The narrow victory of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party in Sweden’s elections last Sunday marked a broad shift in its politics. But a new coalition government is unlikely to reconsider one of the country’s most challenging policies: its response to the Syrian civil war. Sweden has taken an open-door approach to people fleeing the conflict, accepting more Syrians than any other European country.
Never mind that Sweden has double-digit youth unemployment. That there have been riots in immigrant neighborhoods in Stockholm. That there is a severe housing shortage for new arrivals. Or that the Swedish Migration Board, which handles asylum seekers, needs a drastic budget increase — almost $7 billion — to cover soaring costs over the next few years.
And never mind that the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats won 13 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, their best showing ever. They more than doubled their seats in Parliament — from 20 to 49 — and are now the third-biggest party in the country.
“We are the moral guardians of the world,” Magnus Ranstorp, a specialist in counterterrorism at the Swedish National Defense College, told me a few days before the election, referring to Swedes. “We haven’t fought a war in 200 years. We are righteous. But sometimes the righteousness doesn’t meet reality.”
As the Syrian conflict has turned into a regional humanitarian crisis, more European countries are accepting Syrian refugees preselected by the United Nations. But apart from Germany, a much larger country, only Sweden is welcoming tens of thousands of Syrians who come on their own and request asylum.
Some 40,000 Syrians have arrived in Sweden since the conflict began. And following a decision to offer permanent residency to all Syrians, Sweden is expecting more than 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014, many of them from Syria.
In its largess, Sweden diverges from countries like Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark, which have taken in far fewer Syrian asylum-seekers — generally granting them only temporary residency — and just several hundred United Nations-sponsored refugees each. Even more dramatic is the contrast with Norway.
A far wealthier social democracy than Sweden, Norway spends a greater share of gross domestic product on humanitarian assistance than any other country in the world. It also has the lowest unemployment in Europe and, like Sweden, several decades of experience with immigration.
Yet Norway is not encouraging asylum-seekers. When I recently asked one of the very few Syrians I met in Oslo why he had chosen Norway, he said, “I thought Oslo was in Sweden.” And while the Norwegian government has agreed to resettle 1,000 United Nations-selected Syrian refugees, this summer it rejected 123 of them because of medical conditions deemed too serious for local health services to manage.
This has put Sweden and Norway on opposite sides of an emerging debate: whether advanced welfare states designed for small and homogeneous societies in the mid-20th century are capable of absorbing large numbers of non-European foreigners.
In Sweden, a closely patrolled pro-immigration “consensus” has sustained extraordinarily liberal policies while placing a virtual taboo on questions about the social and economic costs. In Norway, a strong tradition of free speech and efficient administration has produced a hard-nosed approach about which refugees, and how many, to take in.
The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has calculated that because of all the social, health, housing and welfare benefits mandated by the state, supporting a single refugee in Norway costs $125,000 — enough to support some 26 Syrians in Jordan. And the Norwegian press has reported that following an alleged terrorist threat from abroad in July, Norway’s immigration authorities deported asylum seekers who raised security concerns.
Unlike the far-right Sweden Democrats, which have been shunned by other Swedish parties, Norway’s own anti-immigration party, the populist Progress Party, has entered a coalition government and makes its concerns heard. Solveig Horne, the minister of children, equality and social inclusion, and a member of the Progress Party, complains that Norway already has more asylum seekers than it can accommodate. “More and more are allowed to stay in Norway,” she told me in Oslo last month. “But many communities are saying, ‘Wait. We have to be sure we can integrate the people we already have.’ ”
This is just the kind of blunt talk that is strictly avoided in Sweden. Take the comments of the incumbent prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, a few weeks before last Sunday’s election. He asked voters to “open their hearts” to Syrian refugees, even though the escalating cost of supporting them would preclude further welfare benefits for Swedes. The comment caused an outcry — not because it seemed to favor refugees over Swedes, but simply for suggesting that refugee policy needed to be considered on economic grounds.
And yet there is plenty to discuss. Mr. Ranstorp, the counterterrorism official, described a recent visit to Angered, an overwhelmingly immigrant suburb of Gothenberg, the second-largest city in Sweden: “I found extremism, but I also found overcrowded housing, drug gangs controlling the area, police not reporting crime, people living in drab apartment blocks with no shops, a parallel justice system.”
One perverse result of Sweden’s refusal to engage these problems, Mr. Ranstorp and others say, is to have ceded the immigration debate to a far-right party whose leader has likened Islam to “the worst threat facing Sweden since World War II.”
“Sweden is very puzzling,” said Grete Brochmann, a leading Norwegian immigration scholar. The Swedes, she said, “are extremely liberal toward immigration, but they have a very authoritarian attitude toward debate about it. In Norway the idea is, open discussion is basically good. If there’s hostility, better to get it out.”
But how much hostility is too much? Swedes like to point out that the Breivik massacre — the 2011 killing of 77 people by an extreme right-wing Islamophobe — happened in Norway, not Sweden. Yet one lesson Norwegians have drawn from the attack is that they need more, not less, tough talk about immigration.
As the Syrian refugee crisis has shown, however, it is important to keep sight of what the argument is about. For Norway and other wealthy countries, helping as many refugees as possible in the Middle East may make better economic sense than welcoming them on their own soil. But that approach risks conveying the message that the West doesn’t really want Syrians in its midst.
“We have to think of it differently,” Jan Egeland, who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, told me. “Syria is in flames. Lebanon is filled to the brim. People are bleeding to death on both sides of the borders. We need to take more of the people who we cannot help in the region — including the sick and disabled. If Norway can’t take them, who can?”
Hugh Eakin is a senior editor at The New York Review of Books, for which he has been covering the international response to Syria’s refugee crisis.