Background InformationCapital: Stockholm
Official languages:
Swedish (and regional languages Finnish, Tornedalfinnish and Sami)
450,295 km2
Population (2009):
Population density (2009):
23 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2007):
Foreign-born population as percentage of total population (2008):
Labour force participation rate (2007):
71.2% (15 - to
74-years old)
Percentage of foreign born in the labour force (2008):
(15- to 74-years old)
Unemployment rate:
6.2% (2008), 6.1% (2007), 7.1% (2006), 7.8% (2005)
74.3% Lutheran christians, 25.7% other religions
and atheists


Alongside its comparatively open immigration policy, the country has an integration policy that, despite some defects, changing political priorities and some unresolved challenges, is deemed a success and even exemplary by the international community; this is underscored by the presence of immigrants in public life, symbolising the openness of the multicultural society. One example is the presence of high-level politicians with a migration background. In the present centre-right government led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, for example, Burundi-born Minister Nyamko Sabuni is responsible for integration. The previous social democratic government, too, included a cabinet minister from an immigrant family, the Minister for Schools, Ibrahim Baylan.2

By comparison with the rest of Europe, Sweden takes in many refugees and actively encourages new labour migrants, and was also the only EU country to immediately open its doors to citizens from the EU accession countries of 2004 and 2007. These facts are accepted and endorsed or at least tolerated by the majority of the population.

Historical development of migration

Sweden has existed within its present territorial boundaries since 1905. Prior to that, Sweden and Norway had been united under one monarch. The year of the dissolution of the union marked the end of the decline of Sweden from the status of major European empire with control over wide areas of Scandinavia as well as of the Baltic, Russia and Germany. At the time of the empire, which flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, there had already been migration movements. In those days, Sweden was a multilingual, religious and ethnically heterogeneous kingdom, whose leaders supported immigration and regarded emigration as a loss.3 Immigrants with capital and specialist skills were especially welcome; they contributed to making Sweden an important political power in Europe. During the period when Sweden was a major power, seventeen languages were spoken domestically. The dissolution of the empires of Denmark-Norway and Sweden-Finland in the early 19th century created four nation states in Northern Europe that still exist today. A dominant majority population and a Lutheran state church emerged in each of the four states. Contrary to the period of the great powers, however, a sense of nationality based on ethnicity emerged, with each ethnic group resorting to its own history and language.

During the rapid industrialisation of the early 20th century, waves of emigrants headed for the even faster-growing economies of Denmark and Norway, as well as America.

Social unrest, political conflicts and espionage between the warring powers during the First World War prompted the Nordic countries to tighten control of migratory movements, among other means by way of visa regulations and the creation of central state immigration authorities and registers of foreigners. About 1917 the Scandinavian countries took in refugees from the former Tsarist Empire and organised summer vacations for children from the territories of the former Habsburg monarchy. During the Second World War, in which Sweden was not directly involved, Sweden became a place of refuge for about 180,000 refugees, in particular from Finland, Norway, Estonia, Denmark and Germany.

In 1972/73 the recruitment of foreign workers was stopped as the economy slowed. Even after that, however, migratory movements continued. Instead of recruited workers, immigrants since then have mostly arrived to join relatives already resident in Sweden or else as refugees.4 Since joining the European Union in 1995, the principle of freedom of movement for EU citizens has also applied to Sweden. In addition, Sweden has acceded to the Schengen Agreement, thus abolishing controls at borders with other signatories.

Current trends

Emigration from Sweden in 2008 and 2007, at a level of more than 45,000 persons each year, was also on par with numbers last seen during the great wave of emigration to America at the beginning of the 20th century. Fifty-four per cent of those who emigrated during 2007 were people who had previously migrated to Sweden. The remaining 46 per cent were Swedes, the majority of whom emigrated to Norway, Denmark and Finland.


Alongside the family members of non-EU immigrants, persons from EU countries and countries within the European Economic Area (EEA)5 are an important immigrant group. The biggest group among the EU and EEA citizens in 2008 were Poles, followed by Germans, Romanians, the Dutch and the French.

