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Sweden and migration

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

Film courtesy of NASA.
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Sweden and migration

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

Film courtesy of NASA.

The great emigration

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.

But no migration event has left a bigger mark on Sweden’s cultural landscape than the huge emigration of Swedes to the Americas and Australia from 1850 up until the 1930s. As many as 1.5 million native Swedes left the country 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.

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’
Portrait of Carl Emanuel Anell

In 1908, 20-year-old Carl Emanuel Anell was one of about 20,000 young Swedes to leave Sweden for the US – but first, he had his picture taken. On the left is a postcard Anell sent from Seattle to his relatives in Sweden. Photo: Frida Welin

The peak year of the great emigration was 1887, when more than 50,000 people left Sweden – most of them to the Americas. This record was only broken in 2011, when more than 51,000 emigrated from the country – but this time mostly to other European countries and some to the US and China. It’s also worth noting that in 1887 the emigrants made up 1 per cent of the population, in 2011 only 0.5 per cent.

Read more about the great emigration at Statistics Sweden.

Post-war immigration

Sweden was mostly a country of emigration until refugees escaping World War II began to slowly change it back into a country of immigration, which is what it has been since then. Migrants from Germany and other Nordic and Baltic countries made up the bulk of 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, Turkey and other Balkan countries who came looking for job opportunities once World War II was over.

In the 1970s, to control the rapid rise in immigration, the Swedish Migration Board began to regulate the process, especially when it came to workers. People were required to start showing proof of any employment offers, financial support and housing arrangements before they were granted permits to move into the country.

Portrait of Jorma Latva, a work immigrant from Finland. The photo is taken outdoors, in a wintry setting.

In 1968 Jorma Latva was 21 years old. He left Finland to go to Sweden for work – and love. His plan was to work a few years in Sweden and then move back to Finland. He ended up settling down with his wife Ulla near Stockholm. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

A short immigration decline

The legislation changes partly explain the immigration decline in Sweden in the early 1970s, as work migration into the country dropped considerably. Many work migrants also returned back to their countries after a few years of work in Sweden, statistically accounting for both immigration and emigration.

The Finns, for instance, returned in masses to Finland where the economy had begun to boom. For a few years starting in 1971, Sweden had more emigration than immigration.

Rise of asylum seekers

The rise of asylum seekers began in the 1980s when Sweden saw some of its highest immigration from countries like Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Eritrea and Somalia, as well as South American countries with repressive regimes.

Today, some 45,000 people with Chilean background reside in Sweden, following the refugee waves caused by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship of Chile during 1973–1990. Relatively few returned to Chile after Pinochet was ousted from power in 1990, and today Sweden is home to the third largest Chilean community outside of Chile, after Argentina and the US.

Portrait of Iranian Kamran Assadzadeh in his intensive care nurse scrubs, in a hospital environment.

Kamran Assadzadeh is an intensive care nurse from Iran. He came to Sweden in 1987 and says he integrated easily into Swedish society because he was proactive.
Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Iran–Iraq War

In September 1980, Iraq launched an attack on Iran that marked the start of a bloody eight-year war between the two countries. The war ended up costing hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides.

From 1980 through 1989, nearly 7,000 people from Iraq and 27,000 from Iran received residence permits in Sweden as refugees according to the Geneva Convention. The US-led invasion of Iraq, which started in 2003, led to yet another wave of Iraqis migrating to Sweden.

Immigration from former Yugoslavia

Wars in former Yugoslavia

The 1990s brought massive immigration from former Yugoslavia during the ethnic cleansing wars with over 100,000 Bosnians being granted asylum in Sweden alongside 3,600 Kosovo Albanians.

Between 1991 and 1999, a series of military conflicts occurred on the Balkans, causing massive bloodshed and severe economic damage in most of the former Yugoslav republics. The wars mostly resulted in peace accords, and several new states were formed.

Portrait of Bosnian Vildana Aganović, against an urban backdrop.

The memory of leaving Bosnia still haunts Vildana Aganović, even though she now calls Sweden home. She came to Sweden as a teenager in 1992 and is an established freelance journalist.
Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström

Iraq War and EU migration

When Sweden joined the Schengen co-operation in 2001, this meant open borders between the country and other European Union (EU) member states and an influx of other EU citizens into the country looking for work and love. Migration in total – both to and from Sweden – grew after 2000.

Almost 29,000 people from countries outside of the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) moved to Sweden for work during the 2000s. Head of the press unit at the Swedish Migration Agency, Fredrik Bengtsson, says: ‘In Europe, Sweden is a key destination and recipient country for asylum seekers.’


Södertälje, a small town just south of Stockholm, is a case in point, and an extreme one at that. In 2007, the town accepted 1,268 Iraqis, which equalled 5 per cent of all Iraqis arriving in Europe or 1.5 per cent of the population of Södertälje. As a comparison, the US and Canada combined took in 1,027 Iraqis the same year.

Interestingly in 2011, more people emigrated from Sweden than in 1887, the peak year of emigration to the US. This time mostly to neighbouring Norway, Denmark and other European countries, but also to the US and China.

