Why does Sweden have so many Muslims

The Swedish Migration Agency in Malmo, the southern port city on the border with Denmark, occupies a square brick building at the far edge of town. On the day that I was there, Nov. 19, 2015, hundreds of refugees, who had been bused in from the train station, queued up outside in the chill to be registered, or sat inside waiting to be assigned a place for the night. Two rows of white tents had been set up in the parking lot to house those for whom no other shelter could be found. Hundreds of refugees had been put in hotels a short walk down the highway, and still more in an auditorium near the station.

When the refugee crisis began last summer, about 1,500 people were coming to Sweden every week seeking asylum. By August, the number had doubled. In September, it doubled again. In October, it hit 10,000 a week, and stayed there even as the weather grew colder. A nation of 9.5 million, Sweden expected to take as many as 190,000 refugees, or 2 percent of the population — double the per capita figure projected by Germany, which has taken the lead in absorbing the vast tide of people fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.


Catch Me If You Can: On the road with a Syrian refugee, traveling the underground railroad from Sicily to Sweden’s doorstep. By Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin


That afternoon, in the cafeteria in the back of the Migration Agency building, I met with Karima Abou-Gabal, an agency official responsible for the orderly flow of people into and out of Malmo. I asked where the new refugees would go. “As of now,” she said wearily, “we have no accommodation. We have nothing.” The private placement agencies with whom the migration agency contracts all over the country could not offer so much as a bed. In Malmo itself, the tents were full. So, too, the auditorium and hotels. Sweden had, at that very moment, reached the limits of its absorptive capacity. That evening, Mikael Ribbenvik, a senior migration official, said to me, “Today we had to regretfully inform 40 people that we could [not]find space for them in Sweden.” They could stay, but only if they found space on their own.

Nothing about this grim denouement was unforeseeable — or, for that matter, unforeseen. Vast numbers of asylum-seekers had been pouring into Sweden both because officials put no obstacles in their way and because the Swedes were far more generous to newcomers than were other European countries. A few weeks earlier, Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, had declared that if the rest of Europe continued to turn its back on the migrants, “in the long run our system will collapse.” The collapse came faster than she had imagined.

The vast migration of desperate souls from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere has posed a moral test the likes of which Europe has not faced since the Nazis forced millions from their homes in search of refuge. Europe has failed that test. Germany, acutely aware that it was the author of that last great refugee crisis, has taken in the overwhelming fraction of the 1 million asylum-seekers who have reached Europe over the past 18 months. Yet the New Year’s Eve 2016 orgy of rape and theft in Cologne, in which migrants have been heavily implicated, may force Chancellor Angela Merkel to reconsider the open door. Her policy of generosity is now being openly attacked by her own ministers.

Most of Europe, and much of the world, has, as Wallstrom feared, turned its back. The ethnically homogeneous nations of Eastern Europe have refused to take any refugees at all; Hungary, their standard-bearer on this issue, has built fences along its borders to keep refugees from even passing through. Balkan countries, by contrast, helped migrants pass through their territories to the West — until mid-November, when they collectively began blocking asylum-seekers who did not hail from Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. England has agreed to take only those refugees arriving directly on its shores from the Middle East. Denmark has taken out ads in Arabic-language newspapers warning refugees that they will not be welcome, and has passed legislation authorizing officials to seize migrants’ assets to pay for their care. In the United States, where politicians eager to exploit fear of terrorism have found a receptive audience, Congress has sought to block President Barack Obama’s offer to accept a meager 10,000 Syrians.

And then there is Sweden, a country that prides itself on generosity to strangers. During World War II, Sweden took in the Jews of Denmark, saving much of the population. In recent years the Swedes have taken in Iranians fleeing from the Shah, Chileans fleeing from Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and Eritreans fleeing forced conscription. Accepting refugees is part of what it means to be Swedish. Yet what Margot Wallstrom meant, and what turned out to be true, was that Germany, Sweden, Austria, and a few others could not absorb the massive flow on their own. The refugee crisis could, with immense effort and courage, have been a collective triumph for Europe. Instead, it has become a collective failure. This is the story of the exorbitant, and ultimately intolerable, cost that Sweden has paid for its unshared idealism.

