A surge in gang violence, more deadly shootings per capita than its closest European neighbours, and religious radicalism in segregated suburbs. Sweden’s integration situation has been the subject of growing debate over the last few years, and the focus has often been on negative issues and claims. The far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, has seen a rapid rise in popularity. Problematic incidents involving a limited number of people with migrant background is taken as evidence of a failed integration system.
In reality, Sweden’s integration story is one of both progress and continuing challenges.
In Sweden, integration is the shared responsibility of municipalities, the state and, to some degree, the regions. Officially, the lion’s share lies with the state. The Swedish Migration Agency has the initial task of taking care of asylum-seekers, as well as those who are granted residence permits. Everyone who so chooses can be assigned accommodation in municipalities, a so-called ABO, by the Migration Agency.
Newly-arrived adults with residence permits enrol in an integration program usually lasting for two years during which they attendSwedish language courses, introduction courses, education courses, and participate in internships in the labour market, etc. They also qualify to receive state payments. Ever since a governmental reform in 2010, the formal responsibility for coordination of these integration efforts has laid with the Swedish Public Employment Service.
But a large share of these efforts is organised by the municipalities where the newly-arrived migrants end up living. They also take responsibility for providing education for the children. The municipalities receive financial compensation from the state for this work. In recent years a growing number of local employment service offices have been shut down. Because of this retreat, many municipalities have shouldered an even larger responsibility for integration measures.
The regions and regional actors play only a minor role in integration work. The County Administrative Boards, for example, distribute financial means to both municipalities and civic organisations engaged in integration efforts.
Sweden saw an influx of asylum-seeking migrants in 2014–2015. In light of this, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR) published a report in 2017 which outlined 65 suggestions to improve integration.
Karin Perols, an analyst at SALAR and a co-author of the report, has found that some of the 65 suggestions have already been implemented. One example is a change to education law, which now allows asylum-seeking minors to continue their education in secondary school after the age of 18.
“Another example is that there will be a reduction in the number of asylum-seekers who will be allowed to find their own living accommodation, also known as EBO. Our opinion is that EBO has led to the establishment of segregated areas. To break this pattern, Sweden should have a system like most other European countries and distribute recently arrived asylum-seekers,” says Karin Perols.
A new law, the Housing Act, was introduced in 2016 to make sure that every municipality receives a mandatory number of newly-arrived migrants with residence permits. The law takes the size of the municipality and the local labour market into account. However, the Housing Act is only responsible for about a third of all new arrivals who are settling in municipalities. The rest arrive by their own means and move into EBOs, homes they have found by themselves. This is often with friends or relatives, or in sublets. This might be a contributing factor behind the appearance of segregated areas. As of July 2020, EBO will initially be reduced as a possible living option in certain segregated areas in 32 municipalities.
Furthermore, the phenomenon of EBO has resulted in certain municipalities receiving more new arrivals and hence more responsibility than other municipalities. In August 2019, an investigative documentary on Sweden’s Public Service TV triggered a polarising debate about impacts this could have on the local economy. The documentary focused on Filipstad Municipality, which received one of the highest proportions of asylum-seekers per capita in 2015, due to the Migration Agency having several ABO accommodations there. A large majority of these new arrivals are unemployed and spending on social benefits has tripled in the municipality. Filipstad has complained about a worsening economy and negative financial figures. The municipal Chief Executive even suggested that Filipstad should file for bankruptcy.
Karin Perols agrees that the Filipstad debate managed to highlight challenges in municipalities that received a disproportionally high number of new arrivals – but she stresses that this has only happened in a small number of municipalities.
“There is a tendency to explain the worsened economy in municipalities with the reception of newly-arrived migrants. In general, we do not share this explanation. The biggest cause behind the worsened economy is demographic change, that there are more children and more elderly people, but also fewer adults of working age,” says Karin Perols.
Indeed, an outflow of native-born persons in employment from Filipstad Municipality has also led to a reduction of public revenue. And the Economy Report, published twice a year by SALAR, showed that in 2019 a third of Sweden’s municipalities spent more than they earned and were having trouble with their economy and sustaining their welfare system.
Most of the suggestions in the SALAR report are still unaddressed, or under investigation at best. There is still a need to change many things on both a state and local level. Integration efforts in Sweden begin only after a residence permit has been granted – a process that can take quite some time – while in Germany the efforts start earlier. Also, the Housing Act is not very clear about how long the municipality is obliged to offer accommodation.
Karin Perols says that SALAR also suggests that responsibility for the coordination of integration efforts should formally be transferred from the state to the municipalities, as this is the way it largely already functions today.
“The state should be responsible for the overall system and financial compensation, but you can’t find any national recipes for successful integration. It’s a question of having faith in local actors and the local level.”
Karin Perols stresses that the situation in 2014–2015 was a wake-up call for everyone. This created a foundation for cooperation between the employment agency, the municipality, local business and civil society. These structures are still largely in place today and when SALAR speaks with municipalities, it usually mentions this and the need for political leadership with a clear vision as a path towards successful integration.
“There is still a lot left to develop, but I think we can draw the conclusion that it’s possible to create well-functioning integration as many local examples show. And if we think of migration in terms of getting newly-arrived migrants into employment, then things have been steadily improving for many years.”
Joakim Medin, Swedish Journalist and Author extensively covering migration, integration efforts and the rise ofanti-immigrant politics.