The five main reasons for migration to Sweden:

  • To be with close family
    People migrating to reunite with close family members remain one of the largest immigrant groups into the country. In 2019, over 30,000 people were granted permits to Sweden on the grounds of family reunification, according to statistics from the Swedish Migration Agency.
  • 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 asylum seekers in 2014 came from Syria, Eritrea or were people with no state or country (stateless). The number of refugees coming to Sweden nearly tripled between 2010 (12,130) and 2014 (35,642).
  • Work opportunities
    Sweden’s booming start-up and technology industry means lots of foreign workers – especially in the IT field – are looking for lucrative job opportunities in the country. In 2012, roughly 20,000 work permits were granted, a peak year to date. The top three countries represented were Thailand, India and China.
    Read about working in Sweden at workinginsweden.se.
  • Studies
    Many move to Sweden to further their studies. Among first-time students some of the largest groups are from Germany, France, China and India. It is worth noting that in 2011, Sweden started charging tuition fees for students from outside the European Union, European Economic Area or Switzerland, which caused a drop in the number of students coming to Sweden.
    Read about studying in Sweden at studyinsweden.se.
  • Love
    Often called love refugees, these are immigrants who come to Sweden after falling in love with a Swede or Swedish resident while visiting Sweden, or meeting them abroad. They are usually grouped as ’migrating to be with close family’, but these set of immigrants are a distinct group in that their reason for migrating is often newly found love.
Portrait of Linda Mutawi

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

The integration issue

The Swedish population grew by more than 100,000 in 2014. This was the result of very high immigration (127,000) and more births than deaths. But more than 50,000 people also chose to leave the country.

Refugees from active war zones continue to immigrate to Sweden. In 2014, there were over 80,000 asylum seekers, with the three largest groups being Syrians, Eritreans and people with no state or country (stateless). Only Germany received more asylum seekers than Sweden in 2014, followed by Italy and France.

Sweden granted permanent residence permits to all Syrians who were in Sweden seeking asylum. Since the war in Syria started, around 70,000 Syrians have come to Sweden. (New laws from 2016 limit the possibilities of being granted residence permits.)

In 2014 every fifth immigrant was from Syria and in 2015 almost every fourth, making Syrians the single largest immigrant group. This makes for a change since usually, most people moving to Sweden are actually returning Swedes.

Chart showing the 10 most common nationalities among asylum seekers in Sweden 2015.

More and more children come to Sweden without family. From the ten countries in the chart above, around 9 per cent were so-called unaccompanied minors.

Integration – a hot debate

Every fifth person of the current Swedish population was born in another country. What happens after immigration remains one of the hottest debates around the country. These debates highlight just how complicated and conflicting the issues surrounding diversity are – from studies praising Sweden’s integration policies to articles showing just how far Sweden still has to go in terms of integration.

The riots in some Stockholm suburbs in 2013 put the spotlight on some of the challenges of integration. Many international media covered the disturbances.

A more recent topic for debate concerns beggars, an increasingly common sight on Swedish streets. Many of them come from Romania and Bulgaria, and many of them are Roma. Their presence provokes and raises questions: Why are they here? What can Sweden do? The European Commission’s Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) is one initiative aiming to help the most vulnerable people, in Sweden as well as in other EU member states.

The main crux of the debate remains how best to integrate migrants from different countries into the Swedish workforce and society, how to provide them with opportunities, make it possible for them to contribute and ensure they have equal rights and meaningful lives.

Useful links

Portrait of Mouhanad Sharabati.

Mouhanad Sharabati is a lawyer from Syria who refused to join the Syrian regime forces in their war against the Syrian people. He fled to Sweden in 2014. Photo: Aline Lessner

The refugee challenge

In 2015–2016 Sweden saw a peak in immigration. Since then, migration and integration have been top issues on the political agenda.

Globally, there were 272 million international migrants in 2019. About 116,000 came to Sweden. From 2017 onwards immigration to Sweden has dropped, and the 2019 population growth – less than 100,000 people – was the lowest since 2013. Emigration from Sweden increased in 2019, more people moved to Sweden than from Sweden, and more people were born than died.

For five years, Syrians have made up the largest share of immigrants, but in 2019 the largest immigration group was returning Swedes, followed by people from India and Afghanistan. Only 5 per cent of immigrants in 2019 came from Syria.

Most people living in Sweden who were born in another country come from Syria. From the 1940s till 2017, that used to be Finland.

Portrait of Zelga-Gabriel

Zelga Gabriel came to Sweden from Syria as a refugee in 2015. ‘I left Syria for my family’s sake more than for my own,’ she says. ‘If it was just up to me, I would never have left. Syria is my country; my roots are there.’ Her family decided that she’d be safer in Sweden due to the Syrian Civil War. She applied for asylum, and got her residence permit after six months. Photo: Arantxa Hurtado

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. Sweden adopted the minimum EU level.

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 the possibility was time-limited.

Immigration of Afghans and Syrians to Sweden.

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’, a sum meant to cover basic needs.

The Migration Agency also handles accommodation arrangements for asylum seekers.

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

Last updated: 15 March 2021

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