Chart showing migration to and from Sweden 1850–2020.

Sweden and migration

Sweden has a long history of migration. Get the bigger picture here.

Migration started early in Sweden. During the Middle Ages, Germans from merchant trading communities were the largest immigrant group.

Roma people started immigrating as early as the 1500s, while Walloons – French-speaking people from Belgium – came to Sweden in the late 1600s as the country’s iron industry began to develop.

Other key immigrant groups were Jews, who started arriving in the 1700s, alongside French artists and intellectuals. Once brick buildings started popping up all over the country, Italian workers skilled in bricklaying and stuccowork also started moving in.

The great emigration

Then, from 1850 up until the 1930s, came ‘the great emigration’. Around 1.5 million native Swedes left the country.

They went to the Americas and Australia – to escape poverty and religious persecution, and to seek a better life for themselves and their families. That figure equals 20 per cent of the men and 15 per cent of the women born at the end of the 1800s.

The peak year of the great emigration was 1887, when more than 50,000 people left Sweden.

Top reasons for leaving Sweden during the great emigration:

  1. poverty
  2. religious persecution
  3. a lack of belief in the future
  4. political constraints
  5. a longing for adventure and ’gold fever’

Read more about the great emigration at Statistics Sweden.

A black-and-white photo of men, women, children and photos in front of a simple cottage, a forest in the background
Many Swedes who emigrated to the US ended up in Minnesota. Here, Swedes in Rush City around 1880. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC0

Total population of Sweden today:

10,379,295 people

Immigration after World War II

Ever since World War II Sweden has been a country of immigration.

Migrants from Germany and other Nordic and Baltic countries made up the bulk of post-war immigrants. While many Germans and Scandinavians returned home after the war, many immigrants from the Baltics remained.

The next set of migrants during these decades were workers from Finland, Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, other Balkan countries and Turkey who came looking for job opportunities once World War II was over.

Many work migrants returned to their countries after a few years of work in Sweden. Many Finns, for instance, returned to Finland where the economy had begun to boom.

An outdoor portrait of Jorma Latva with grey hair and a beard, wearing a white winter jacket – snow in the background.
Welder Jorma Latva came to Sweden from Finland in 1968. He came for work – and love, and ended up settling down with his wife Ulla near Stockholm. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Asylum seekers in the 1980–1990s

In the 1980s Sweden saw a rise of asylum seekers, with high immigration from countries like Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Eritrea and Somalia, as well as South American countries.

Among others, many Chileans chose to come to Sweden following the refugee waves caused by Augusto Pinochet’s regime during 1973–1990. Relatively few returned to Chile after Pinochet was ousted from power in 1990. Today, Sweden is home to the third largest Chilean community outside of Chile, after Argentina and the US, some 45,000 people.

During the Iran–Iraq War that lasted from 1980 to 1989, nearly 7,000 people from Iraq and 27,000 Iranians were granted residence permits in Sweden as refugees according to the Geneva Convention. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led to yet another wave of Iraqis migrating to Sweden.

In the 1990s the wars in the Balkans caused substantial immigration from former Yugoslavia to Sweden. Over 100,000 Bosnians and 3,600 Kosovo Albanians were granted asylum.

An outdoor portrait of Vildana Aganovic, with long blond hair, houses in the background.

Vildana Aganović is a freelance journalist who came to Sweden from Bosnia as a teenager in 1992. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Silvio DurĂĄn Michea is a graphic designer who came from Chile to Sweden in the 1980s. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Outdoor portrait of Linda Samir Mutawi wearing a black winter jacket and a woolly hat.

Linda Samir Mutawi is a film producer and production manager. Originally Palestinian, she comes from Jordan and has a dual British–Jordanian citizenship. She moved to Sweden in 2013 to live with her Swedish husband. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Portait of Mouhanad Sharabati in a dome-like glass building, escalators in the background.

Mouhanad Sharabati is a lawyer who fled to Sweden from Syria in 2014. Photo: Aline Lessner

Outdoor portrait of Zelga Gabriel with long dark hair, wearing a black winter jacket and a grey woolly hat, trees in the background.

Zelga Gabriel came to Sweden from Syria as a refugee in 2015. Photo: Arantxa Hurtado

Portrait of Kamran Assadzadeh wearing blue scrubs in a hospital environment.

Kamran Assadzadeh is an intensive care nurse from Iran. He came to Sweden in 1987. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

An outdoor portrait of Vildana Aganovic, with long blond hair, houses in the background.

Vildana Aganović is a freelance journalist who came to Sweden from Bosnia as a teenager in 1992. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Silvio DurĂĄn Michea is a graphic designer who came from Chile to Sweden in the 1980s. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Outdoor portrait of Linda Samir Mutawi wearing a black winter jacket and a woolly hat.

Linda Samir Mutawi is a film producer and production manager. Originally Palestinian, she comes from Jordan and has a dual British–Jordanian citizenship. She moved to Sweden in 2013 to live with her Swedish husband. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Portait of Mouhanad Sharabati in a dome-like glass building, escalators in the background.

Mouhanad Sharabati is a lawyer who fled to Sweden from Syria in 2014. Photo: Aline Lessner

Outdoor portrait of Zelga Gabriel with long dark hair, wearing a black winter jacket and a grey woolly hat, trees in the background.

