Catch-22: Sweden’s Conflicting Refugee Policies

illustration: Shutterstock.

How could Sweden reform it’s refugee policies? Would it help to establish some selection programmes in the refugee admission policies like Canada? And, what could be done about the housing crisis which is one key-factor making the establishment of newly arrived so difficult?
In this essay Muyi Yang, originally from China now living in Sweden, examines the Swedish refugee policies.

Even before I arrived in Sweden, I had heard about Sweden’s extraordinary humanitarian work.  Since World War II, Sweden has distinguished itself in the world by providing direct aid to countries torn apart by conflict, opening its borders to people fleeing these circumstances.  A prime example is the large number of war-related refugees Sweden has accepted from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. During the refugee crisis in 2015, Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers, the largest number of refugees per capita across the EU.

When I arrived in Sweden as a Rotary International Peace Fellow in 2019[1], I developed a different, more nuanced picture. Some local Swedes were concerned – sometimes to the point of complaining aloud – about the incoming refugees whom they perceived were collecting welfare support without working, resulting in a deteriorating sense of security, an increase in gang-related problems, and the perceived “ghetto-fication” of certain districts. Such a contrast in perception and reality reminded me of the drastic change of Sweden’s refugee policy in 2015. Soon after accepting the maximum number of refugees it aimed to support, Sweden introduced border controls in November 2015, and added on ID checks of all people entering Sweden beginning January 3rd, 2016. Six months later, the Swedish government further locked down access to permanent residency, granting it only to successful asylum-seeking families with children under eighteen years old or to those with only one child, regardless of age, whose applications were received prior to November 24, 2015. Others could only receive temporary residence permits, subject to the required renewal. This sudden and drastic turn purportedly was justified by a needed respite for the Swedish migration agency to process all the backlogged applications.

Was this respite only needed to allow time to process the backlog of cases? Or was it also triggered by the unexpected social and economic burden from those who had obtained a residency permit but were able to integrate into the local society as planned? Having worked on the integration issues in the U.S., China, U.K., and Syria, I began to wonder why Sweden’s generous gesture of accepting refugees ended up like this. Although the Migration Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) lists Swedish refugee policies as one of the top three most responsivve, evidence-based, and financially prepared, why did these policies not reach the goals as intended? I set out to look for answers with my fresh pair of “visitor’s” eyes. What I found here serves as a reflection from my journey to understand a country that I have come to love deeply. It by no means suggests that Swedish policies on refugee integration are a failure, nor does it offer an exhaustive explanation of the ineffectiveness of these policies. On the contrary, it highlights the utterly complex and daunting tasks pertinent to integration issues faced by policymakers in any country, including Sweden.

Sweden is no stranger when it comes to receiving refugees for humanitarian reasons. For example, around 100,000 people from the former Yugoslavia sought refuge in Sweden in the early 1990s, nearly half of whom (42,366) were born in Bosnia–Herzegovina (BiH) according to Statistics Sweden. Compared to the previous wave of BiH refugees, the number of incoming refugees around 2015 was even larger, leading to the clogging of pending cases in the system. Although the new tightened asylum policies in 2015, such as border controls, ID checks, and the removal of permanent residence permits to successful asylum applicants effectively reduced the number of new applications by 82 per cent after a year[3], the time needed by the Migration Agency to process all the backlogged cases still took a long time – 250 days per case in 2015[4], leaving many applicants in temporary housing for significantly longer than expected. Right now, Sweden’s Public Employment Service (PES) can enrol refugees in the two-year introduction programme for the integration process only after two conditions have been met: the refugee application has been officially approved by the Migration Agency; and the asylum seeker has secured permanent housing. As a result, asylum applicants who find themselves in temporary housing have to wait longer to see any administrative progress on their application status or to become eligible for any integration programmes, regardless of their likelihood of obtaining asylum status. In the end, the surge in refugee applications has resulted in a significantly prolonged time to process each case, spoiling the potential benefit of early integration shown by other OECD countries.[5]

