Addressing a rapid increase in socioeconomic, cultural and religious diversity is a challenge for the world’s “humanitarian superpower”. Instead of constant accusations and disagreements, discussions should focus on how to turn this diversity into an asset and prevent it from becoming a dividing force.

“Refugees walked to Sweden” – news poster at the Central Station in Stockholm in September 2015 next to a sign set up to welcome refugees © Frankie Fouganthin via Wikimedia Commons

“Sweden! Who would believe this?” The hashtag, #lastnightinsweden went viral on social media after US President Donald Trump used Sweden as an example of a European country on the brink of collapse due to the large number of immigrants the country has welcomed in recent years. Confusion arose as Trump famously stated: “… you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden”, while nothing had happened the night before. He later confirmed on Twitter that his statement referred to a program on FOX news about increased violence in Sweden as a result of its liberal immigration policies.

In Sweden, while the media has been engaging in a discussion about whether or not immigration has led to more crime, there has been little discussion about the actual economic and social developments that have further divided the country in the past years.

Vague statements like the one Trump made are dangerous because they not only spread fear based on perceptions instead of facts, but they ignore that division is rising due to the increased difference in socioeconomic conditions between the native and foreign-born population.

Where do migrants in Sweden come from?

Speaking about “immigration” in a general sense is not always helpful. While refugees are legally protected under the The 1951 Refugee Convention, it is up to governments themselves to regulate the amount of economic migrants. On average, there were 206 asylum applications per 100,000 of the local population in the EU in 2015. Most were from Syria, followed by Afghanistan and Iraq.

The country of origin and the type of migration have a great impact on the socioeconomic outcomes of each migrant. Sweden, accompanied by other Nordic countries like Norway, Denmark and Finland have a history of welcoming a large amount of humanitarian migrants. This differs from some other European countries with longer histories of welcoming foreigners as labour force. The UK, Switzerland and Luxembourg have typically hosted highly educated migrants, while France, Belgium, Germany and others tend to receive migrants with a lower skill level.

In order to understand why Sweden has gained so much attention on the so-called “failure” to properly integrate the large amount of humanitarian migrants, it is also important to note that Sweden received 1667 asylum applications per 100,000 of the local population in 2015, eight times the EU average.

Skill levels matter but policy makers are not making the most of it

The skill level among refugees in Sweden is mixed. Over 40% of Syrians in 2014 had at least upper secondary education, compared to only 20% of Afghans and 10% of Eritreans. This means that lower-skilled migrants will typically hold low-skilled occupations and are likely to end up in the lower tails of the income distribution.

Thus, what we should be discussing is not so much the ethnicity of migrants themselves, but how to address the increased inflow of a low-skilled labour force and the socioeconomic difference that will grow between the native and foreign-born population.

In Sweden, it can take up to six months before an asylum application is processed, limiting access to both housing and employment. Refugees are not only kept in economic inactivity, but there are few incentives to learn the language and integrate during time spent waiting for the decision, as the prospect of being able to stay in the country is uncertain. Economic inactivity is not only a waste of resources, but a waste of much needed talent. Refugees are a source of human capital, and do not have to be an economic burden if we empower them to become self-subsistent.

Setting these legal barriers aside, it should at least be easier for foreigners with a higher skill-level to integrate in the labour market. While this is the general case, a university degree does not guarantee success in the new country. In almost all EU countries, third-country nationals with higher education degrees face more difficulties finding a job than equally qualified EU nationals. More than 30% of highly educated foreigners in Sweden were overqualified for their jobs compared to 10% of the native born in 2015.

The forgotten intersection between inequality and ethnicity

This situation  does not become any less complicated when one considers that Sweden has experienced the largest growth in inequality among all OECD countries between 1985 and 2010. While still one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, the average income of the top 10% of income earners in 2012 was 6.3 times higher than that of the bottom 10%.

Given that the foreign-born population is also over-represented in the lower ends of the income distribution, growing inequality will be accompanied by an increased socioeconomic difference between the foreign and native-born population.

Naturally, it is important not to ignore the compounding effect on division that cultural and religious differences can have in combination with socioeconomic division. Radicalization, for example, is most prominent in second-generation migrants, who have experienced personal failures and turn to religion in search of identity.

Policymakers should pay special attention to educational failure – this is the main space outside the family where an individual can create an identity and a network. There is a clear difference in educational performance between foreign-born and native students. However, according to the OECD, poor academic performance by immigrant children is not due to the concentration of children of migrant backgrounds in the same school, but the concentration of children with poorly educated parents. Thus, lower qualifications among parents are being passed on to their children, which also harms the integration of second-generation migrants. This happens despite the fact that in Sweden education is free of charge, and at least in theory everyone has the same possibilities to succeed. The inheritance of educational inequality is reality, and something that more attention needs to be paid to.

Sweden has no real history of tracking and keeping official statistics on a person’s self-reported ethnicity, which is commonplace in countries like the US and the UK. In such countries, data can clearly show which ethnic groups are represented in different occupations, geographical locations and levels of educational attainment. While this could bring about a risk of increased labeling, it could help track patterns that do exist based on evidence (instead of perceptions), and help policymakers design initiatives for greater representation of all groups in all spheres of society.

Turning diversity into an asset

Sweden is no longer as egalitarian as it once was and economic, social and cultural differences are increasing. This is not bad per se, but in order to prevent this from creating divisions we need to start asking ourselves questions that we have had the luxury of being able to ignore for decades. The welfare state used to guarantee a level of social cohesion that it no longer has the capacity to guard – at least not in the short term. The public and private sector have to jointly find new ways of responding to such a diverse group of new arrivals.

Obviously, some may argue that the welcoming of refugees could simply be stopped, or at least sharply decreased (temporary border checks were imposed in November 2015). While this would be legally and morally disturbing, in a long-term economic perspective, saving lives could actually be positive for the economy.

Sweden will need a greater workforce to sustain its ageing population. If done correctly, migrants with both lower and higher qualifications could be an important addition to the workforce. This requires efforts to validate qualifications quickly, language training and access to services. Furthermore, it is vital to find an adequate balance between job creation, especially in the lower ends of the occupational distribution, and offsetting increased inequality.

What is actually happening, is that Sweden is a small country trying to embrace a very rapid increase in occupational, educational and cultural diversity. This does not necessarily mean it cannot be pulled off. But it would be easier to do, if policy makers started focusing on how to best use the skill levels of new arrivals – this is an area in which governments can actually have an effect.

There are major challenges ahead and finding proper solutions will require time, creativity and patience. The first step is to draw more attention to the fact that in any society in which there is increased socioeconomic division, there will be division based also on all other attributes (cultural or religious) associated to socioeconomic status. We need to acknowledge the role that socioeconomic status plays in our perception about any religious or ethnic community. The problems that arise in the outskirts of large European cities are more complex than the mere link between the immigrant and his or her background. They are linked to complex socioeconomic structures and exclusion of foreign-born; an issue that needs to be tackled.

So, when talking about immigration, the complexities of the phenomenon and its outcomes need to be acknowledged because portraying the question in a simplified narrative of good and bad will not solve any of the existing challenges.

Ps. The Swedish government has published answers to many frequent claims about immigration and crime that could serve as a good starting point for constructive discussion. They can be accessed here.

One thought on “Open borders, closed system? Sweden and the socioeconomic reality of migration

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