Muslims in Sweden

In 2015, a reporter from the Guardian accompanied Hashem Alsouki, a Syrian refugee, on his journey to find a new home for his family in Europe. On a train from Paris, Alsouki, who had no documents and little money, picked up a copy of Charlie Hebdo to blend in. The cover featured a cartoon of Kate Winslet in a boat full of refugees, the title reading, “A Titanic every week.” Though he did not understand the cover, Alsouki smiled, recognizing that it was “about refugees like him.” Less than two weeks earlier, Alsouki had been one of hundreds of individuals on a boat smuggling refugees from Egypt to Italy. He had tried to make the same voyage with his family eight months earlier, but they were detained before reaching the beach. The boat that they had missed sank, killing all 500 passengers on board. Alsouki would later make the voyage to Italy without his family, eventually traversing thousands of miles of railroad, police checkpoints, and foreign soil in order to make it to what he hoped would be his new home: Sweden. In that year alone, he would become one of over 160,000 people to seek asylum in the country.

The refugee crisis in Europe has become one of the most widely discussed and contentious issues in contemporary international affairs. Every day, thousands of migrants from nations such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan move through Europe in an attempt to find a better life for themselves and their families. Many nations have thus far refused to take in even a fraction of the masses currently making their way through the European mainland, citing concerns of crime, national security, cultural division, and the enormous cost of such an undertaking. In spite of these worries, Sweden, a country of around 10 million people, has accpted over 400,000 applications for asylum since 2010. Sweden now has the second largest number of refugees per capita of any nation, and immigrants make up nearly 15 percent of the population; approximately 65 percent of these immigrants are born outside the EU.

Though the current levels of immigration are unprecedented in Sweden’s history, the country is no stranger to refugees. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sweden took in many refugees from both Iran and Iraq who were fleeing conflict in that region. Since then, immigration from both countries has continued, and both groups have developed a complicated relationship with their new home. Though Sweden’s government assistance policies and acceptance of refugees have been touted as nearly utopian by left-leaning thinkers across the globe, such a portrayal does not present a complete picture of life for migrants: the current reality in Sweden is that of a large, struggling refugee population and a country overwhelmed and divided by its attempt to help. But these problems are not insurmountable. If Sweden is willing to learn from the cultural and economic battles fought by the migrants who have spent decades within its borders, it can make meaningful strides towards harmony and serve as an example to the rest of Europe.

A History of Migration to Sweden

To understand the evolving story of Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Sweden, it is vital that one first understand the history of refugee populations in the country more generally. Sweden maintained an open-door policy towards refugees for decades, but the overwhelming number of people seeking aid in recent years has led the country to tighten its borders. In 2015 alone, Sweden received over 160,000 applications for asylum. Once granted entry, refugees are given all the benefits that citizens receive, even if their application for asylum is still being processed. Benefits include government-subsidized healthcare, dental care, and education through the end of high school.

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Once they arrive, refugees are responsible for finding their own housing. For those who are unable to do so, the state has traditionally helped in the search for a home. In 2015, however, the government announced that it had no further housing available for refugees. This resulted in longer waits for those migrants living in camps and repurposed buildings, like gymnasiums. In the mid-1980s, Swedish policy on refugee housing had been the assignment of refugees to housing across the country, in order to ensure reasonable living conditions, help migrants find work, avoid the creation of ghettos, and aid integration. This policy was later abandoned, though, when critics argued that not allowing migrants to choose where they would live was inhumane. Many refugees also simply moved towards areas where their countrymen were located, regardless of their assignment.

Migrants are also entitled to language and culture courses provided by the state if they are registered by the Swedish Migration Board, but the Swedish government has recently been unable to provide these resources to everyone who needs them, as is also true with much-needed employment assistance. The absence of these resources has proven to be a major obstacle to integration and has contributed to the disillusionment of many migrants who feel that the state does not care about their needs.

Iraqis and Iranians in Sweden

The first major wave of Iranian refugees to Sweden was a result of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. After taking power, the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini quickly initiated a sustained effort to remove any opposition against the new Islamic Republic. Many citizens who had once held positions of economic comfort and political influence began to fear for their safety and decided to seek refuge in Sweden, particularly because of its open-door policies.

