Swedish police round up a group of migrants on board a train in the southern Swedish city of Malmo | Credit: EPA/ Stig-Ake
Swedish police round up a group of migrants on board a train in the southern Swedish city of Malmo | Credit: EPA/ Stig-Ake

Sweden’s far-right and anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, scored high in the country’s recent elections, massively increasing its influence. This stands in sharp contrast to the fact that Sweden stood at the forefront of helping refugees during the 2015 migrant crisis. Here is a brief history of Sweden's generous immigration and asylum policies.

The Sweden Democrats (SD) scored 16.9 percent of the votes in the September 9 legislative elections. Although the result fell below what pollsters had forecast, it still underscored a vast gain in support, improving from just 5.7 percent in 2010 and 12.7 percent in 2014. The elections reaffirmed the party’s position as the Sweden’s third largest party, which is now trailing less than one percentage point behind the conservative Moderates that came in at second place.

"The population has always been less favourable to the influx of asylum seekers than the country’s political representatives," French daily Le Monde explained. "The reason for SD’s political success is simple: voters endorse the directions (they want their country to take). To vote for the Sweden Democrats is essentially to vote for less immigration in Sweden."

Though all major parties have ruled out cooperating with the Sweden Democrats, some worry that the surge of the anti-migration far right could change Sweden's political landscape significantly. For decades, Sweden has been known as the land of asylum for the world’s refugees, regularly opening up its doors to those fleeing war and conflict, as well as political or religious persecution. 

Here is a brief history of Sweden’s migration policies:

From emigration to immigration

Between 1850 and 1920, famine and poverty drove more than a million Swedes to leave their native homeland for North America. But following the two world wars, there was an economic boom in the Scandinavian country. Due to the country’s tiny workforce, Sweden had no other choice but to import workers from Finland, Italy, Greece and Spain. This period (1950-1980) is often referred to as Sweden’s “golden decades”.

World War II

Although the Swedish government keeps a neutral stance during the war, meaning it does not offer persecuted Jews any special protection from Nazi Germany, some Swedish citizens mobilize against Hitler’s barbaric regime on their own. One of them is Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who is posted to Hungary.

Wallenberg is believed to have saved thousands of Jews while stationed in Budapest by issuing Swedish stamped travel passes and by setting up safe houses in the Hungarian capital. He is also credited with dissuading a German officer from ordering a massacre in a Budapest ghetto. Some survivors say they once saw Wallenberg climb onto the roof of an Auschwitz-bound train, handing out Swedish documents to desperate passengers facing deportation.

The birth of a ‘humanitarian superpower’

Thanks to people like Wallenberg, the Nordic country started to recognize the bravery and heroism of some of its citizens, and began to play an increasingly important diplomatic role in the resolution of international crises and humanitarian catastrophes.

The tiny nation prided itself in deploying peace-keeping forces and human rights advocates in international conflict zones. One of them is Dag Hammarskjöld, who headed the United Nations from 1953 until his mysterious death in 1961, when he was killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

A refuge for South Americans fleeing dictatorship

Sweden became a major recipient of refugees from former Asian colonies and South American dictatorships, as well as Christian minorities from the Middle East. Olof Palme, the head of Sweden’s Social Democrat Party and the country’s prime minister from 1969 to 1976 and from 1982 until 1986, became a precursor in the struggle for emancipation in Vietnam, South Africa, Cambodia and the Palestinian territories.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Sweden also received thousands of Chileans, Lebanese, Poles and Kurds. In the 1990s, it became a mass destination for those fleeing the bloodshed in former Yugoslavia, receiving more than 125,000 refugees from the Balkans in just a few short years.

The 2015 migrant crisis: ‘My Europe doesn’t put up walls’

In August 2014, prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of the conservative Moderates urged Swedes "to open up their hearts" to asylum seekers, in particular from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In September 2015, his successor, Stefan Löfven of the Social Democrats, continued on the same path by announcing similar same open-door policies, stating that: "My Europe doesn’t put up walls, we hold a hand out when the situation demands it."

In 2015 alone, the country of 10 million received more than 160,000 asylum seekers – a record per capita in Europe.

In 2017, Sweden was one of five EU countries to issue the most protection statuses to asylum seekers (granting some 31,200 refugees this particular status), which stands out in particular because Sweden has such a small number of inhabitants. Last year, Sweden counted 3,100 refugees per one million inhabitants – in comparison with, for example, France which had 605 refugees per one million inhabitants.

In all, an estimated 1.9 million of people living in Sweden were born abroad, accounting for 18.5 percent of the population.


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