Stockholm residents take part in a candle light vigil to show their solidarity with refugees on Sept. 14, 2015. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

World War II created 40 million refugees. Many who made the treacherous journeys from the shattered cities and villages of Central and Eastern Europe were treated humanely; others, including many Jews, were sent back to their homelands, often to their death. When Europe reconstituted itself in the aftermath of the war, the obligation to accept refugees was embedded in such core documents as the Convention on Human Rights, the Refugee Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Signatories pledged not to turn back refugees with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.” Organizations like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees were founded to ensure that states honored those commitments. The right to refuge was understood as a universal principle that all civilized states would honor; Europeans made good on this pledge when they welcomed hundreds of thousands who fled from Communist oppression in Eastern Europe. The United States, for its part, accepted nearly half a million people who fled Vietnam after the South fell in 1975.

Sweden did not need to sign treaties —though it did, of course —to demonstrate its commitment to refugees. Par Frohnert, coeditor of a book on Swedish refugee policy whose English translation is titled Reaching a State of Hope, says that while Sweden jealously guarded its ethnic homogeneity through the 1930s, in 1942 the country began admitting Norwegians fleeing the Nazis. Then came Estonians and other Balts, and then Danish Jews. As Sweden began to build its social democratic state after the war, the ready acceptance of refugees became a symbol of the national commitment to moral principle. Sweden built a system designed to deliver to refugees the same extensive social benefits that Swedes gave themselves — housing, health care, high-quality education, maternal leave, and unemployment insurance. In the 1980s, Sweden accepted not just Iranians and Eritreans, but Somalis and Kurds. More than 100,000 former Yugoslavs, mainly Bosnians, came in the 1990s. By that time, Sweden was taking about 40,000 refugees a year. In recent years, the figure has been closer to 80,000 — slightly greater than the inflow to the United States, which of course also sees itself as the world’s shelter from tyranny, but has a population almost 35 times greater.

The system worked — or at least that was the Swedish consensus. In Stockholm I went to see Lisa Pelling, who studies refugee issues at the Arena Group, a think tank associated with Sweden’s largest trade union. Pelling had once served as international secretary of the Social Democrats’ youth wing, and is very much a part of the consensus-oriented progressive establishment that runs Sweden today. “When the Bosnians came,” she pointed out, “people thought they would bring their war to the Swedish suburbs. There were neo-Nazis marching in the streets. The economy was at the lowest point since the 1930s.” Nowadays, she says, the Bosnians “are ministers in our government, they’re our doctors, our neighbors.” Swedes feel especially proud that they have so successfully integrated a Muslim population. Pelling was confident that the new wave of Syrians, Iraqis, and the like would do just as well. It seemed almost impolite to point out that, on average, the Bosnians were better educated than the newcomers are, and practice a more moderate version of Islam.

Sweden is the only country I have spent time in where the average person seems to be more idealistic than I am. Solicitous volunteers waited to help asylum-seekers at the central train station in Stockholm even though virtually all refugees were being processed in Malmo — where the Red Cross operated a far larger set-up behind the train station.Everyone seemed calm, cheerful, organized. When I worried out loud that the country was racing off a cliff, I would be reassured that Sweden has done this before and that somehow or other it would do it again. It was a given that Sweden had benefited from its commitment to providing shelter to those in need. Aron Etzler, secretary general for the Left Party — formerly the Communist Party — told me that refugees “helped us build the Sweden we wanted.” He meant both that refugees had become good Swedes and that the social democratic model was unthinkable without the commitment to accepting them. But wouldn’t the job of integrating the new wave of asylum-seekers be vastly harder, more disruptive, and more expensive? “A strong state can take care of many things,” Etzler reassured me.

Somali refugees practice the winter sport of Bandy on Sept. 24, 2013, in Borlaenge, Sweden, after having formed a national Somali team in their adopted home. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

The Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Malmo, Sweden, at sunset on Jan. 3, 2016. (Johan Nilsson/TT/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet the past may be a poor guide to the present. The 160,000 asylum-seekers who came to Sweden last year is double the number it has ever accepted before. I met many critics who were prepared to raise impolite questions about whether Sweden could afford to lavish generous benefits on so large a population, whether it could integrate so many new arrivals with low levels of skills, whether a progressive and extremely secular country could socialize a generation of conservative Muslim newcomers. And that was before Cologne.

Diana Janse, a former diplomat and now the senior foreign policy advisor to the Moderate Party (which Swedes view as “conservative”), pointed out to me that some recent generations of Swedish refugees, including Somalis, had been notably unsuccessful joining the job market. How, she wondered, will the 10,000-20,000 young Afghan men who had entered Sweden as “unaccompanied minors” fare? How would they behave in the virtual absence of young Afghan women? But she could barely raise these questions in political debate. “We have this expression in Swedish, asiktskorridor,” she said. “It means ‘opinion corridor’ — the views you can’t move outside of.” Merely to ask whether Sweden could integrate Afghans today as it had Bosnians two decades before was to risk accusations of racism.