After the situation in the Islamic Republic cooled and the new regime solidified its position, emigration remained minimal until the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in late 1980. Young Iranian males who sought to avoid compulsory military service during the war already knew of Sweden’s reputation as a haven for those fleeing the state, and many had family in the country already. Like the one preceding it, this second wave of Iranian migrants was primarily composed of young, educated males whose bright futures had been upended by political upheaval. Immigration to Sweden ebbed again for several years but increased exponentially after 1984, when the number of migrants began to exceed 500 people annually. Between 1985 and 1990, the number of Iranian citizens in Sweden swelled from about 7,300 people to over 30,000. Though migration rates have once again fallen, the fact of a firmly established Iranian community within Sweden has contributed to a steady flow of migrants since the 1990s.                                                                                                                    

Iraqi migration to Sweden, by contrast, first began with the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 and continued through the war’s entirety. Later, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the American-led response in the Gulf War caused a second wave of emigration. As a result of these conflicts, the number of Iraqis living in Sweden grew from 500 in 1980 to over 20,000 by 1994. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq, coupled with the rise of the Islamic State and the existence of established Iraqi communities in Sweden, has caused thousands to flee to the small country in recent years. In 2009, half of all Iraqi refugees in Europe came to Sweden.

Though their cultural presence in Sweden spans decades, both groups have faced economic and cultural challenges. These challenges are becoming more acute as Swedes—weary of increases in crime and believing that the many thousands of foreign refugees are incapable of adapting to their way of life—reconsider their open-armed welcome of immigrants to the country. These circumstances have left many Iranian and Iraqi immigrants isolated, angry, and economically restricted.

Economic Marginalization

One major barrier to integration is the challenge migrants face when seeking work. In the early years of Iraqi and Iranian immigration to Sweden, waves of newcomers from both countries consisted largely of young, highly-educated men. These doctors, engineers, academics, and businessmen entered Sweden confident that they would have promising careers in their new home. Unfortunately for both groups, this was not the case. In many instances, due to cultural and linguistic barriers, these individuals were forced to take jobs for which they were grossly overqualified.

Nowadays, Iraqi immigrants to Sweden are generally less educated than their Iranian counterparts and face higher unemployment as a result.  And even highly-educated Iraqis have been relegated to low-wage jobs or unemployment. One study by Hofstra University’s Sarah Skiold-Hanlin on the Iraqi population in Sweden offers an interesting anecdote: Sait, an Iraqi man who held a PhD in civil engineering was told that he had been passed over for a position because his insufficient knowledge of the Swedish language rendered him incapable of communicating with coworkers and carrying out the job’s functions.

Unemployment is high even among migrants who are educated locally. Many immigrants in Sweden experience discrimination and poverty, as employers are often more concerned with their national origin than their level of education. Another Iraqi man featured in the Hofstra study came to Sweden and earned a Master of Science degree in cognitive science from Lund University, one of the two most selective universities in Sweden, without the aid of a translator. In spite of his success and his mastery of the Swedish language, he remained unable to find any work for which he was not clearly overqualified.

This same phenomenon of underemployment has proven especially frustrating to Iranian migrants, who have historically viewed education as the primary means to personal improvement and in whose culture one’s career is heavily tied to his social standing. For many, underemployment has thus proven hard to swallow. As one Iranian man said: “I am educated in this country. Yet, after several years, I am still unemployed. I have no role in this society and I feel absurd. In Iran at least I can teach high school. After eleven years of being in Sweden, I have nothing left to lose if I leave this country.”

 Cultural Division and Diaspora

Both groups' struggles within Sweden are as driven by cultural strife as they are by poverty. In each population’s case, a diaspora consciousness has formed as the result of physical, economic, and cultural isolation from the Swedish people and an enduring belief among many immigrants that they do not belong. Dr. William Safran of Columbia University has put forth a comprehensive list of criteria for groups in a state of diaspora. It includes a state of physical isolation, as well as more intangible characteristics, like longing for a homeland and a feeling of separation from one’s host culture. Safran further asserts that diasporic communities often feel as though they can never truly be a part of their host culture and in many cases remain committed to the idea of their people returning home someday. As the decades have passed and both the Iraqi and Iranian communities have grown in Sweden, so too has the diaspora consciousness within each.       

