Sweden’s message to migrants in Europe is clear: Don’t come here. “Even we have our limits, and now they have been reached,” a defeated-sounding migration minister, Morgan Johansson, explained during a press conference on Nov. 5. “Those who come to our borders may be told that we cannot guarantee them housing.”
That message, nailed down this week when the government announced that Sweden was reintroducing border controls, was a sudden shift from an administration that had claimed there were “no limits” to the number of refugees it could accept. The reversal testifies not only to intensifying challenges Sweden faces abroad, but also to the dysfunctional nature of its immigration debate at home.
Sweden’s backtracking is part of a larger trend as Europe struggles to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers. States that together with Sweden had been advocating generosity and openness — like Austria and Germany — now too are tightening their policies and calling for Europe to reinforce its external borders. Their efforts have turned to repatriating those without legitimate claims to asylum as well as relocating part of their migrant populations to more other, less inundated E.U. states like Poland, France or Denmark.
Making progress on either front promises to be a challenge. Indeed, responding to the Swedish government’s cries for neighboring states to take some of their refugees, the Danish migration minister, Inger Stojberg, said her country would not be coming to the rescue, and added: “Sweden has had an irresponsible refugee policy for years. They have put themselves in this situation.”
Sweden, a country of 9.6 million, lately has been absorbing 10,000 asylum seekers per week, and expects the total number coming into the country this year alone to reach 190,000 — a population greater than that of its fourth largest city. Since the intensification of the immigration crisis in September, municipalities have complained that they lack housing, teachers and classroom space, and doctors for the newcomers. The police have acknowledged that they’ve lost the ability to monitor the whereabouts of foreign nationals within the country. Migration agencies have signaled that they can no longer ensure that unaccompanied minors passing through their offices will be transferred into acceptable living conditions. And leaked emails have shown that government officials are panicking over how they will pay for associated costs.
Sweden, like Germany and Austria, overestimated its capacity. Casualties of this miscalculation will not only include its domestic welfare institutions, but also — tragically — its global humanitarianism. In an effort to pay for increased immigration, the government is now dipping into its foreign aid budget. Sweden consistently ranks as one of the most generous providers of foreign aid worldwide, supporting efforts to expand educational opportunities, provide access to water, and promote political and economic development in regions producing the bulk of asylum seekers in Europe. But 20 percent of this year’s foreign aid budget has been redirected to domestic migration agencies, and officials have suggested they will take even more out of next year’s budget. Reducing foreign aid in such substantial amounts promises to fuel the same instability and desperation that is causing the migrant crisis. Worse yet, by refocusing its humanitarian effort on individuals healthy enough and wealthy enough to take themselves to its shores, Sweden is shunning those abroad in greatest need.
The government’s slow response to all of this seems baffling. But the seeds of the current debacle were sown earlier, when immigration became an untouchable centerpiece of Sweden’s politics. For the past five years, the nationalist Sweden Democrats party has been the only force opposing the country’s refugee policies. Born in the late 1980s through the fusion of an anti-tax populist party and a neo-Nazi activist group, the Sweden Democrats have grown exponentially since entering Parliament in 2010. Their rise has nonetheless been condemned and hotly contested by a mainstream weary of seeing the country’s reputation for tolerance tarnished. Far from introducing new restrictions to immigration, the Sweden Democrats have caused the political establishment to entrench itself: Any move to restrict immigration is now seen as a concession to paranoid nativism.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has called the Sweden Democrats “neo-fascists,” and like all other mainstream party leaders — on the left as well as the right — he has refused to communicate with them. But on the heels of his administration’s about-face on its own immigration policy, his past attacks on the party seem awkward. When members of the Sweden Democrats began criticizing his policy months ago for its blindness to logistical and economic pitfalls, he dismissed them. The party also argued early on that money for humanitarian purposes would be more efficiently and equitably spent through foreign aid than immigration, and he disregarded their argument as a convenient excuse for a xenophobic agenda. He may have been right, but so were they.
And therein lies the problem. The real nightmare for Swedish politics is not that it now includes the kind of continental-style far-right party it once thought itself immune to. It is rather that mainstream forces have surrendered all critical perspectives on immigration to a party with which they can neither collaborate nor bear to see affirmed. Had a transparent and dynamic public discussion been taking place in Sweden during the past months — a discussion that acknowledged both the need for human solidarity and the limitations of the country’s infrastructure — a more sustainable immigration policy might have emerged. Instead, it seems ill-fated policies will not be altered until the country brings itself to the brink of collapse.
Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, who teaches Nordic Studies and International Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the author of the forthcoming book Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism.