Swedish Liberalism Is Struggling Under the Weight of Immigration

An influx of migrants has stretched the country’s social services to near the breaking point.

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The longest political standoff in Sweden’s history ended on Jan. 18 with the government looking much as it had before elections were held four months earlier. Stefan Lofven, leader of the moderate Social Democrats, was again named prime minister, while the nationalist Sweden Democrats continue to be isolated in Parliament. The new four-party alliance hailed its agreement as a victory against insurgent forces of racism and intolerance.

In reality, the deal merely papers over the discontent that’s been eating away at Swedish liberalism since the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis. An influx of migrants has stretched the country’s social services to near the breaking point—a situation the governing agreement fails to address. Sweden Democrats received almost 18 percent of the September vote, and their sidelining in the government could further alienate that substantial and growing voting bloc.

The four allied parties—primarily the Social Democrats and the environmentally focused Green Party, supported by the traditionally center-right Center Party and Liberals—have fundamental disagreements on taxation, regulation, and other issues. Despite the temporary return of stability, the potential for crisis remains high.

Sweden once welcomed more refugees per capita than any other European Union nation. In the past five years, the country of 10 million accepted more than 400,000 asylum-seekers and relatives of previous immigrants.

Swedish Liberalism Is Struggling Under the Weight of Immigration

Among large Swedish cities, Malmo, just across the Oresund Strait from the Danish capital Copenhagen, has seen the greatest influx of migrants per capita. Last year, 509 families with children in Malmo required emergency housing, up from 64 in 2009, forcing the city to rent rooms in hotels and hostels, at a cost of 500 million kronor ($55 million) a year. “We can’t accept an unlimited number of people,” says Sedat Arif, a local council member in charge of housing policy. “We need to consider what kind of reception we want to give people who come here.”

A refugee himself, Arif came to Malmo from the Balkans when he was 6 years old. “The debate has been very much black or white, either you’re for or against immigration,” he says. “It’s about finding a balance.”

In 2015, Lofven bowed to public pressure and agreed to restrict migration. The three other parties in the new governing coalition are all pro-immigration, however, and their agreement with the Social Democrats includes a promise to allow more refugees to bring their families to Sweden. According to the Swedish Migration Agency, the new policy would make the country one of the most welcoming in Europe and lead to about 8,000 more asylum-seekers over the next three years.

Swedish Liberalism Is Struggling Under the Weight of Immigration

Forming a government “underlines the stability that I think most people associate with Sweden,” says former Finance Minister Anders Borg. Yet that could change quickly: “There’s a risk that you get problematic migration numbers, and you get a political reaction where the Sweden Democrats become the winners.” While they haven’t yet resorted to the overt send-them-back message of Donald Trump or Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Sweden Democrats say the country can’t afford additional refugees. They want Sweden to stop accepting migrants and to tighten the rules for uniting families. Even some people who oppose the Sweden Democrats say more must be done. “The government needs to show that it makes a difference,” Arif says. “We need to stop always relating to what Sweden Democrats thinks. We need to consider what challenges we have.”

Nationalists around the world have cited Malmo as an example of what can go wrong in a welfare society. Gang violence has long been a problem, especially in crowded, run-down areas. In Almgarden, a neighborhood about evenly split between white Swedes and immigrant families, 41 percent of residents voted for the Sweden Democrats, among the highest percentages of any district in the country. “People think all criminality stems from immigration,” says Almgarden resident Jeanette Palsson. Some of her neighbors have become increasingly hostile. “We have friends who we struggle to hang out with, especially outside, because they’re openly racist.”

Swedish Liberalism Is Struggling Under the Weight of Immigration

More than a dozen cameras were put up last March along a kilometer-long stretch in Rosengard, the high-crime neighborhood that encompasses Almgarden. These have helped curb violence. There was a stabbing a few months ago; officers apprehended the killer within 15 minutes thanks to the surveillance, says Malmo police superintendent Stefan Wredenmark. “We have journalists coming here all the time, and when they see this area their reaction often is that ‘this isn’t a war zone,’ ” he says. “It used to be a no-go zone, but it’s not anymore.” While certain types of highly visible crimes, including deadly shootings, have gone up, “the number of reported crimes—the general crime rate—is going down,” says fellow superintendent Glen Sjogren.

For longtime Malmo residents like pensioner Yvonne Vigstrand—as well as other Swedes attempting to cling to the values that made the country a beacon of liberal democracy—that comes as little comfort. She opposes the Sweden Democrats, but she can understand how there was a surge in support for the nationalists. Now they just add to the climate of fear in Sweden. “Nothing has ever happened to me, so I have no reason not to feel safe,” she says. “But I won’t go out late at night.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at, Flavia Krause-Jackson

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