Malmo, Sweden — It has been only three years since she came to Sweden from Syria, but Hiba Abou Alhassane already says “we” when speaking about her new home country.
“Did we, I mean did Sweden, take too many refugees? Should we close the border?” she pondered this week after President Trump’s remarks that Sweden’s immigration policies had failed. “It already happened. People aren’t coming anymore.”
In many ways, Ms. Alhassane is a perfect example of Sweden’s long-held belief in the rightness of sheltering and helping to support migrants and refugees. She has worked hard to integrate. Already nearly fluent in Swedish, she teaches at two local primary schools.
But recently Swedes also find themselves questioning the wisdom of their generosity to outsiders in need, and its potential limits, leading to the country’s harshest debate ever over immigration.
Some residents see the clash as a refreshing chance to voice long-held concerns over immigration and its effects. Others see it as both racist and redundant, since Sweden is already changing its immigration policies.
Swedes are not rushing to a hard-line Trump-like approach to immigration, nor are they ready to throw out their country’s humanitarian values when it comes to sheltering refugees, values that remain firmly rooted in the national psyche.
Until a year and a half ago, Sweden offered lifetime protection, along with family reunification, to people deemed legitimate refugees. In 2015, about 163,000 people came and sought that protection, and the sheer numbers led this country of roughly 10 million to tighten the rules. Protection is now subject to review after one or three years and family reunification is more difficult, making Sweden less accessible and less attractive to immigrants.
“Sweden has been a top recipient of asylum seekers per capita in Europe, priding itself on a humanitarian approach to immigration,” said Daniel Schatz, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s European Institute. “During the Iraq war, Sodertalje, a small Swedish municipality, took more Iraqi refugees than the U.S. and U.K. combined.”
“Sweden is experiencing a clash of ideals,” he added. “While the country seeks to maintain a humanitarian ideal, public concerns around immigration have begun to shift the politics of traditionally liberal Sweden to tighter immigration controls and more restrictive policies. The debate on migration is thus a very personal one for many Swedes.”