Sweden Must Be Able to Say "No" to Refugees

I am 33 years old and live in Landskrona in southern Sweden, 45 kilometers north of Malmö. Landskrona has taken more immigrants and refugees than most Swedish cities and tends to be ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to the political debate on what in Sweden is referred to as "the integration problem."

Here, the far-right party, the Swedish Democrats, received record support in the national and local elections a decade ago. It was also in Landskrona that leading politicians from the established parties first treated the Swedish Democrats as a normal party. In Landskrona, we no longer have fiery debates about segregated schools and housing, because the integration process -- which in reality is more of a separation process -- is now reaching completion. Neither me, nor my children have ever lived a single day of our lives in an integrated society.

What we now see in Landskrona and other Swedish cities is an established parallel society, which has emerged alongside the traditional Swedish society, with segregated beaches, grocery stores, restaurants and sport activities. In short, I live in a completely segregated society and there is a lot suggesting that Landskrona's development is to be expected in other Swedish cities as well, not least with the record level of refugees coming to Sweden this year. The question we Swedes need to ask ourselves is if it really is possible to build a functioning society from all these individuals?

In my work as a lecturer and researcher in political science at Lund University and Linnaeus University, Sweden, I have had many and long conversations with colleagues, who, in contrast to myself, tend to live far away from the neighborhoods where most of the immigrants/refugees live. In all conversations I have had with my political science colleagues, I always ask the same question: tell me the name of a single Swedish politician who comes even close to formulating something that resembles a solution to the integration problem in Sweden?

There is no one who can answer that question. Different Swedish governments have for the past 20 years tried integration from the left to the right to the center and back again so many times that it resembles Albert Einstein's definition of madness: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

The only radical alternative on the table is to adopt the American model of minimum wage jobs. This would without a doubt reduce the integration problem and the alienation that many immigrants feel, but it would also be end of the Swedish model and the welfare state as we know it.

This "solution of the right" seems to have limited support in Sweden today, even if the Conservative party probably will end up calling for minimum wage jobs as the solution to the integration problem in the future. A "solution of the left" would be to pump even more money into the neighborhoods where most immigrants/refugees live, a strategy which has been tried and has failed many times before. Between the left and the right in Swedish politics, there is not much hope, even if the Liberal party embarked on a serious, but now abandoned strategy for integration 15 years ago.

Thinking Swedes have long ago realized that the gap between what the labor market demands and what many immigrants/refugees can offer will only grow as the forces of globalization accelerate and the competition from Asia increases. No Swedish politician can today tell a 20 years old immigrant without job and even without a high school diploma what he should do with his life. As the global economy looks today, there are all reasons to believe that Sweden's integration problem only will deepen with dire long-term social consequences for the country.

When I finished high school in Landskrona in 2001, the school had five natural science classes and four social science classes among the graduation classes. This year's graduation had only one of each. There are many reasons why it looks like this, but the reforms to introduce private schools and allow students to apply for elementary and high schools outside their communities and municipalities have had a very negative effect for cities like my hometown. High-performing students, often those with an ethnically Swedish background, applied for schools outside Landskrona, while low-performing students, many with an immigrant background, remained. When I returned to my old elementary school last month to give a guest lecture to a ninth grade class on my research topic, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not a single student in a class of 25 knew what the term anti-Semitism meant or how many Jews that were killed in the Holocaust.

During this current refugee crisis, many commentators refer to World War II as an historic parallel, when Sweden took in a lot of refugees just like it does today. But this is a false parallel because the Swedish industry of the late 1940s and early 1950s provided jobs for all the immigrants. This, of course, is not the case today, when post-industrialized countries like Sweden have less and less of traditional industries.

The real parallel, if there is any, is the urbanization process of the second half of the 19th century, when Swedish cities were filled with people who were unqualified for the labor market of the time, and instead ended up in city slums with social misery, alcoholism and violence -- the integration problems of that time. With much hard work, the Swedish state managed with time to provide jobs, housing, education and other welfare services to all. This, in turn, enabled Sweden, overwhelmingly under the leadership of the Social Democrats, to develop one of the most advanced models for how to run a society that the world has ever seen.

Sweden today is facing the same kind of challenges with the same need of finding solutions as it did in the late 19th century. What we see in places like my hometown Landskrona is not just social misery, but a modern form of serfdom, where people live their whole lives without being able to provide for themselves. When I walk around in Landskrona's immigrant neighborhoods, I often think to myself that I have no idea whatsoever what is going on in neighborhoods just a kilometer away from my home. It also strikes me that nearly all the apartments in the immigrant neighborhoods have curtains for the windows, almost like small fortresses where the people inside have isolated themselves from the surrounding society.

Regardless of where one stands politically, a sound society should take in as many immigrants/refugees as it could reasonably handle. The problem is that this limit was reached 20 years ago in places like my hometown. More Swedish cities have reached their limits after that and many more are reaching their limits now. In this crisis situation, Swedes should not "open their hearts" as former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told them to do in a memorable, but not reality-based speech before last year's election, which he lost. Instead, all Swedes must open their brains, first to get the situation under control and then to find solutions. The first measure the Swedish government should take is to stop or at least massively reduce the inflow of refugees to Sweden.

The country must be able to say "no."

Anders Persson (Ph.D) is a political scientist at Lund University and Linnaeus University, Sweden. This article was first published in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and was shared over 10,000 times on Facebook.