Zelga Gabriel came to Sweden from Syria as a refugee in 2015. Photo: Arantxa Hurtado

Portrait of Kamran Assadzadeh wearing blue scrubs in a hospital environment.

Kamran Assadzadeh is an intensive care nurse from Iran. He came to Sweden in 1987. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

An outdoor portrait of Vildana Aganovic, with long blond hair, houses in the background.

Vildana Aganović is a freelance journalist who came to Sweden from Bosnia as a teenager in 1992. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Silvio DurĂĄn Michea is a graphic designer who came from Chile to Sweden in the 1980s. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Outdoor portrait of Linda Samir Mutawi wearing a black winter jacket and a woolly hat.

Linda Samir Mutawi is a film producer and production manager. Originally Palestinian, she comes from Jordan and has a dual British–Jordanian citizenship. She moved to Sweden in 2013 to live with her Swedish husband. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Portait of Mouhanad Sharabati in a dome-like glass building, escalators in the background.

Mouhanad Sharabati is a lawyer who fled to Sweden from Syria in 2014. Photo: Aline Lessner

Outdoor portrait of Zelga Gabriel with long dark hair, wearing a black winter jacket and a grey woolly hat, trees in the background.

Zelga Gabriel came to Sweden from Syria as a refugee in 2015. Photo: Arantxa Hurtado

Portrait of Kamran Assadzadeh wearing blue scrubs in a hospital environment.

Kamran Assadzadeh is an intensive care nurse from Iran. He came to Sweden in 1987. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Work migration from the 2000s

When Sweden joined the Schengen co-operation in 2001, this meant open borders to other European Union (EU) member states and an influx of other EU citizens into the country.

About 29,000 people from countries outside of the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) also moved to Sweden, for work, during the 2000s.

Today, Sweden’s booming startup and technology industry means a lot of foreign workers – especially in the ICT field – come to the country looking for lucrative job opportunities, making ‘work’ the top reason for moving to Sweden.

Chart showing the number of residence permits granted and the reasons for residency, for the years 2010 to 2020.

The five main reasons for migrating to Sweden:

  • Work
    Sweden’s booming startup and technology industry means a lot of foreign workers – especially in the ICT field – are looking for lucrative job opportunities in the country.
    Read more about obtaining a work permit.
  • Family
    People migrating to reunite with close family members remain one of the largest immigrant groups into the country, according to statistics from the Swedish Migration Agency (pdf).
  • EU/EEA
    Free movement is a fundamental principle of the European Union. EU citizens have the right to work, study or live in Sweden without a residence permit.
  • Studies
    Many move to Sweden to further their studies. Most international students in Sweden are usually from Europae, followed by Asia and North America.
    Studyinsweden.se has more about studying in Sweden.
  • Asylum
    Sweden has signed the UN Refugee Convention, which means that the country has vowed to examine and grant asylum to people recognised as refugees according to the Convention.

Drop in immigration after 2015 peak

Sweden has a long history of receiving refugees from active war zones. In 2015 an unprecedented number of people sought asylum in Sweden (162,877).

The 2015 peak was mainly due to the Syrian Civil War, but a large share of people also came from Afghanistan and Iraq. More than one in five were children who arrived without parents or another legal guardian. From 2014 to 2018 Syrians made up the single largest immigrant group coming to Sweden each year.

After 2015 there was a big drop in asylum applications, partly due to changes to Sweden’s migration policy. The Swedish government has more.

Since 2019, the largest immigration group has been returning Swedes – that is, people who have once emigrated and then choose to return. Emigration has been relatively high over the years, and mostly growing since World War II.

The first year to beat the emigration record from 1887 – the peak year of the Great Emigration – was 2011. Admittedly, the 51,000 emigrants of 2011 made up a much smaller part of the population than the ones in 1887. And this time they mostly emigrated to neighbouring Norway, Denmark and other European countries, but also to the US and China.

Chart showing the number of asylum seekers to Sweden from 2000 to 2020, with a peak in 2015, where there's a speech bubble that says "162,877".

Global migration

In 2020 there were an estimated 280 million international migrants in the world. That’s people who, for various reasons, have moved to a different country than they were born in.

In 2018, Sweden and all other UN countries adopted a world-first global migration agreement, which aims to improve the possibilities of legal migration and facilitate for countries that receive migrants.

In Sweden there are about 2 million people who were born in another country, or every fifth person. One of the most common reasons to move to Sweden, apart from work, is to reunite with close family members.

There are also many international students in Sweden. Most of them are usually from Europe, followed by Asia and North America. For more information about studying in Sweden, please visit studyinsweden.se.

Within the EU, free movement is a fundamental principle. As Sweden is an EU member state, EU and EEA citizens have the right to work, study or live in Sweden without a residence permit. After living in Sweden with right of residence for at least five years, they gain right of permanent residence.

When it comes to asylum, Sweden has signed the UN Refugee Convention, which means that the country has vowed to examine and grant asylum to people recognised as refugees according to the Convention. Most refugees apply for asylum, and it’s the Swedish Migration Agency that handles all asylum applications.*

The Swedish Migration Agency has more statistics on migration to Sweden.

*The Dublin Regulation states that a refugee who comes to Europe must apply for asylum in the first safe country she/he arrives in.