In the weeks before I arrived in Sweden, the government had begun making modest adjustments to its refugee policy. Despite the European Union’s Schengen legal regime permitting free travel between 26 countries, Sweden instituted a temporary (and thus Schengen-compliant) program to check the documents of everyone reaching its border by train, and a fraction of those arriving by car. This had no effect on refugee numbers, though it did have the bureaucratic virtue of channeling virtually everyone through Malmo, the first city in Sweden that anyone arriving by car or train from Denmark would reach.

The refugees were greeted in Hyllie, the first station across the Danish border, by several dozen border police officials, unarmed, male and female, flawlessly proficient in English, and exceptionally polite. There, the refugees were escorted upstairs to a line of waiting buses, which took them to the Migration Agency office in Malmo. The office is staffed by squads of helpful young people, as well as translators who speak Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Somali, and Tigre — the chief language of Eritrea. Nervous refugees brandished crumpled papers at anyone who looked official. I spoke to an Iraqi, Walid Ali Edo; or rather, I spoke to Edo’s uncle, Fares Krit, who had emigrated to Sweden years earlier, and translated for him. Edo was a Yazidi from Mosul. The Yazidis practice a syncretic faith that the Islamic State regards as a heresy far worse than Judaism or Christianity. When the Islamic State extremists reached the area in June 2014, they began systematically killing Yazidi men and raping and enslaving women. Edo, his wife, and his three small children raced out of town, and then trudged 50 miles north to Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Over the course of a year, they had made their way to Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, paid $3,000 to be smuggled by boat to Greece, and then crossed Europe by foot, car, and train. Krit persuaded them to come to Sweden.

I asked Edo why he didn’t stay in Diyarbakir. Krit relayed my question, and then replied, in a whisper, “He says, `I can not live with Muslims.’” I pointed out that Diyarbakir was a largely Kurdish city. Krit, amused, said to me, “You have the black dog and the white dog, but they’re both dogs.” Given Swedish hypersensitivity to ethnic stereotyping, I’m hoping that Edo did not try out that expression at his asylum interview.

When I arrived at the migration office a little past noon, 50-odd people stood on a line that snaked outside the building in order to be interviewed, while another 200-300 asylum-seekers stood or sat inside, waiting to be assigned a bed for the night. Some recent arrivals had to wait a day or two — but no longer — to be processed. Refugees in Germany have rioted at food lines, while conditions at the refugee camp in Calais, France, known as “The Jungle” are notoriously dismal.The atmosphere in Malmo, by contrast, was remarkably calm and quiet. Nobody shouted; I don’t recall hearing a child cry. The Swedes were efficient and extraordinarily protective of their charges; I had had to wear down several officials just to gain the right to talk to refugees, whose privacy they feared I would violate. The interview line moved smartly. Officials had abandoned an earlier effort to gain background information about applicants; now interviewers simply asked their name, date of birth, and home country, and took a photograph and a set of fingerprints.

From there the refugees would be sent to a temporary facility in Malmo until long-term space opened up, a period which had stretched to as long as two weeks. At that point they would be sent to a converted hotel, dormitory, sports facility, or barracks somewhere in Sweden to wait for adjudication of their application for asylum. Karima Abou-Gabal of the Migration Agency told me that they had begun sending asylees to Boden, in the remote north. “It is getting dark and cold,” she conceded. Nevertheless, Sweden has promised to take care of every refugee while their application for asylum is pending; the backlog has grown to a point that that process can take over a year.During that period, according to the Migration Agency’s website, “the applicant is entitled to accommodation if they cannot arrange it themselves, financial support if they have no money, and access to emergency medical and dental care and to health care that cannot be postponed.” Their children have the same access to education and health care that Swedish children enjoy.

The Swedish Migration Agency is responsible for deciding who does and does not receive asylum. The agency assumes that anyone fleeing Syria has a well-founded fear of persecution or death, and thus automatically accepts such applications. Large majorities of Iraqis and Afghans are also accepted. Sweden does not take economic migrants; for this reason, authorities deny almost all migrants from Albania or Kosovo. At the same time, Sweden has made only the most modest efforts to ensure that rejected applicants actually leave. Many — no one seems to know how many — remain, living in the shadows. That may now change. In late January, the country’s interior minister instructed the Migration Agency to deport approximately one-half of applicants who are now expected to be turned down. People like Diana Janse believe that Sweden must find the hardness of heart to carry out such orders, if it is to care well for those who remain.

