Sweden and migration

In 2014, Sweden grew by more than 100,000 people, a record mainly due to immigration. Contrastingly, from 1850 to the 1930s, 1.5 million people emigrated. The scrollable timeline below tells the story of how migration has helped shape Sweden.

Film courtesy of NASA.

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Total population of Sweden:

1 square equals 1,000 people
Source: scb.se

The great emigration

1850 1939

Migration started early in Sweden. During the Middle Ages, Germans from merchant trading communities were the largest immigrant group, followed by the Finnish people who settled in Sweden in the 1500s. Roma people started immigrating as early as the 1500s, while Walloons – French-speaking people from Belgium – came to Sweden in the late 1600s as the country’s iron industry began to develop.

Other key immigrant groups were Jews, who started arriving in the 1700s, alongside French artists and intellectuals. Once brick buildings started popping up all over the country, Italian workers skilled in bricklaying and stuccowork also started moving in.

But no migration event has left a bigger mark on Sweden’s cultural landscape than the huge emigration of Swedes to the Americas and Australia from 1850 up until the 1930s. As many as 1.5 million native Swedes left the country to escape poverty and religious persecution, and to seek a better life for themselves and their families. That figure equals 20 per cent of the men and 15 per cent of the women born at the end of the 1800s.

Top reasons for leaving Sweden during the great emigration:

  1. poverty
  2. religious persecution
  3. a lack of belief in the future
  4. political constraints
  5. a longing for adventure and ’gold fever’

The peak year of the great emigration was 1887, when more than 50,000 people left Sweden – most of them to the Americas. This record was only broken in 2011, when more than 51,000 emigrated from the country – but this time mostly to other European countries and some to the US and China. It’s also worth noting that in 1887 the emigrants made up 1 per cent of the population, in 2011 only 0.5 per cent.

Read more about the great emigration at Statistics Sweden.


Carl Emanuel Anell, Swedish emigrant


Before the young man left for the US, he visited Frida Welin’s photography studio to have one last picture taken for his family. In this faded sepia photograph is a serious young man with a cap, as well as a cane that he doesn’t need. His name is Carl Emanuel Anell, he’s twenty years old and comes from Asker in the Swedish province of Närke.

In 1908, he was one of 20,000 young Swedes leaving the country that year. They were working class rather than farmers like earlier emigrants, and they ended up in large cities, such as Chicago – and Seattle.

At the end of 1908, Carl stepped onto the train to Copenhagen. From there, he travelled to Liverpool, where he boarded the Campania, an emigrant ship of the Cunard Line. He travelled steerage class, the cheapest ticket available. On 9 January 1909, Carl arrived in New York. He was probably an ideal immigrant: young, healthy and he had $50 in his pocket, as well as an address to an acquaintance in Seattle, where he intended to find a job in the timber industry.

From lumber camps to Cuba

When Carl arrived in Seattle, there were already 20,000 Scandinavians, half of them Swedes, making up about 10 per cent of the city’s population. Some worked in the fishing industry, while others, like Carl, found work in the burgeoning timber industry.

He wrote home from the logging camp at Eagle Gorge in August 1909:

Dear brother David!

Thank you for your dearly welcome letter. Good to hear that you and your family are healthy… It’s been a difficult time at first, as there were no Swedes here, but now things are fine. I like this work much better. At first I handled the axe and the saw, but now I am hauling lumber. It uses machinery so one does not need to work so hard. Now I receive $2.75 a day.

Here there are the biggest tree trunks in the world, I believe. Trunks nine to ten feet in diameter are not uncommon…I can read a little English, but it is still halting… perhaps I will be sending home some money if you would put it in a bank for me. I have some savings in the American–Scandinavian bank, but as I intend to return to Sweden, if I have anything left over, I will send it to you…

Life in the lumber camps was extremely hierarchical. Carl was called a swamper, which meant he was far down the totem pole and worked clearing a road through the forest for the timber industry’s various vehicles, from steam locomotives to gas-driven trucks.

‘It’s been a difficult time at first, as there were no Swedes here, but now things are fine.’

Seattle, 29 August 1910

Dear brother David,

Thank you for your letter I received some time ago. I am sending you the power of attorney on the form you’d sent me. I am in the city now, as the forest is burning almost everywhere so I might try to find some other work for a while. When I arrive in Cuba, I will write and inform you if I will be part of a land deal or not. Perhaps I will not require all the money we will see. We will probably start our journey in Oct. Have nothing more to write this time.

Carl, with $200 in the bank, had apparently been tempted to take part in a colony project of Swedes in Cuba. For a number of years, there was a kind of ‘Cuba Fever’ among Swedish Americans. Carl decided to try his luck. He intended to work in the sugar cane fields until he had saved enough to buy his own plot of land in the Swedish Colony of Palmarito, Bayate (near the American military base at Guantánamo).

