Simon Johnson and Johan Sennero, Reuters, September 2, 2015
Sweden may have one of Europe’s most generous immigration regimes but there is flip side–one of the poorest records among wealthy industrialized nations of integrating newcomers, especially thousands of refugees, into its labor force.
That failure to provide jobs, a cornerstone to fuller acceptance into society, has helped create an ethnic underclass, straining Sweden’s open-mindedness toward foreigners and fuelling the far right–a trend mirrored across the Nordics.
A 2013 OECD study said the unemployment rate for foreign-born Swedish citizens is nearly three times more than for those native born–the second worst in the OECD after Norway. Denmark and Finland are also near the bottom of the table.
For years, thousands of refugees have headed to the Nordics, enticed by their traditional openness, strong economies, security and welfare.
Sweden gives automatic residency to Syrian refugees and welcomes more asylum seekers per capita than any other nation in Europe, making it one of the destinations of choice for many of the migrants now making their way across the continent.
Some 15 percent of Sweden is foreign born, similar to the United States and around double the EU average. In Sweden, inequality is growing faster than in most other developed nations.
That has helped fuel the far right, whose arguments that jobs, welfare and cherished social stability are threatened have struck a chord.
A deadly attack on a Copenhagen synagogue at an event promoting free speech and a fatal stabbing by an asylum seeker in an IKEA store in Sweden have strengthened feelings among some Scandinavians that immigrants remain outsiders.
Anti-immigrant parties are part of governments in Finland and Norway, while in Denmark the Danish People’s Party and Sweden’s Sweden Democrats vie for first place in polls.
“We have islands where social problems have become concentrated and unemployment, bad school results and other social problems amplify each other,” Sweden’s Employment Minister Ylva Johansson said.
“That’s not an issue related to how many refugees we take in. Rather it’s about failures of integration.”
Sweden awoke to problems of a growing underclass in 2013 when riots erupted in Stockholm’s mainly immigrant suburbs, with youths burning cars and battling police blamed for the shooting of a Portugese-born man.
It is not just about refugees. Roma migrants who have set up makeshift camps outside Stockholm, begging outside IKEA stores and metro entrances, have shocked Swedes.
The Sweden Democrats, who doubled their vote to 13 percent in the 2014 election, get around 20 percent in polls. Leader Jimmie Akesson has warned of “explosions and shootings nearly every day”.