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OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias
Olga Fariga and Natalia Cheenihova, two Ukrainian refugees, fill in formsw ith the help of Maria och Jonas Broström at a drop-in centre in Hässleholm. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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Migration minister: ‘If you’re here doing dishes, I’m sorry, we don’t want that’

Sweden's migration minister Anders Ygeman spoke to The Local about the country's new language test proposals and why the Social Democrats are tightening up the system for work permits.

Migration minister: 'If you're here doing dishes, I'm sorry, we don't want that'

Ygeman has in recent weeks announced a succession of new policies aimed at tightening up the rules for work permits and permanent residency, with plans to bring back the old system of labour market testing, bring in a higher minimum salary, and also to make those applying for permanent residency pass language and civic knowledge tests

Speaking at the Almedalen festival in Gotland, Ygeman told The Local that in his view people living in Sweden on work permits should not feel under attack from the Social Democrat government. 

“No, [they should] take it easy. We’re not attacking anybody here on work permits,” he told The Local. “What we want to do is get rid of unqualified labour immigration, and [at the same time] we want to make it easier for people with qualifications to come to Sweden to work, because we need competence from abroad.” 

The reforms brought in by the centre-right Alliance government in 2008, he said, had given Sweden “the most liberal labour migration laws in the world”, with negative consequences for both employment and integration. 

“We have received over 200,000 people as working immigrants since then, and the majority of them have been unskilled labour or in sectors of society where we have a surplus in the workforce,” he said. 

“If you are here doing dishes for 4,000 or 5,000 kronor a month, then I’m sorry, we don’t want to exploit you. And we don’t want want that type of workforce immigration affecting the Swedish labour market, because we received 200,000 people from Syria, and a huge bunch of them are now unemployed, and we need to get them into work.” 


Employers in Sweden have expressed concerns that bringing back labour market testing, which is used in many other European Union countries to control labour migration from non-EU countries, will make it more time-consuming and complicated to hire international talent.

But Ygeman said the government aimed to work together with employers to design a new system which would be as efficient.

“Firstly, we want to involve businesses, but also trade unions, because that’s the Swedish model, and we want to really hear their views. And after that, we want to have a swift and easy system for those who are in sectors where we really need people. And people who has been exploited in this system or, or in other sectors, will have a very tough time to come to Sweden.” 

When it came to the language requirement for permanent residency, Ygeman said that he did not believe the test would make it difficult for businesses to retain skilled international workers, such as computer programmers from India. 

“They will be happier to be a part of Swedish society,” he said. “If you’re here for such a long-term stay that you want to become a permanent resident of Sweden, then of course you should learn the language, and we also really want to help them to learn the language.”

“We don’t want people to be just semi-Swedes, like an expat community who only speak to other expats. We really want them to be a part of Swedish society.” 

In Denmark, the citizenship test is so difficult that last November, only 41 percent of those taking it were able to pass, and even many native Danes say they struggle with the questions.

Ygeman said that he did not expect the Swedish version to be as challenging, although he added that it would take a year before the details of the language and civic knowledge test had been decided. 

“I think we should have a pretty easy, but comprehensive test. If you’ve gone through the C level of Svenska för Invandrare (SFI), you should be able to pass it,” he said.

“We can learn from the Danish experience. We don’t want a test that no one can handle, we want to test that you’re able to manage in Swedish society, knowing basic laws and knowing basic Swedish. And then we’ll have another step for those who want to be Swedish citizens, with a slightly tougher test both on their knowledge of society and their Swedish.” 

In a public discussion on segregation, Ygeman took part in near the central square of Visby, Gotland’s capital, he said that he believed that Sweden’s asylum laws were now sufficiently strict, but that there needed to be further tightening up of work permits and of the system for returning those whose asylum applications had been rejected. 

“Asylum policy is about right, but I think there’s still a lot to do on returns, and also on labour market migration,” he said. 

He said, though, that he doubted whether adopting a stricter policy towards migration earlier would have been enough to prevent the rise of the populist Sweden Democrats, which in 2018 won nearly 18 percent of the vote, coming close to becoming Sweden’s second-largest party. 

“I think that they would have been as big anyway, because we’ve seen that even in countries that have had no refugees at all, like Hungary,” he said.

The Sweden Democrats were now losing some of their momentum, though. “There’s a pretty big chance that the Sweden Democrats will lose ground in an election for the first time since they got into parliament.” 

That the party was falling in polls though, he argued, was not solely a result of his own party launching a more restrictive immigration policy. 

“I don’t think that’s only because of our policy. I think they’re like a broken watch. Whatever the situation, they say we have to have less immigrants. Sometimes, the watch shows the correct time, but the rest of the time, they’re showing the wrong time.”