Even after their cases are approved, many applicants have not been able to begin their integration programme because they have not been able to find permanent housing either via the PES or through personal outreach due to the housing shortage; as a result, they have had to extend their stay in the Migration Agency’s temporary housing. Sweden has suffered from this housing shortage since the 1960s. To alleviate it, and with the belief that all citizens have a right to low-cost quality housing, Sweden launched “the Million Housing programme” between 1965-1975 to build private houses with government loans, rather than instituting any public housing. Not only did this programme not end the housing shortage, but it also resulted in a situation where the public agencies like the newly-established PES do not own any public housing. Still, the PES was tasked with locating successful asylum seekers into different counties based on the need of the labour market and demographic characteristics of the local county. Thus, without any housing stock of its own to manage, the PES has been asked essentially to depend on municipal governments that have very limited lodging spaces and little administrative incentive to settle more refugees. The situation becomes more challenging when the successful applicants are not able to find housing on their own. In this situation, many asylum applicants whose cases have been approved find themselves in the Catch-22 of continuing to live in temporary housing, which denies them access to most of the integration activities that are based on securing permanent housing and independent education or employment. Adding to the delay of the integrating process for many refugees, when successful asylum applicants continue to live in the temporary housing, the Migration Office then does not have the available room to accommodate the new applicants, thus delaying the processing time for future applications.

Meanwhile, the extensive waiting time required to secure housing has also forced many refugees who do not want to stay in temporary housing to cram into certain districts in big cities such as Stockholm where large diasporas have already settled. These districts are already more likely to suffer from the existing housing shortage, and to attract residents with a lower level of education and employment opportunities that have been denied because of their status. The continuing influx of new refugees therefore further accentuates these already acute issues and in particular, worsens the residential segregation in those regions. In this way, the mismatch between the institutional capacity of the Swedish migration agency to process the new cases and the overcrowding of the influx of refugees has generated a domino effect that ripples across various social sectors and years.

This domino effect can help explain the tightening restrictions of Swedish refugee policies in 2015 to decrease new arrivals. But what about those refugees that are already here? Complaints shared with me, including the exploitation of the welfare system and resultant perceived deterioration of a local sense of security, cannot be associated with those who have not yet arrived. Here, I use the labour market integration as a reference point to evaluate this multifaceted process. Because, regardless of the initial reasons for coming to Sweden, many refugees need to find a job to sustain their life and that of their families. The past experiences, including the unintended success of the BiH refugee groups on labour market integration, also highlighted for the Swedish government the need for a more financially feasible process of social assimilation. Sweden has thus postulated that incoming refugees could effectively mitigate labour shortages arising from an ageing population – an estimated shortage of 600,000 by 2030[6]. Hence, labour market integration has gradually become a fundamental part of Swedish refugee policies. Its outcome can reflect the general situation of refugees in Sweden. 

Since 2010, the Swedish government has split the responsibilities of approving refugee applications and integrating successful applicants between two government agencies. The Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) processes the asylum applications and provides temporary accommodations to the asylum applicants during the immigration process. Subsequently, the Public Employment Office (PES) assumes responsibility for integrating refugees under the mandates of the Establishment Reform to prioritise the labour market integration of refugees.

What surprises me, though, is the lack of data-driven coherence in the Swedish government’s policies that aimed to transform these humanitarian refugees into productive economic forces. For example, in 2008 Sweden adopted a non-selective labour market migration model that de-emphasised the basic requirement of education and skill set for refugee applicants. Potentially enlarging the candidate pool of future labour forces, this policy resulted in a significant portion of the admitted refugees possessing low-education and skill. A large number of immigrants who arrived between 2009-2013 were from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. Of these, 39 per cent of the Syrians, 49 per cent of Afghanis, 34 per cent of the Iraqis and 45 per cent of the Eritreans had no more than a primary school education and sometimes even less[7]. In total, around one-third of the immigrants do not have any education beyond the lower-secondary level.