6 In the light of this experience, Sweden introduced no restrictions when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. That expansion once again resulted in a conspicuous increase in immigration, particularly from Romania. However, this was still considerably less extensive than the influx of Polish citizens had been in 2004.7

Foreign students also make up a significant proportion of new immigrants. In total around seven per cent of students currently enrolled at Swedish universities and colleges come from abroad. In the 2006/2007 academic year this amounted to about to 29,700 foreign students. Student migration has long been encouraged by the fact that Swedish universities have not demanded fees from either domestic or foreign students. In late 2009 however, the government in Stockholm announced that students from abroad will have to pay for university studies in Sweden from the winter semester 2011 onwards.

Labour immigration from countries outside the European Union hovers, in terms of numbers, roughly around the same level as the immigration of students. In 2008 a total of 14,513 labour migrants from third countries were granted a residence permit. Most of these came from Thailand (3,985), India (2,393) and China (1,976).8 Thai citizens are a particularly strong group among labour migrants because they come to Northern Sweden in late summer each year to work as seasonal labourers picking cranberries and cloudberries, prized as a delicacy. After a few weeks, at the end of the picking season, they always leave again.

Immigration policy

The Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket

On 15 December 2008, following several years of preparation and negotiation, new regulations came into force in Sweden concerning the immigration of workers from non-EU states. Most importantly, labour immigration is now almost fully dependant on the needs of Swedish employers; the controlling powers of government agencies are severely restricted and the labour market is open to workers of all skill levels. The Swedish Public Employment Service no longer carries out checks to establish whether the immigration of foreign workers is economically necessary. If an employer has a vacancy available but is unable to find a suitable candidate inside Sweden, they are first obliged to advertise the vacancy publicly through the Swedish Public Employment Service (). This agency also sees to the publication of the advertisement in the EU job mobility portal EURES. If once again there is no response, the employer may, according to the new rules, advertise for an applicant from any country in the world. All the employer has to do is prove to the migration authorities that the vacancy has, in fact, been advertised for a period of at least ten days throughout the EU. In this way the principle of giving priority to Swedish job-seekers and EU citizens is respected.

The Migrationsverket next approves the recruitment of a third-country national and the trade union responsible for this field of work is given the opportunity to state an opinion on the terms of employment. The terms must be based on the applicable collective agreements, but the trade unions may not stop the appointment of a foreign candidate in case of breaches of the collective terms. The employer then offers the foreign applicant a contract. Armed with this offer of employment, the applicant next registers with the Migrationsverket and is given a residence and work permit for two years with the possibility of an extension. After one extension, in other words after spending four years in Sweden, a permanent residence permit may be granted. The foreign employee is then also free to change employers and, if applicable, migrate to another EU country.

9 Another special feature is that Sweden now dovetails the immigration of asylum-seekers with labour migration. Asylum-seekers whose applications have been refused may look for a job in Sweden within a certain time period before having to leave the country and, if they are successful, apply for admission as labour migrants.10


Between January and May 2009 the Migrationsverket received 7,560 applications for residence and work permits made on the basis of the new regulations. Up to and including April, India, China and Ukraine were the main countries of origin of foreign applicants. The most significant professional groups were computer specialists, caterers and engineers. Rejected asylum-seekers were the source of 532 applications. In May the numerical proportions changed dramatically as 2,667 seasonal workers applied for a work permit. Most of these were berry-pickers from Thailand.12

The immigrant population

Around 1,227,770 people, or about 13.7 per cent of the Swedish population, were born abroad. A large number of them come from neighbouring Nordic countries. However, the number of immigrants from other European countries and from Asia has grown significantly. Sweden today is a multicultural country. In 1970 the proportion of people born abroad in relation to the total population was only half what it is today.13

Integration policy

Swedish integration policy is internationally regarded both as one of the most ambitious and as one of the most successful.14 The Scandinavian welfare state boasts a large public sector offering comprehensive social security systems. These are available to all inhabitants. Equality, solidarity, cooperation and consensus are core components of this system, which has, however, come under scrutiny many times in recent years.