In keeping with this phenomenon, a defining aspect of the Iranian experience in Sweden has been the political, racial, and cultural divides that have existed within Swedish society since their arrival. Many of those in the first wave of Iranian migrants carried with them the weight of their exile even in the new country. Both Swedes and Iranians were affected by lingering opposition to the Islamic Republic: to accept Sweden as a permanent home was to accept the permanence of the Ayatollah and his new regime. When visitation to Iran was later permitted, Iranians in Sweden also viewed visiting as a form of concession. Many feared that they would face punishment or be forced to stay should they return. This left thousands of individuals unwilling to either return to their country of origin or to recognize the Swedish state as a source of authority in their lives.

Though the majority of Iranians began integrating in Sweden immediately, some sought to preserve their culture through political activism and social isolation. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the Mujahedin-e Khaleqh-e Iran, an organization whose members lived collectively and concerned themselves only with the reestablishment of what they considered legitimate rule in Iran. The group proclaimed publicly that attempting to integrate into Swedish society was a “distraction” from this goal. Most Iranians eventually accepted that their stay in Sweden would not be a short one, but many still maintained the idea that they would someday return to Iran.

Another unique aspect of Iranian diaspora consciousness is the fact that, for many refugees, the consciousness began to development even before they fled Iran. The Shah’s attempt to modernize the country led urban, upper- and middle-class members of society to adopt secular views that were at odds with an increasingly religious and conservative Iran. As one Iranian businessman recalls: “My exile did not begin when I crossed the border into Pakistan on foot on a cool night in March 1987, but long before that night. My exile had begun in my own country when I did not recognize Iran under Islamic rules.”  Because the home country became “unrecognizable” after the revolution, the Swedish-Iranian homeland mythos had to be modified to represent a land that no longer existed.

One study found that without a homeland to which to return, the Iranian homeland mythos combined several different places into one vision, a vision that “encompasses all of [the places] but is not reducible to anyone of them.” The homeland mythos of the pre-revolutionary Iran became a combination of countries and cultures, with Sweden serving as inspiration for the center of education and the Iranian-dense segments of Los Angeles serving as a model for the cultural center and land of economic opportunity.

Today, Iranians maintain a political, cultural, and economic middle ground within Swedish society. Though levels of unemployment among Iranians remain higher than that of native Swedes, their unemployment rates are some of the lowest among all immigrant groups from predominantly Muslim nations. While Iranians are also more likely to have relatively few Swedish friends and to live in areas with a larger-than-average Iranian population, they are much less isolated than other migrant groups in Swedish society and are now more likely to view Sweden as a permanent home than they were in the past. Liberal laws toward women’s rights have also influenced the Iranian experience in the country, as over one-third of marriages ended in divorce in 2012 and many studies cited greater decision-making amongst women as a determining factor. Ultimately, most metrics show a positive trend in quality of life for Iranians living in Sweden, with many families moving from a dependence on welfare to receiving higher education and financial independence within a generation. Many have pointed to the combination of a strong cultural emphasis on education and subsidized universities as key to their upward mobility.

Though both groups share a historic struggle over the issue of race, the diaspora consciousness of the Iraqi population has been fueled less by political strife and more by poverty and the psychological wounds caused by direct exposure to conflict and flight to an unfamiliar place. The issue of poverty has become inseparable from the way Iraqis are perceived in the country and has fed their rejection of Sweden as a host culture.

Despite the huge gap between their average level of education and that required for the jobs available, Iranians had still been able to take advantage of the need for low-skilled jobs upon arrival in Sweden. As a result, Iranians and other groups who arrived during the early 1980s were able to integrate and establish themselves relatively quickly. By contrast, Iraqis who came to Sweden often did so during times of comparatively weaker economic activity. In the 1990s, for example, the housing bubble burst, plunging Sweden into its worst recession since the 1930s. Unemployment, coupled with the arrival of over 100,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia, created a huge strain on government resources and taxpayers. These circumstances adversely affected Iraqis who had fled the First Gulf War, making it much more difficult for them to establish themselves economically, just as the group as a whole was seeking to do so.

Factors such as these have contributed to the differing directions of experience for Iraqis and Iranians in the country. Even today, the individual historic context of each group has caused them to occupy different spaces in Swedish society and the Swedish psyche. While each culture has long been associated with certain stereotypes, such as the poor treatment of women and strong religious conservatism, Iranians are also associated with more “positive” stereotypes, likely due to their presence in medicine and education in the country. Some Swedes also believe that the ethnic and religious minorities within the Iranian population are more “grateful” for available work, whereas Iraqis are perceived as being simply unwilling to join the workforce. Stereotypes such as these feed the latter group’s feelings of rejection and the perception of integration as futile. While most Iranians report an optimism for the future and a relatively high feeling of belonging, Iraqis and other migrant groups are less likely to share this outlook.