At its height, a few hundred Swedes lived in Bayate. Soon, the Swedes were caught between rebelling farmers and a corrupt, US-backed regime. Violence erupted and two Swedes were shot. Carl had realised his mistake and was long gone by then.

Palmarito, 3 March 1911

Dear brother David,

Thank you for your last two letters and for the money I finally received and for all the trouble you’ve had… instead of raising sugar cane, I’ve put everything into the land, as I plan to leave this place soon. I am still working at the sugar factory. You ask about the climate: it is as warm in winter as July in Sw[eden]…

See in your letter that many important people in Sw[eden] have finished their fight on life’s threadbare carpet and died…when I come to the United States I will send my addr[ess]… I will probably start my journey at the beginning of next month. Enclosed a special rct. for the money. Must end for this time.



Joined the Marines

He returned to Seattle and again worked in the forest. In the US census he was listed as a ‘logger’ and his addresses were always simple boarding houses near Seattle’s waterfront.

It appears he might still have been writing to his brother David, now a grocer in the village of Sköllersta near Örebro (about 200 kilometers from the Swedish capital of Stockholm, editor’s note) even if the letters are no longer preserved. David was aware that his brother had been inducted into the Marines when the US had entered World War I.

Carl’s induction took place in February 1918. His English is still rather ‘halting’; he filled in his profession as ‘lager’ – the Swedish word for warehouse – and his nationality as ‘alien’. In the line for his family, he wrote ‘no one to support’. He landed in the Spruce Squadron’s 119th Company, and his Swedish relatives never heard from him again.

According to the archives of the Marine Corps, private Carl Emanuel Anell was honourably discharged in January 1919, without ever being in combat. Like many others in the Spruce Squad, he’d been looking for lumber in the forests of Washington State. The US had decided to build an air force – and the planes of that era were biplanes made of spruce wood.

After the war, Carl’s life returned to what it had been before: simple bachelor rooms, jobs in the forest. Then the catastrophe hit.
The bank where he kept his savings (or what was left of them after the Cuban misadventure), the Scandinavian–American Bank, went bankrupt in 1921. Eight years later, on Black Tuesday in 1929, the American and world economies were shattered. The Great Depression hit timber workers especially hard. Up to 50 per cent lost their jobs and those who were working lost wages.

On 23 December 1930, the Seattle Daily Times published the following notice:

Second attempt to end his life
Whenever Carl Anell tries suicide, somebody smells the gas. He was back at City Hospital again today after his second unsuccessful attempt this year. A fire department inhalator crew was called to Anell’s room in a hotel at 518 Dearborn St. early this morning. The proprietor had detected the odor of gas escaping from the room and when the firemen burst in they found the same man whose life they had saved in a similar situation last February. Again they revived him and sent him to the hospital, where it was ascertained that he had been drinking prior to turning on the gas. He will make a full recovery.’

The end

When Franklin D. Roosevelt had won the presidential election defeating Herbert Hoover (who was blamed for the financial crisis), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of more than hundred departments initiated to create more jobs. Founded in 1934, it employed over three million unemployed men and women, often those with no education, to build bridges and roads, and to create parks.

In Carl’s death certificate, the WPA was listed as his last employer. Perhaps he worked on the Grand Coulee Dam in Seattle, perhaps on a road. His hands are among those that literally built America.

On 14 December 1940, Police Constable Ghiglione is called to a flophouse on 2701 6th Avenue South. It’s not far from where Carl had attempted to take his life a decade earlier. The coroner’s report reads:

‘The police report that there was a deceased man at the above address. The inspection of the premises revealed seven empty whiskey and wine bottles near the deceased. The neighbors report that the deceased had been intoxicated the entire week. He apparently died of natural causes.
Gale Wilson.
Deputy Coroner.’

Carl’s death certificate lists ‘chronic alcoholism’ as a contributing factor to his death. He was determined to have died at 52 years, 9 months and 26 days of age.

Every other trace of his existence has been literally swept away. The logging camps are overgrown. The simple flophouses are torn down. His ashes have been spread into the wind.

In the harbour of Ballard, Seattle, there is a ‘Runestone monument’ with hundreds of names of otherwise unknown immigrants from Scandinavia. All of these people had found new homes in Seattle. One of the inscriptions reads:

‘Carl Emanuel Anell, Immigrated from Asker, Sweden in 1909.’

This is a translated and edited version of an original article by Ola Larsmo for Swedish daily DN.