In the 1960s and 70s immigrants had no difficulty finding jobs in Sweden. Sometimes industry provided them with accommodation and the employee organisations helped with integration. In school, children from foreign families had the right to be taught in their mother tongue for a certain number of hours a week. Municipal libraries were also given the financial means to purchase lexicons, newspapers and books in the major immigrant languages.15 Sweden was at that time markedly influenced by social democratic thought, and assumed that immigrants would stay. As early as 1968, the egalitarian approach already outlined was anchored in the first governmental bill about immigrant policy objectives: immigrants were to have the opportunity to achieve the same living standards as the rest of the population.16 With regard to integration, the government and parliament initially neither endorsed a policy of assimilation nor a strategy to specially promote differing immigrant cultures. It was argued that immigrants were to have the right to maintain the language and culture of their country of origin, but that the state needed not actively support this; rather, the migrants themselves were able to attend to the matter.1718Asylum and refugeesMiljonprogrammet). Today these areas are often run-down.  As the rent, however, is comparatively reasonable, many socially disadvantaged groups live there, such as migrants, low-income single parents and poor pensioners. Social scientists speak of this as marginalisation and social segregation.19


Since 2001 Sweden has had a fairly liberal law on citizenship based both on elements of the right to nationality based on parentage and on the principle of birthright citizenship. According to the principle of the right to citizenship based on parentage (ius sanguinis

In addition to ius sanguinis, currently there are strong elements of the principle of birthright citizenship (ius soli) as well as the possibility of acquiring citizenship by naturalization.20 Any foreigner resident in Sweden for at least five years who is of full legal age, possesses a permanent residence permit and has committed no criminal act can apply for Swedish citizenship. Language skills or special knowledge of the state and social systems are not required. There are even exceptions applicable to the minimum residence period of five years: stateless persons or recognised refugees can apply for Swedish citizenship after four years in Sweden. Danes, Finns, Icelanders and Norwegians can even become Swedes after two years of residence.21

Whereas the earlier Swedish law did not permit dual citizenships, since 2001 foreigners have been able to retain their former citizenship when acquiring Swedish citizenship. In the past five years (2004-2008) more than 120,000 foreigners have been naturalised in Sweden.22

Asylum and refugees

Right up until the early 1980s the number of asylum-seekers in Sweden was small, at about 5,000 applicants per year. After 1985, however, the number of applications increased, reaching a peak in 1992 with about 84,000 asylum-seekers, mostly attributable to the war in the former Yugoslavia.

23Ny Demokrati) party succeeded in gaining representation in the Swedish parliament (riksdag).24 There were also attacks by radical right-wing groups on mosques and the homes of asylum-seekers. This shattered the self-image held by many Swedes of an open and tolerant country.25

The government reacted to all these developments with an attempt to make it more difficult for asylum-seekers to enter Sweden, such as by extending visa restrictions. In addition, however, there were awareness-raising campaigns aimed at curbing racism and xenophobia. After 1992 the numbers of newly arrived asylum-seekers fell rapidly. In 2006 and 2007, however, Sweden once again became an important destination country for asylum-seekers. In 2007, the Migrationsverket registered a total of 36,207 applications for asylum, more than any other EU state. Although Germany has nine times as many inhabitants as Sweden, there were only half the number of asylum-seekers.26 Around 48 per cent of asylum-seekers whose applications were considered by the Migrationsverket during the course of 2007 were granted a residence permit. For comparison, the protection rate in Germany in the year 2007 was 27.5 per cent.27

For all that, Iraq still remains at the top of the list of countries from which refugees in Sweden originate. The second most common country of origin in 2008, with about 14 per cent of all asylum applications, was Somalia. Other countries such as Palestine, Kosovo, Serbia, Russia and Eritrea comprised a comparatively small portion with about 4 per cent of asylum applications each. Overall, the number of asylum-seekers in Sweden in 2008 was significantly smaller than in 2007, and the number of protected immigrants, in other words, those recognised by the Migrationsverket as having refugee status or granted a residence permit for humanitarian reasons, halved between 2007 and 2008; instead of 48 per cent, only 24 per cent of applicants for asylum received a positive response.