In contrast to the low education and skills possessed by many refugees, the current labour demand in Sweden is characterised by a knowledge-intensive economic structure that builds on a higher level of education and sophisticated skill training. A report in 2016 shows that fewer than 5 per cent of all jobs in the Swedish labour market required low-to-no education, the lowest rate across the EU.[8] As a consequence, a large gap has appeared between the education and skills needed by the local labour market and those possessed by a large group of refugees. Unfortunately, programmes introduced by the PES have not provided a long-term solution to systemically address this skill gap besides the language and civic courses. Similar to the immigration policies, the two-year introduction programme does not differentiate among immigrants with varied educational and skill levels; instead it mainly provides generic training on language and civic orientation. Notwithstanding the importance of those courses, by themselves they do not provide the needed education or skills to the less-educated and low-skill immigrants. As a consequence, after this two-year introduction programme, a large number of immigrants – particularly those with lower education – were neither employed nor in school. As a result, many refugees, particularly those with low education levels, were neither employed nor in school after the two-year introduction programme. A report finds that one year after the two-year programme, only 15 per cent of low-educated participants were fully-employed, the majority of which employment was government-subsidised[9].

The situation is little better for more educated and skilled refugees. For them, one of the biggest obstacles to their local employment is the lengthy process of qualification recognition. Many of the refugees with medium-to-high educational and skill levels obtained their qualifications outside Sweden. With the number of new cases clogging the system, the qualification certification process has significantly increased to a full year after 2015[10], forcing many of those with more education and skill to take on low-level “survival jobs” during the process. To make the situation even worse, data have shown that Sweden also has the most challenging certification procedures among all the OECD countries for assessing foreign-earned qualifications: 44 per cent of highly-educated refugees with foreign qualifications are formally overqualified for their current jobs, compared to only 13 per cent of the refugees with similar educational levels but with Swedish qualifications.[11] As a result, even with their diploma certified, those with substantially more foreign-based education often find their qualifications generally under-valued in the Swedish labour market, trapping many in their overqualified survival jobs and further crowding out their lower-skilled counterparts.

Therefore, it is not surprising that, despite the government’s emphasis on integrating the refugees through local employment, the data reveal a dim picture. Sweden still has the largest employment gap between natives and refugees across the EU. A report in 2016 shows that on average, after 8 years, fewer than 25 per cent of refugees are employed in full-time positions, increasing to 33 per cent after 15 years.[12] Until September of 2017, about 22 per cent of foreign-born were unemployed – many of them arrived under the refugee status – compared to the significantly lower rate of about 7 per cent for native Swedes.[13] Even for a wealthy country like Sweden, failing to effectively integrate a large group of approved refugees into the domestic labour market, along with the cost of managing new applications, has created an increasingly heavy bureaucratic infrastructure and financial burden on the Swedish welfare state. In fact, this burden was so severe that in 2016 the Swedish government reallocated 20 per cent of its international development aid budget to help alleviate this domestic crisis, a very controversial move that has been criticised even today.[14]

 What of the well-established and generally highly-regarded welfare system in Sweden? While living and working in the United States before my arrival in Sweden, I was told repeatedly about the humane and egalitarian welfare and policies for employees in Sweden, exemplified by the high entry-level wage. Are these job market factors making the refugee integration process any easier? Ironically, at least the high entry-level wage in Sweden does not seem to improve the employment prospect for the refugees. Quite the opposite, it has played a detrimental role in the job market integration process by limiting employers from offering temporary lower wages that correspond to the low education and skills of these refugees who need to gain experience in the Swedish labour market. 

To counter the harmful effect of high entry-level wages upon the refugee employment, Sweden has launched several wage subsidy programmes since 2006, exemplified by the Nystartsjobb (start-up jobs) programme. Under this programme, employers can provide a “start-up” job to newly-arrived asylum seekers and receive a subsidy amounting to 46 per cent of the collectively bargained wage (capped at 22 000 SEK/mo. per person).[15] However, the PES has few remaining resources to improve and promote these subsidy programmes. Unsurprisingly, a survey in 2013 by the National Audit Office suggested that 45 per cent of PES advisors lacked awareness of these programmes.[16] Moreover, the flat-rate cap of the subsidies was insufficient remuneration against the higher, newly bargained wage. Without differentiation among corresponding employment sectors and wage levels, these flat-rate caps act as a disincentive for employers to hire highly skilled workers who may qualify for a higher salary. This reinforces the aforementioned undervaluation of foreign-earned education and training and confines the more educated refugees in low-skill jobs, such as those in the service, hospitality and retail sectors.[17] It also deters low-education refugees, who already have a slimmer chance of being hired, from entering the local labour market

