Stockholm Syndrome

How Immigrants Are Changing Sweden's Welfare State

Somali camel herder Ali Abdullahi Hassan takes camels for a ride through Gyttorp, Sweden, March 3, 2011.
Somali camel herder Ali Abdullahi Hassan takes camels for a ride through Gyttorp, Sweden, March 3, 2011. (Bob Strong / Courtesy Reuters)

Tino Sanandaji is among the last people one would expect to argue that immigrants pose a threat to Sweden’s way of life. An economist at Stockholm’s renowned free-market think tank Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Sanandaji is a member of a Swedish elite that has long defended open borders. And his own life offers a clear example of an immigrant success story: Sanandaji arrived in Sweden from Iran in 1989, with his mother and younger brother, when he was nine years old. With financial assistance from the Swedish government, Sanandaji was able to attend the elite Stockholm School of Economics. From there he moved to the United States, where he earned a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Chicago.

And yet Sanandaji now argues that Sweden should stop taking in people who share his background. “Immigration has meant that Sweden has imported a bunch of social and economic problems that to a degree didn’t exist before,” he tells me, sitting in a modern conference room at his office in the upscale Östermalm neighborhood of Stockholm. “For a number of reasons -- a long period of peace, a homogenous population -- Sweden has had a unique combination of welfare, growth, and equality. That idyll is to a certain degree over.”

Over the past several decades, a stream of people from countries such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia have taken advantage of Sweden’s asylum policies, the most generous in Europe. As a result, this once homogenous Nordic country has been utterly reshaped. In 2000, 11 percent of Sweden’s population was foreign-born. Today, the proportion is closer to 17 percent, higher than any comparable country in Europe -- and higher also than the United States, where only 13 percent of the total population is foreign-born.

And far from slowing down, the trend is accelerating. In 2013, Sweden -- a country of 9.5 million -- received a total of 54,000 asylum requests, a 24 percent increase over 2012. In September, Sweden became the first European government to offer permanent residency -- a designation that extends to all immediate family members -- to any Syrian who manages to arrive in Sweden. Since then, Sweden has been taking in Syrians at a rate of more than 500 per week.

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