Comparative analysis of asylum applications reveals another striking feature; the number of unaccompanied minors among asylum-seekers is fairly high. Between 2004 and 2008 the number of minors arriving in Sweden without parents or guardians almost quadrupled. In 2008, 1,510 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Sweden, most of them from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. In Germany during the same period, just 763 unaccompanied asylum-seekers younger than 18 were registered.28

The system for dispersing refugees and for their acceptance in municipalities has been functioning, broadly speaking, since the 1980s. After their arrival and applying for asylum, most asylum-seekers are housed for a short while in collective accommodation run by the Migration Board (Migrationsverket). While the Migrationsverket checks the grounds for asylum, asylum-seekers may either stay with relatives or friends, or else they will be assigned accommodation. The receiving municipalities decide for themselves whether they wish to take in asylum-seekers, and, if so, how many each year. They provide communal apartments rented and paid for by the Migrationsverket

On the one hand, this system ensures wide distribution of the financial burdens associated with taking in asylum-seekers and refugees among Swedish municipalities from the south through to the farthermost north of the country. On the other hand, however, it also provides fuel for recurrent political conflicts. When the admission of asylum-seekers from Iraq reached its peak in 2006 and 2007, many municipalities refused to take in additional refugees. They therefore remained for longer than necessary in apartments provided for asylum-seekers or in the collective accommodation run by the Migrationsverketname and shame strategy was intended to increase the moral pressure on the most reluctant municipal administrators.29 

In addition to those who come to Sweden and apply for asylum there, since 1950 Sweden has also taken in quota refugees in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Members of the Migrationsverket travel to countries where asylum-seekers have sought temporary refuge and, in collaboration with the UNHCR, select people who are deemed to have a special need for protection. In recent years this has enabled between 1,200 and 1,900 refugees per year from crisis regions to resettle in Sweden.30

Irregular migration

It is as difficult to estimate the extent of irregular migration to Sweden as it is for other countries. Estimates currently in circulation are mostly based on statistics concerning the number of expulsion orders pending with the Swedish police and imposed by the Migrationsverket on rejected asylum-seekers and persons with expired residence permits. In June 2005 the police had yet to enforce about 16,000 such orders that had for various reasons not yet been executed.3132 The Scandinavian welfare state stands out from other nations by, among other things, having a comprehensive and detailed record of the population. All citizens and legal immigrants have a personal identification number comprising the date of birth and four further digits that clearly identifies each person in the municipal tax registers.33 Without such a number it is not possible to open a bank account, receive social security benefits or claim other social services, or apply for a telephone line. This makes it difficult to live without residence status. In addition, the high degree of unionisation among Swedish workers makes it difficult for an irregular worker to remain undetected.

In 2005, parliament reformed Swedish asylum law; thereby bringing Sweden in line with the EU asylum guidelines that had entered into force in previous years. A measure was introduced for regularising rejected asylum-seekers and people living in Sweden for some years under a deportation order that had not yet been carried out. Those concerned were given the right to submit a new application for asylum by March 2006. The Migration Board was required to apply particularly flexible criteria when assessing these follow-up applications. According to the Migrationsverket, about 30,000 applications were submitted, of which just 60 per cent were approved. The approval right was as high as 96 per cent for applicants from countries to which it was impossible to carry out deportations.34

Future challenges

Sverigedemokraterna) are gaining increasing support among the electorate. In advance of the 2009 European election it was widely expected that the party might well gain representation in the European Parliament. However, in the end it received just 3.3 per cent of the votes. In the last parliamentary elections the Sweden Democrats also failed to clear the four per cent hurdle to gain a seat in the national parliament, although they were well supported in some southern Swedish constituencies, thereby triggering headlines and debate. In addition, there is in Sweden a (neo-) Nazi movement that, despite being small in numbers, is particularly active and radical and has in the past committed a spate of attacks and murders on dissenters, migrants, homosexuals and trade unionists.