Sweden has traditionally interpreted the standards for asylum far more liberally than most of its neighbors have. Since 2005, Sweden has accepted those fleeing persecution by nonstate actors as well as governments, and has permitted all asylees to bring in a wide range of family members. (This rule, too, has recently been tightened.) The Migration Agency accepts applications from thousands of people from Eritrea, a nation that is autocratic but currently peaceful. When I asked Pierre Karatzian, a spokesman for the Migration Agency, why Eritreans qualified, he said that many Eritreans flee the country rather than face the draft; if Sweden returns them, they will face arrest. This, however, permits the authoritarian Eritrean government to play a cynical game in which they let citizens flee and then demand that they pay a tax on their relatively lavish earnings abroad—a kind of involuntary remittance. (I was told that Eritrean embassies track down citizens abroad and demand payment.) The system guarantees a perpetual flow of Eritreans.

Afghanistan poses a particularly thorny problem. Afghans have lately swelled the great river of refuge-seekers. The country is so profoundly insecure that many of its 32 million citizens might have a colorable claim to asylum. Germany, terrified at the prospect of new millions on the march, has said that it will not grant asylum to those from relatively safe parts of Afghanistan; it now accepts slightly less than half of Afghan applicants. By the end of 2015, far more Afghans than Iraqis were applying for asylum in Sweden; many were unaccompanied minors, placing them in a specially protected category. Sweden has extraordinary laws protecting minors: Refugees who arrive without parents are taken into the country’s social services bureaucracy, operated by each municipality though financed by the federal government.

While I was in Malmo I paid several visits to a huddle of trailers just behind the central train station, where the Red Cross had set up a welcome center for minors. One of the volunteers was a Farsi-speaking Iranian who served as a translator for the Afghans. Most of them, he said, had grown up in northeastern Iran, to which their families had fled in recent yearsin order to escape the violence in Afghanistan. There they lived as stateless people, generally unable to find jobs or go to school. Lisa Pelling, the refugee advocate, had told me that Iran forced the Afghans to serve in the war in Syria. Others repeated this story. This seemed unlikely, since few of the refugees seemed to be Shiites, and Iran’s Shiite rulers would hardly hand weapons to Afghan Sunnis — especially to fight Syrian Sunnis. (Nevertheless, a recent report from Human Rights Watch concludes that Iran has paid some migrants to fight in Syria, and has threatened others with deportation if they did not agree to do so.)

Whether from Afghanistan or Iran, these were still children who had experienced a world of suffering. Valdana Andersson, an official at Malmo’s Social Services Agency, told me that many said they had been sexually abused by older men as part of Afghanistan’s tradition of bacha bazi, or “boy play.” Did that qualify them for asylum status? Legally, it didn’t matter, since Sweden provides asylum to virtually anyone who arrives as an unaccompanied minor. Some of them, however, were certainly not minors. Since they arrived without documents, officials simply accepted their word for their age. Denmark, among others, mandates age-testing, a somewhat rough-and-ready system using measurements of bone density. In Sweden, however, doctors have largely refused to apply the test, arguing that it is inexact and that, in any case, such tests constitute an invasion of privacy. Andersson said to me that a “minor” who looks to be 30 or so will be told, “You cannot share a room with the boys. You have to go to the Migration Agency and find a [new] room with them.”

Back at the Red Cross station, opinion was surprisingly anti-refugee, including  among volunteers. The translator said that he did not believe many of the new arrivals would ever be able to integrate into Sweden’s liberal, individualistic society. A border policeman told me, “Last summer, my grandmother almost starved to death in the hospital, but the migrants get free food and medical care. I think a government’s job is to take care of its own people first, and then, if there’s anything left over, you help other people.” I had heard the same view a few months earlier in Hungary, the country in Europe most outspokenly hostile to refugees — the anti-Sweden. Europe has not experienced economic growth in almost a decade. One could hardly think of a worse moment to ask citizens to make sacrifices on behalf of outsiders. In the United States, where growth has been more robust, the fountain of charity has run dry as well.

Police escort refugees from the Hyllie train station in Malmo to the Swedish Migration Agency on Nov. 19, 2015. (Johan Nilsson/AFP/Getty Images)

Refugees play outside a shelter in Sundbyberg, northwest of Stockholm, on Oct. 13, 2015. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Swedish Red Cross members wait to welcome refugees in Malmo central station, on Sept. 10, 2015. (Recep Yasar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)