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Post-war immigration

1940 1979

Sweden was mostly an emigrating country until refugees escaping World War II began to slowly change it back into an immigrating country, which is what it is today. Migrants from Germany and other Nordic and Baltic countries made up the bulk of immigrants. While many Germans and Scandinavians returned home after the war, many immigrants from the Baltics remained.

The next set of migrants during these decades were workers from Finland, Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey and other Balkan countries who came looking for job opportunities once World War II was over.

The post-war immigration led to a housing shortage in the 1950s. As a consequence, the Swedish government made the radical decision to build 100,000 flats per year between 1965 and 1974, an initiative commonly called the Million Programme.

A short immigration decline

In the 1970s, to control the rapid rise in immigration, the Swedish Migration Board began to regulate the process, especially when it came to workers. People were required to start showing proof of any employment offers, financial support and housing arrangements before they were granted permits to move into the country.

The legislation changes partly explain the immigration decline in Sweden in the early 1970s, as work migration into the country dropped considerably. Many work migrants also returned back to their countries after a few years of work in Sweden, statistically accounting for both immigration and emigration.

The Finns, for instance, returned in masses to Finland where the economy had begun to boom. For a few years starting in 1971, Sweden had more emigration than immigration.

Read more about working in Sweden at work.sweden.se.


Jorma Latva, work migrant


Meet Jorma Latva, who moved from Finland during the peak of the big work migration to Sweden, as a 21-year-old in 1968.

Throughout the 1960s, Sweden was marked by a labour shortage to support its growing economy, which made industrial workers and public servants in particular demand. In neighbouring Finland, the situation was quite the reverse, with many inhabitants having to look abroad for work.

Joined his girlfriend

In the summer of 1968, fresh off completing his military service, Jorma was eager to reunite with his girlfriend Ulla, who had moved to Sweden for a nursing job just a couple of months earlier.

‘Ulla couldn’t find a job, and since she was part of the Swedish-speaking population of Finland, Sweden was an even more obvious place to go find work,’ Jorma says. ‘Back then, there were no bureaucracies or permits, just to take the boat across and start working. Everyone in Finland knew that there were plenty of jobs in Sweden.’

‘Everyone in Finland knew that there were plenty of jobs in Sweden.’

For Jorma, the job situation was somewhat different. A skilled welder and metal worker, he was able to find work in Finland, but he stayed and worked for only one week in order to afford a boat ticket across the Baltic Sea.

He does not entirely fit the stereotype of the Finnish work migrant. ‘I didn’t really move to Sweden for work, I moved here for a woman, a Finnish woman,’ he says with a laugh.

Learning Swedish

At the time, Jorma did not speak Swedish. ‘I didn’t much see the point in learning the language at first,’ he says. ‘I didn’t need Swedish in order to be a welder. I got on with my life speaking Finnish and a little bit of English. Besides, I had promised my father I wouldn’t stay in Sweden more than three years, so what would be the point of learning the language?’

He eventually came to realise that learning Swedish would not only help his social life, but also make it easier to find good jobs. ‘It took me a few years before I started learning Swedish, but it has been important, especially for my social life.’

Settling down in Sweden

In the summer of 1969, Jorma and Ulla went back to Finland to get married. For Jorma, it would also lead to a new job, but once again in Sweden rather than Finland.

AB Svenska Fläktfabriken, an industry leader on air treatment, happened to be on a recruitment trip in Finland and offered Jorma a welding job. At this time, it was not uncommon for larger Swedish companies to go to unemployment centres in Finland with incentives to pay for the move to Sweden.

Jorma and his wife settled in Vallentuna, a suburb north of the capital Stockholm, where they still live. Today, they have three grown kids and four grandchildren, all of them Vallentuna residents.

Work freedom

Jorma thinks back to the times he has been offered a job in Finland. ‘Twice in the past forty years I have been close to accepting a job in Finland. The reason I haven’t largely has to do with the work mentality in Sweden.

‘Here, most companies have a flat organisational structure, with few bosses and less need for middle management. There is a lot more trust in workers and their skills, without middle management meddling. Why would I need a team leader to tell me how to weld? There’s just more work freedom in Sweden.’

He is proud of his craft, and still loves to work. In his youth, he sometimes worked through his summer holiday, annoying union representatives. He would exceed the maximum amount of overtime hours and keep on going. ‘The unions had been fighting to get more holiday and here I was, working through all five weeks,’ he says.

Jorma started to collect retirement benefits at age 61, then slowly cut down his work hours until about half-time. He was expecting to be forced into retirement after turning 67. But there is still a shortage of skilled workers in Sweden, and if you ask Jorma, he is far from retirement.

Where is home?