35 In addition, the policy is intended to ensure that it is easier for immigrants to have foreign vocational training and diplomas recognised in Sweden or, if applicable, to take shorter additional training courses in order to gain recognised academic or vocational qualifications and have better chances in the labour market.36 Discrimination against immigrants in the awarding of jobs, in the housing market and in other areas of public life is also to be more vehemently combated by a new anti-discrimination law,37 which came into force on 1 January 2009.38




  1. Cf. Kjeldstadli (2007).
  2. Cf. Migrationsverket (2009a).
  3. Apart from the EU countries, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are also members of the EEA.
  4. Cf. , in: Dagens Nyheter, 24 August 2004.
  5. Source: Migrationsverket.
  6. Cf. Springfeldt (2009).
  7. Cf. Migrationsverket (2009b).
  8. Cf., for example, Cvetkovic (2009).
  9. Cf. Migrationsverket (2009c).
  10. Cf. Hammar (2003), p. 238.
  11. Cf. Benito (2007), p. 336.
  12. Cf. Hammar (2003), pp. 244f.
  13. Cf. Cvetkovic (2009), pp. 101f.
  14. Cf. Regeringskansliet (2000), p. 86.
  15. Cf. Migrationsverket (2006), pp. 6-7.
  16. Cf. Migrationsverket (2009a), p. 22.
  17. At the following election in 1994 Ny Demokrati only obtained about 1.2 per cent of the votes, thereby losing its parliamentary mandate.
  18. Cf. Geddes, Andrew (2003), pp. 110f.
  19. Cf. Migrationsverket (2009a), p. 13; and Parusel (2009).
  20. Cf. , in: Sydsvenskan, 4 January 2008.
  21. Cf. Migrationsverket (no year), p. 2.
  22. Cf. Khosravi (2006), pp. 291.
  23. C1f. Geddes (2003), p. 112.
  24. A precondition to the issuing of a personal identification number is obligatory registration with the Tax Agency at the relevant municipality. Upon registration the following personal data are stored: name, age, sex, marital status, spouse and children below legal age (if applicable), town of birth, country of birth, nationality, date of immigration or emigration with country of origin and destination, current address. Municipal tax registers can be accessed by other government organisations.
  25. Cf. Migrationsverket (undated press release):
  26. Also cf. Parusel (2006), pp. 1436-1439.
  27. Cf. , in: Dagens Nyheter, 19.09.08.
  28. Diskrimineringslag, Doc. No. SFS 2008: 567 dated 5 June 2009.
  29. , in: Dagens Nyheter, 5 September 2004. Reports on discrimination otherwise mostly cover the urban party, club and pub scene, where persons of foreign appearance are repeatedly shown the door. According to the new anti-discrimination law, such actions are prohibited and are subject to prosecution.
  30. Cf. Regeringskansliet (2009), pp. 102-109.

About the author:
Bernd Parusel has a degree in political science and is a research associate for the European Migration Network (EMN) at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Nuremberg.
E-Mail: Bernd.Parusel@bamf.bund.de



    • Geddes, Andrew (2003): The Politics of Migration and Integration in Europe, Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/Singapore: SAGE Publications.
    • Landorganisationen i Sverige (2006): Migration och arbetsmarknad, Stockholm: LO.
    • Migrationsverket (no year), Den svenska flyktingkvoten.
    • Migrationsverket (2009c): Arbetskraftinvandringen i siffror under perioden januari till juni 2009, Solna: Migrationsverket.
    • Regeringskansliet (2000): Medborgarskap i svensk lagstiftning, Stockholm: Statens offentliga utredningar, Doc. No. SOU 2000:106.
Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.