The Iraqi situation in Sweden is further complicated by the group’s physical separation from Swedish society. Though Iranians are statistically somewhat isolated, they are generally not as cut off from society as other many other groups, including Iraqis. One study found extreme isolation of Iraqi migrants to be very common, especially in the southern region of Skåne. Many apartments inhabited by these individuals are overcrowded, with as many as 15 people living in units designed for five or six, a result of migrants electing to live with family or simply with those from a familiar culture.

Investigation into the impoverished and immigrant-dense neighborhood of Rosengård found that many immigrants could go years without encountering a native Swede. Many also felt a strong sense of resentment towards the Swedish public and government, which they believed were unwilling to help them and discriminated against migrants trying to find work. In 2009, a young boy interviewed in Rosengård expressed his hatred for the Swedish government and people, a hatred caused by his father’s inability to find a job and his belief that Swedes are only willing to help themselves. Stories such as these show how a combination of isolation, lack of opportunity, and inability to access overburdened integration programs has led many to believe there is no point in learning the Swedish language or familiarizing themselves with the nation’s culture.

The same study mentioned above also found numerous cases of psychological trauma by observing the interactions between parents and children in Rosengård. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress and behavioral issues among children were some of the most common points of conversation in interviews with community members, with many attesting to signs of serious and debilitating afflictions. Without a safe homeland to which to return or a sense of belonging in Sweden, the Iraqi diaspora here continues to evolve and will likely be influenced by political and military developments in Iraq as much as by efforts by the Swedish government.

Looking Forward

Though they share a common historical point of entry into Swedish culture, Iraqi and Iranian migrants experience diaspora and marginalization in similar and different ways. Sweden today faces an immense challenge and must ask some hard questions about its own culture and its capability as a nation to tackle this crisis. No matter how noble its intentions, it has become clear that the country is unable to support the masses arriving every day. It is possible, however, to learn from the experience of immigrants already in the country in order to improve the lives of incoming migrants and lessen the burden on the state.

Sweden must make a sustained effort to match hard-working and educated migrant workers with jobs and to help prevent discrimination by potential employers. The Iranian experience in Sweden has proven that the majority of migrants are not helpless or unable to contribute to the Swedish system, so long as they are given the tools to do so and supported in the belief that their education will be worth something in the future. The country can help alleviate the massive tax burden on municipalities by empowering migrant communities to achieve financial independence and a sense of belonging in Swedish society.

The Iraqi presence in Sweden has also demonstrated the importance of aggressive, sustained efforts to expose migrants to Swedish culture as much as possible. The presence of ghettos that completely isolate migrants from Swedish language, culture, and institutions is unsustainable and will only exacerbate poverty and dependence on the state. Sweden must do what it can to disperse incoming migrants and those in existing ghettos and perhaps even revisit its decision to repeal laws which dispersed migrants upon entry. It should focus as much as possible on using labor incentives to encourage movement to Sweden’s more rural areas, as opposed to relying entirely on assigned placement. Though concerns about the morality of Sweden’s dispersal system were not without merit, they must be weighed against the fact that the absence of such policies has contributed to greater isolation and dangerous living conditions amongst vulnerable groups like children. To be effective, such programs must work in tandem with efforts to match migrants to areas with suitable jobs.

Sweden has already implemented programs that disperse refugee children across different schools in order to ease the integration process. If the government lacks the resources to provide language and culture courses to migrants, it should build on this policy and maximize immigrant exposure to Swedish culture wherever possible. This, coupled with targeted outreach efforts to isolated neighborhoods, could make a significant difference in the efforts of hundreds of families hoping to become a part of Swedish society in one generation instead of in many.

It is tempting to paint the issue of immigration with a broad brush, but such an approach fails to ground itself in the diverse array of people entering the country. For Swedes themselves, the narrative of immigration has shifted from one of pity and acceptance to one of successful defense of native culture and traditions at all costs. Whichever side one takes on this issue, it has become painfully clear that treating the hundreds of thousands of unfamiliar faces as a single “other” and isolating them from society has failed to deliver progress in any group’s preferred direction. By examining the many different stories of arrival present in Swedish culture, it becomes clear that, for both natives and migrants, progress will hinge less on Sweden’s ability to find new definitions of success and more on the country’s ability to recognize its failures.