policy, the changes put forward also have features in common with the previously discussed civic approach. The removal of accessible pathways to permanent residency and citizenship can be interpreted as a civic integration characteristic, as can the move to reproach rights in the family reunification realm. However, the policy measures were not only explicitly temporary – they also did not have a particularly wide reach from a macro perspective. The traditional Swedish integration policy and the benefits accompanying it was still made available to previously-arrived refugees, and the government intended to return to that practice in 2018 for new asylum seekers. Moreover, although the so-called immigration stop was followed by a drastic decrease in the number of new asylum seekers (from 162,877 in 2015 to 28,939 in 2016 according to the Swedish Migration Agency) and Swedish politicians quickly sought reward for their success, other external factors may have been the true cause of the downturn in applications. EU policies that blocked entrance to the continent as a whole, such as the EU-Turkey agreement and closing of the Balkan borders, likely contributed substantially to stopping the refugee influx (Gammeltoft-Hansen, 2017: 112). This argument is further reinforced by the fact that Germany – without a similar “immigration stop” – also experienced a drastic drop in asylum claim numbers (Ibid: 114). Thus, in terms of policy impact, it is difficult to argue for a permanent paradigm shift in the Swedish integration model at this point, due to the temporary timeline and the relatively slim reach of the changed policies, despite clear civic integration characteristics.

Normative impact of civic integration ideas following the refugee crisis
Although the refugee crisis did not lead to substantial permanent policy change in terms of immigrant integration, it is possible that the normative definition of civic integration may have ingrained itself more in the public and political spheres in Sweden. This can be seen in through the far-right party the Sweden Democrats’ (Sverigedemokraterna) recent rise in the political arena. The party had been largely ignored and stigmatized in Swedish mainstream politics until the financial crisis of 2008, after which they had a successful campaign on the importance of the native Swedes taking back control and ownership of their own welfare state, vowing to protect it from foreign infiltration (Bergmann, 2017: 160). In the national elections of 2010, they passed the threshold for parliamentary participation with 5.7% of the Swedish vote. In 2014, this more than doubled to 13% (Ibid: 171), and in 2018 they garnered 17.53%, a large enough part of the electorate to provoke political chaos in Sweden, as mainstream parties were left without a clear majority on either side of the aisle (NRK, 2019). In their current politics, the Sweden Democrats is criticizing the mainstream parties for the volume of refugees they accepted, claiming it made Swedish society segregated and filled with racial tension (Ibid: 173).


They are specifically calling out the government’s lack of dispersion policy; with the so-called EBO legislation of 1994, asylum seekers in Sweden have the opportunity to opt out of the Immigration Board’s housing program, allowing them to choose freely where they want to settle provided they find housing (Myrberg, 2017: 326). More than half of all newcomers choose to do so (Ibid). This has put high pressure on certain regions in Sweden, notably the city of Malmö, which now has areas associated with high crime rates and social unrest (Bergmann, 2017: 170). In Denmark, the city of Aarhus had a similar problem in the 1990s, but the Danish government took action and introduced a policy where asylum seekers were dispersed evenly throughout the country without being given the option to move for three subsequent years (Myrberg, 2017: 323). This has led to a more stable integration process in Denmark with each municipality’s social service capacity taken into account before dispersing of newcomers, putting Denmark in front of Sweden in rankings concerning integration outcomes (Ibid: 325). Hence, the multiculturalist tradition in Sweden is still standing strong, exemplified by the substantial resistance of mainstream political parties to introduce a more regulated dispersion policy due to immigrants’ freedom of choice on the same grounds as all other citizens (Ibid: 327). However, the Sweden Democrats, who have explicitly stated their opposition to the multiculturalist approach, are gaining ground in Sweden’s political sphere (Bergmann, 2017: 173). This process started in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and not per se with the refugee crisis, but the mass influx of asylum seekers did fuel the far-right party’s anti-immigration rhetoric (Ibid). It is, however, important to point out that similar protests against the Swedish integration model have surfaced before, as discussed previously in this paper. Thus, it remains to be seen how long-term the normative impact of the civic integration approach will be.


Conclusion

 

The European refugee crisis imposed an immense immigration influx on Sweden, prompting a drastic “immigration stop” response that contained short-term policies contrasting the country’s historically multiculturalist integration model. The changes bore resemblance to civic integration policies in which newcomers are expected to assimilate into a host culture to a much larger extent than before. Seeing that Sweden has been a European outlier in terms of integration policy since the 1990s, it is natural to question whether or not the changes brought about by the refugee crisis are symptoms of a shift towards a civic integration model, moving closer to fulfilling Joppke’s liberal convergence thesis (2007). However, the changes made by the Swedish government are too short-term and narrow in reach to say that there has been a definite shift in policy paradigms. Moreover, although there are signs of normative impacts of the civic integration trend in the political sphere, it is too early to tell whether this will blow over like it has in similar situations in the 80s and 90s, or if the refugee crisis will fuel Sweden into a normative shift in integration paradigms.

 


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