In Transition: From Immigration Policy to Integration Policy in Sweden

By Jederlund, Lars; Kayfetz, Victor | Scandinavian Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

In Transition: From Immigration Policy to Integration Policy in Sweden


Jederlund, Lars, Kayfetz, Victor, Scandinavian Review


From an historical perspective, Sweden has been transformed in a very short period from a relatively homogeneous country into a multiethnic and multicultural society. This development has enriched Sweden in many ways but has also created tensions and problems. Individuals, organizations, public agencies, political parties and the responsible politicians at all levels are thus under greater pressure to deal with integration issues in a new, more energetic way. A few years ago, Swedish public discourse focused on the immigration issue. Today it no longer focuses as much on immigration and immigrants, but instead on integration and the "new Swedes."

Ever since the 12th century, when many German merchants and craftsmen came to Sweden, this has been a country of immigrants. German immigration created an upswing for trade, craftsmanship and learning. It had such a big impact on Sweden that German practically became an official language in Stockholm during the 14th century. But pre-20h century immigration did not change Sweden's population structure in any decisive way. According to the 1910 census, Sweden was among those countries in Europe "where the number of foreigners is smallest, which can probably be explained by Sweden's remote location."

Large-scale emigration to America in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when around 1.2 million Swedes (some 20 percent of the population) left their country, nevertheless had an important influence on population developments during subsequent decades. Emigration created a major shortage of labor in most economic sectors. A first wave of labor immigration followed.

At that time it was easy to get into Sweden. There were no border controls, and those who wished could settle in the country. However, even in the early 20th century there were calls for a more restrictive immigration policy.

Soon after World War I broke out in 1914, Sweden adopted its first Aliens Act, which restricted the right of foreigners to stay in the country. But the Act also stated that a person could not be deported if special circumstances existed, "for example, that his country is far away, that he was deported from there or that he would probably be charged or punished for political crimes there." One can say that this was the first time the right of asylum was established in Swedish law.

However, the Act was soon put to the test after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933. Sweden pursued a very restrictive refugee policy, accepting only about 5,000 refugees from Germany until World War II began in 1939. After that, it tightened immigration policy and controls of foreigners even more. But as the war worsened and refugees became more numerous, the official attitude softened. From late 1942 onward, all those who sought refuge in neutral Sweden were allowed to stay.

After the war, there was a bigger labor shortage in Sweden than ever before. The "importation" of foreign labor in the 1940s marked the beginning of modern Swedish immigrant history. During the 1950s an average of 10,000 people immigrated each year. By 1955, about 116,000 employees with foreign backgrounds were working in Sweden. They accounted for 3.7 percent of the gainfully employed population. The 1960s were a decade of large-scale labor immigration, with an influx of 30-60,000 people per year. There were very few refugees.

Sweden's modern immigration policy, launched in the mid-1970s, was based on experiences and ideas from the 1960s immigration to Sweden. As formulated in 1975, its three immigration policy objectives can be summarized as follows:

Equality

Freedom of cultural choice

Cooperation and solidarity

The equality objective implied that immigrants should have the same opportunities, rights and obligations as the rest of the population. The freedom of cultural choice objective meant that members of linguistic minorities should be allowed to choose to what extent they wished to adopt a Swedish cultural identity and to what extent they wished to retain and enhance their original identity. …

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