Donald Trump’s claims about Sweden might be exaggerated but they aren’t all lies
20 February 2017 • 5:16pm
Sweden approved legislation to tighten asylum regulations after the country had a record 160,000 asylum-seekers. Credit: Henrik Montgomery/ TT via AP/Henrik Montgomery/ TT via AP
Donald Trump asked the world to find out what happened in Sweden on Friday. The answer that came back? Not very much. Confusion about his claims quickly turned to ridicule as the White House clarified that Trump had been referring to rising crime and not a specific immigration related incident in Sweden. So is this just another example of our post-truth age in action? While Swedes have long prided themselves on their welcoming approach to refugees, Trump’s comments have hit on a kernel of truth about shifting attitudes to migration in Sweden.
The number of people applying for asylum in Sweden reached historically high levels in 2014 and 2015, mainly due to Europe’s influx of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria. 2015’s spike of 160,000 claims more than doubled the previous record high.
This sudden increase has occurred in the context of a country questioning its immigration and integration policies, and their implications for Sweden’s generous welfare state. The 2013 Stockholm riots exposed stark economic and social divides between immigrants and native Swedes, and those born outside of Sweden remain over three times as likely to be unemployed.
Following a botched terrorist attack in 2010 there has also been a steady rise in concerns around Islamic extremism. Sweden now boasts one of the highest per capita rates of known ISIS fighters in Europe: 300 Swedish nationals are thought to have travelled to Syria and Iraq.
Concerns around immigration have begun to shape the politics and policies of traditionally liberal Sweden. In 2010 the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats entered the Swedish Parliament for the first time, ending Sweden’s long-standing rejection of right-wing populist politics.
Concurrently, there has been a significant rise in conversations about ‘Swedish values’ and ‘Swedish culture’ in relation to issues of immigration and integration, in a country where these kinds of debates have historically been absent from mainstream political discourse.
Research conducted by Demos, in partnership with the Swedish think tank Fores, has shown that political discourse has shifted significantly in recent years, with a rise in exclusionary rhetoric linking ‘Swedish values’ to ethnically, rather than civically, determined concepts.
While our research found that anti-immigration rhetoric was used most explicitly by the leader of the Sweden Democrats, the leaders of the centre-right Moderate and Christian Democrat parties were also found to be increasingly positioning immigration as threat to Swedish cultural values, such as gender equality and work ethic.
Jimmie Akesson, leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, and 19 of his party members were elected to the Swedish Parliament in 2010. Credit: ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP/Getty Images/ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP/Getty Images
The change in the tone and content of political debate has had implications for policy. Sweden’s Social Democrat and Green coalition government introduced ‘temporary’ border ID checks in late 2015, which remain in place today.
More broadly, asylum policy has taken a restrictive turn, with a tightening of conditions on family reunification and refugees now being granted only temporary rather than (as was previously the case) permanent resident permits.
So does all this mean that Trump is right – Sweden is in the midst of an identity crisis, prompted by refugees and migrants? No.
While ethnically-defined understandings of national identity have risen in prominence in recent years, our research found that the Swedes of all political persuasions preferred a civic, rather than ethnic, interpretation of citizenship. Swedish people were also the second most likely of our six-country European study to say that ethnic and religious diversity had improved their country for the better.
While we should be wary of a shifting political discourse that is increasingly hostile to outsiders, relative to many other Europeans’ hardening views, Swedes remain strikingly open minded. In his attempt to find like-minded friends across the Atlantic, Trump’s comments go far beyond hyperbole. If he is looking for a country in crisis in Europe, he has failed to find one in Sweden.
Peter Harrisson-Evans is a researcher at the cross-party think-tank Demos