Immigration Forces Sweden to Re-Evaluate Its Welfare State

Uh Oh. Now the slops will be wanting us to take Sweden's muzzies too.

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STOCKHOLM -- When he was in his early 20s, Jacek Dabrowski earned money by visiting Sweden during the summer months and working in the construction industry. Now 34, the native of Krakow, Poland, returned to Sweden in 2016 so he could earn more money than what he could in his homeland -- essential, he says, to help pay off debts he has accrued.

"I was struggling for many years and it was hard so I just realized that I needed another solution," says Dabrowski, who now makes Stockholm his home. "And, yeah, I had been to Sweden, and always liked the country and the people and always found it very easy to live here and work here."

Dabrowski is one of many people who have found their way to the Nordic country, either for economic opportunity, to seek asylum or to flee war. Indeed, today Sweden is viewed as perhaps the best country to be an economic immigrant, according to one survey.

But the Swedish door that has historically swung open wide to accept migrants is swinging back. The flood of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers that has streamed into the country in recent years has forced the government to tighten rules governing migration into the country.

The waves of migrants have also stirred a public backlash, one that challenges the country's image and core values of tolerance and openness. Swedes, experts say, are confronting the limits of how generous a nation with a relatively small population can be. Policy-makers must decide what changes are needed to help an aging country remain exceptional for its high living standards and its magnanimity to foreigners seeking a better life.

"Sweden has had to come to terms with the limits of its policies [toward migrants]," says Demetrios G. Papademetriou, a senior fellow and president emeritus at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.

Sweden has long been viewed by the rest of the world as a welcoming harbor for migrants. Its welfare-state model is a source of pride for its citizens and is seen by the world as offering a high quality of life and a safe environment in which to raise children. The Swedish culture of egalitarianism also helps the country's image as one of the world's best nations for women, according to one survey.

The country's rosy reputation for accepting foreigners is grounded in its history of dealing with refugees. During World War II the country began accepting Europeans fleeing **** Germany. In the 1980s the nation welcomed refugees from Iran, Somalia and Eritrea, as well as Kurds. By the 1990s, former Yugoslavs began streaming into the Sweden. During the latter half of the 20th century the Swedish government developed a system of providing social benefits to refugees that are as generous as those given to its citizens.

Beyond refugees and asylum-seekers, Sweden's laws allow any citizen of a European Union member country to work here without applying for a work permit or a residency permit. (Family members of EU-citizens can also come work in Sweden but need to apply for a residency permit.) EU citizens must be able to support themselves and will not automatically have access to welfare services.

Though Sweden in 2008 altered its laws so that employers, and not the government, decide on the need to recruit foreign workers -- a move that essentially eases the path for non-EU citizens -- the country does not accept non-EU economic migrants as freely as it does those from EU-member countries. Today, non-EU citizens need a valid passport, a job offer in line with the applicable collective labor contract, a salary that allows a person to support themselves (the monthly minimum is 13,000 Swedish Krona, or about $1,500) and an employer to pay benefits such as a pension and life and health insurance.

Non-Swedish citizens must fulfill the legal requirements during all the months that the permit is valid, and do not allow a person or employer to correct a mistake after the fact. This arrangement may cause problems if a person loses his or her job and doesn't immediately find a new one. Tales of people caught in the middle when their employers make mistakes are common in Sweden.

Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of the music streaming service Spotify, has criticized the current laws. The company risked losing some employees after it was discovered that the company did not pay enough in pensions and health care fees for several international employees. Those workers now risk being kicked out of the country, and would have to reapply for a new work permit.

Dabrowski, the Polish construction laborer, says that even though he lacked professional training in the construction industry, he landed a job putting up plaster walls in new homes before he arrived in Sweden. "I had three offers in three hours. Then they [his employer] helped with all the stuff I needed to do to move here."

Dabrowski says he still pays taxes in Poland and is hired as an "outside consultant," a designation that allows his employer to disregard some of the rules that would apply to a Swedish company hiring a person from abroad. He does not have a pension in Sweden or access to the national health-care services that are more than what the EU rules already provide.

"I don't have pensions, people which I'm working for, they control the situation and they are experts and the system in which I'm working," he says. "They tell me what to do to stay there."

In 2015 the refugee crisis that overwhelmed Europe threatened to bury Sweden. People fleeing fighting in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and across Africa streamed into the continent in record numbers. In 2015, the government of Sweden, a country of not quite 10 million people, recorded nearly 163,000 asylum-seekers arriving in the country. The country today has the highest number per capita of asylum-seekers in the EU.

The flood of refugees forced Sweden to tighten its policies near the end of 2015. In a nod to how deeply ingrained openness is in Swedish culture, then-Deputy Prime Minister Asa Romson broke down in tears in November 2015 as she announced stricter rules allowing the entry of refugees and asylum-seekers.

While the tightened policies do not target economic immigrants, the public mood in Sweden toward foreigners has changed. As The Economist reported earlier this year, the public talk of "Swedish values" has increased dramatically in recent years.

Likewise, the far-right anti-immigration political party Sweden Democrats has been steadily seeing increased public support. In June one survey showed it now attracts the second-greatest amount of support from Swedes.

In an interview, Mattias Karlsson, a politician belonging to Sweden Democrats, said his party's support is due to growing public agreement with the part that policies on migration, integrating foreigners and criminal justice need re-evaluation. He tied foreigners to crime, especially singling out Muslims.

"We have seen a large increase in serious crimes, we have seen an increase in the rise of fundamental Islam in Sweden, we have had terror attacks in Sweden," Karlsson says. "Women in Sweden are now a lot more unsafe."

For now, non--Swedes such as Dabrowski say they are happy working in the Scandinavian country. Dabrowski didn't say whether he experiences resentment from Swedes for being a foreigner.

"I like Scandinavia, I've been almost in every Scandinavian country except Norway and I love the people and I love the culture." There are some drawbacks, he says. "I feel that when I'm in Sweden, after a few months I miss Poland. And the opposite direction, as well, when I'm in Poland."

Amy Russo contributed reporting on behalf of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


Kevin Drew is assistant managing editor, international, at U.S. News and World Report. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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