Ever since the outbreak of the so called “refugee crisis”, there have been many media reports, such asSweden slams shut its open-door policy towards refugees” (The Guardiain 2015), that were filled with words like “left”, “liberal”, and “far-right”. Beyond the sensitisation, I wanted to know more about the legislative nuances and administrative dilemma that Sweden’s policy makers have had to face with empirical analysis. Thanks to what I learned, I can now ask a few new questions: Based on the level of education and skill needed by the Swedish labour market, would it help to establish some selection programmes in the refugee admission policies like Canada? Could the introduction programme start prior to the final settlement for those whose applications have a high likelihood of approval? What kind of problems are we going to face if we want to promote the subsidy programmes with flexible, sector-based subsidy ceilings? Would the Unions cooperate with this approach? And last but not least, would additional investment in public housing work as a viable long-term solution to end the housing shortage, both for the general locals and especially for the newly arrived groups?

Having worked on integration issues in various countries before, I am very aware that all these proposed reforms will in no way become the panacea that magically assures that all refugees will become employed once these policies and programs are installed. Indeed, learning about the Swedish experiences of refugee reception and integration has reminded me of the complexity of social issues like these – and I have not even touched on many other pertinent factors. For example, policies about integrating young refugees into the local education system have a great bearing on their consequent success in the Swedish labour market. Policies and programmes also have an asymmetrical impact between male and female refugees. In addition, racism and the “fear of other” also contributes to the obstacles against refugee integration. 

Nevertheless, the failure to try none of these approaches risks not only aggregating the financial burdens of the Swedish welfare state, but also exacerbating the social and political division, including giving impetus to certain political parties which grow their power on populist and nativist narratives. While pointing fingers at certain groups is easy, sitting down and having a constructive dialogue might be what we actually need to change the situation. Visiting Sweden as a young scholar, I hope to at least raise more awareness of the high stakes related to Sweden’s refugee integration outcome, and if possible, kick start a conversation with concrete evidence on the directions of possible improvements.

Muyi Yang
Rotary Peace Fellow and a Buddhist who was born in China and lived in the U.K. and U.S. before coming to Sweden. Muyi has been working on multi-cultural communication & integration and runs a non-profit school for marginalized youths in Lattakia, Syria.

Joseph Heller coined the expression Catch-22 in the novelwith the same name from 1961, about the bureaucratic constraints on soldiers in WWII.

[1] Each year, Rotary Foundation awards up to 50 fellowships to peace-committed future leaders to pursue master’s degrees in one of the 7 Rotary Peace Centers affiliated with world-renown universities, including Uppsala University.

[4] OECD (2016), Working Together: Skills and Labour Market Integration of Immigrants and their Children in Sweden, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[5] OECD (2016), Making Integration Work: Refugees and Others in Need of Protection, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[6] Government of Sweden, Svenska framtidsutmaningar. Ds 2013: 19. Slutrapport från Regeringens Framtidskommission, 2013.

[7] 20 Statistics Sweden, Utbildningsbakgrund bland utrikesfödda. Temarapport Utbildning 2014: 6, 2014.

[8] OECD (2016), Working Together: Skills and Labour Market Integration of Immigrants and their Children in Sweden, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Riksdagens Utredningstjänst (2016). Andel Flyktingar i Arbete.

[13] Swedish Employment Agency, Press release, October 10, 2017.

[14] Government of Sweden, Budgetpropositionen 2016/17, utgiftsområde 8, 2017.

[15] OECD (2016), Working Together: Skills and Labour Market Integration of Immigrants and their Children in Sweden, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[16] Riksrevisionen – Swedish National Audit Offices, (2013), “A Step in and a New Start: What works for the Integration of New Arrivals”, RiR 2013:17, Stockholm.

[17] OECD (2016), Working Together: Skills and Labour Market Integration of Immigrants and their Children in Sweden, OECD Publishing, Paris.


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