The refugee challenge
Sweden saw a drop in immigration in 2018 – for the second year in a row – and fewer sought asylum. But migration and integration are still top issues on the political agenda.
Despite the immigration drop, the population grew by around 110,000 people (in 2017: 125,000). More people moved to Sweden than from Sweden, and more people were born than died. Syrians continue to make up the largest share of immigrants, and every tenth immigrant was a returning Swede – the second largest immigration group.
Since 2017, Syria has been the most common country of birth among foreign-born in Sweden, a position that Finland had held since the 1940s.
Asylum policy changes
One reason for the decline in asylum applications after the peak immigration year of 2015 is changes in Swedish migration laws. Since 2015, the Swedish government has taken some measures to limit immigration, to be able to provide for those already in the country. Tightened border controls have made it harder to enter Sweden without a valid passport or other identification document. Legislative changes for asylum seekers have also made it more difficult to get a residence permit and reunite with family.
In short, Sweden has gone from having the EU’s most generous asylum laws to adopting the minimum EU level. Sweden’s policy changes are partly due to the fact that most other EU countries have failed to receive their agreed share of refugees.
Of the around 35,500 asylum seekers that got a decision from the Swedish Migration Agency in 2018, 11,000 (32 per cent) were granted asylum in Sweden, compared with 27,000 of 66,500 (41 per cent) in 2017 and 67,000 of 112,000 (60 per cent) in 2016.
A particular challenge in 2015 was the fact that 35,000 asylum seekers were ‘unaccompanied minors’, children who arrived in Sweden without parents or other legal guardian (see the chart of Afghan and Syrian asylum seekers, with the share of children without parents marked in green). A law change in 2018 made it possible for young people to apply for a residence permit for studies at gymnasiet, i.e. upper secondary school, even if their asylum application had been rejected. Particular conditions applied and it was a time-limited offer. Out of 11,745 people who applied, 5,200 were granted a residence permit in 2018 based on this law change.
At the end of 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.
The asylum process
Most refugees apply for asylum, and it’s the Swedish Migration Agency that handles all asylum applications.* Over the last few years, the average waiting time has been very long.
During the waiting time, asylum seekers can work to support themselves, provided that they’ve been exempted from the work permit requirement. Those who don’t have any means to support themselves can apply for a ‘daily allowance’ amounting to SEK 71 (EUR 7.70) per day for a single adult (or SEK 24 per day if food is provided free of charge at their accommodation).
Sweden must offer asylum seekers accommodation, run by either the Swedish Migration Agency or a private actor. Accommodation was getting harder and harder to come by in 2015, in the end leaving the Migration Agency with no other option but to let some people sleep in tents for a few days.
If a person has been granted a residence permit for refugee or refugee-like reasons, Swedish municipalities are required by law to provide accommodation for that person. This change in the law from 2016 was made to free up places in the Migration Agency’s accommodation facilities for asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers, or holders, can also choose to arrange their own accommodation – if they have relatives in the country, for example.
NGO initiatives for refugees include, among others:
- Refugees Welcome Sweden – connecting refugees with landlords and flat shares
- The Church of Sweden – some branches of the Swedish national church offer social activities and accept donations for refugees
- FARR – umbrella organisation for individuals and groups working to strengthen the right to asylum
- Invitationsdepartementet – a non-profit integration initiative that connects immigrants and Swedes over dinner
Media and public opinion
In 2015, the ‘refugee crisis’ overshadowed all other international news about Sweden. Particular refugee-related events got a lot of media coverage, conveying an image of intolerance and financial restraints, far from the otherwise often utopian image of Sweden. The country may suddenly have seemed less open, tolerant and generous to an outsider. If you ask the Swedes themselves, less than one in five see immigration more as a problem than an opportunity, according to a Eurobarometer survey from April 2018. According to the same survey, Swedes have a generally positive view of the impact that immigrants have had on their country.
*The Dublin Regulation states that a refugee who comes to Europe must apply for asylum in the first safe country she/he arrives in.
Zelga Gabriel, refugee from Syria
Meet Zelga Gabriel. At 18, she was an interior design student at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Then, the Syrian Civil War broke out. Zelga was eventually forced to terminate her studies and return to her hometown, Hassakeh.
Zelga is Assyrian, the Christian minority indigenous to the Middle East that has suffered attacks from ISIS recently. Eventually, Zelga’s family decided she would be safer in Sweden, where she arrived in August 2015.
At the age of 22 (at the time of writing), Zelga lives in a suburb just outside Södertälje, an industrial town south-west of Stockholm where around 37 per cent of residents are foreign-born and where a majority of the roughly 100,000 Assyrians who have emigrated to Sweden since the late 1960s live.
Zelga’s mother, brother and several members of her extended family are also here in Sweden, as is her best friend from back home. But her father and sister are still in Hassakeh. And her heart remains there, Zelga says.
‘If it was just up to me, I would never have left. Syria is my country; my roots are there.
‘Some people say we weren’t forced to flee Syria; that it was our choice to leave. But when you know that you might die at any time, then that is like you’re being forced.’
From Syria to Sweden
Zelga was fortunate to have a relatively easy journey to Sweden: by bus and taxi to Lebanon, and then by plane to Stockholm. It took around a week altogether.
She had applied for a job in Sweden working with unaccompanied migrant children, but when she arrived in Sweden, she decided not to take up the job because it didn’t meet her expectations. She ended up applying for asylum, and got her residence permit after six months.
‘When there’s peace, you think about things like beauty and design. War changes that.’
While Zelga’s relatives had told her a lot about life in Sweden, coming here was still a shock.
‘When I first arrived and saw all the greenery, I was in tears. I felt like this place doesn’t represent me and who I am, even if it’s very beautiful.’
Adapting to life in Sweden
Zelga chose to settle in Södertälje because she had family there and there is a large Assyrian community in the town.
‘We try to stick together,’ she says.
She spends most of her time with relatives and friends with the same background as her – Assyrians from Syria. Zelga hopes to also make friends with Swedes once she starts studying or working.
‘Some of my cousins were born in Sweden. I knew before coming here that it was a good country, that there is more freedom here than in Syria. I also knew about the cold weather, of course.
‘Now I know Sweden is very different from Syria. There isn’t as much connection between families. You don’t meet your cousins that often, and you don’t have time for yourself. You just work.’
Aiming for university
Zelga has begun to learn the language – taking ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ classes – but is still finding it difficult to settle in
‘In the beginning, everything is new and even though your heart is not in it, you have to try to adapt. I try to see my life here as a new chance,’ she says.
She wants to become part of Swedish society and start university as soon as possible. Zelga is considering both psychology and social work, something that she can use to help other Assyrians, either here in Sweden or back home in Syria.
Interior design has lost its appeal as a profession. Zelga says: ‘When there’s peace, you think about things like beauty and design. War changes that.’
Zelga Gabriel was interviewed by Nathalie Rothschild, a journalist based in Stockholm.
Video: Mohammed Atif, refugee from Afghanistan
Quick facts about Mohammed Atif:
- Age: 24 years (at the time of writing)
- From: Afghanistan
- Came to Sweden: In 2015, with his sister and her two children
- Education: Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Kerala in India
- Work experience: Logistics assistant for Bakhtar Development Network (BDN) in Afghanistan
The video interview with Mohammed Atif was done by Arantxa Hurtado, a Spanish Stockholm-based producer and photographer.
Last updated: 25 April 2019