Jorma goes back to Finland every summer with his family. Every year before they go, he longs for Finland. And every year before the summer is over, he misses Sweden. ‘Either I like it both here and there, or maybe it’s that I don’t like it here or there,’ he says with a cheeky smile.

‘Perhaps I should settle somewhere in between, like Åland (Finnish Swedish-speaking island group, editor’s note).’ But after a few moments consideration, he says: ‘No, I still have some time here. Those three years I promised my father still aren’t up. I’ve only been here a little less than three years. They’ve been long years, but they aren’t up yet.’

Jorma Latva was interviewed by Rikard Lagerberg.


Silvio Durán Michea, long-term resident


Meet Silvio Durán Michea. Originally from Chile, he is a graphic designer who has lived in Sweden for nearly 30 years. He has worked with various Swedish newspapers, magazines and publications, and he is part of the sizable Chilean community who call Stockholm home.

Silvio decided to leave Chile for Sweden during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country between 1973 and 1990.

Growing political tensions

When Silvio left Chile in 1986 at the age of 23, he was not personally under threat as he was not an activist. But with growing political tensions, he feared for the future and decided to be proactive in terms of protecting himself and his family. Ultimately, he thinks he would have been targeted by the government if he hadn’t moved.

‘I was not yet in danger, but I would have been because barely a year after I left, a few friends of mine became more engaged and committed in overthrowing the dictatorship,’ Silvio says.

‘If I had stayed, I probably would have been pressured (by friends) into various demonstrations and protests, and then my life would have been in direct danger.’

Made Sweden home

He chose Sweden because his sister was already living there at the time. She had touted the country’s virtue as a humanitarian solace for immigrants and asylum seekers looking for a better and more stable life. Today, both of them are residents and citizens of Sweden.

‘It was both a relief and painful to leave friends and families,’ remembers Silvio, who moved to Sweden with ‘the hope to find new horizons for a better life’.

Beginning that new life meant trying to integrate as quickly as possible so he could begin applying his skills and expertise within his new adoptive home.

Language means integration

The most important step in integration is learning the new country’s language, Silvio says. Not only does it help immigrants understand the cultural nuances, but it also opens up work opportunities and social networking doors that may otherwise have remained closed had they not learned the language.

‘It was both a relief and painful to leave friends and families’

I speak fluent Swedish and this has helped me fully integrate into the Swedish society,’ he says. ‘The most important thing is to learn the language and interact with Swedish people because this is the quickest way to understand local customs and culture.’

Fast forward close to 30 years and Silvio has built a stable and more secure life in Sweden. ‘When I moved here, I came from Chile which at that time was run by a dictatorship,’ Silvio notes.

‘Coming to Sweden to stay gave me security. The security and order that I wanted.’

Silvio Durán Michea was interviewed by Lola Akinmade Åkerström.

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Rise of asylum seekers

1980 1999

The rise of asylum seekers began in the 1980s when Sweden saw some of its highest immigration from countries like Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Eritrea and Somalia, as well as South American countries with repressive regimes.

Today, some 45,000 people with Chilean background reside in Sweden, following the refugee waves caused by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship of Chile during 1973–1990. Relatively few returned to Chile after Pinochet was ousted from power in 1990, and today Sweden is home to the third largest Chilean community outside of Chile, after Argentina and the US.

Iran–Iraq War

In September 1980, Iraq launched an attack on Iran that marked the start of a bloody eight-year war between the two countries. The war ended up costing hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides.

From 1980 through 1989, nearly 7,000 people from Iraq and 27,000 from Iran received residence permits in Sweden as refugees according to the Geneva Convention. The US-led invasion of Iraq, which started in 2003, led to yet another wave of Iraqis migrating to Sweden.

Wars in former Yugoslavia

The 1990s brought massive immigration from former Yugoslavia during the ethnic cleansing wars with over 100,000 Bosnians being granted asylum in Sweden alongside 3,600 Kosovo Albanians.

Between 1991 and 1999, a series of military conflicts occurred on the Balkans, causing massive bloodshed and severe economic damage in most of the former Yugoslav republics. The wars mostly resulted in peace accords, and several new states were formed.



Vildana Aganović, war refugee


Meet Vildana Aganović. She is an established freelance journalist living in Borås, a city in the south-west of Sweden that she now calls home. A lot has happened since she first arrived in Sweden with her family in 1992, as a teenage refugee from the Bosnian War.

‘The plan was to go back to Bosnia as soon as we could,’ Vildana says. ‘We never believed that the war would last for such a long time. And now, more than twenty years later, I am still here.’

She was born in 1978 in the city of Goražde, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the Bosnian War in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Goražde was one of six enclaves surrounded and besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army, with routine attacks on the civilian population. Vildana left in April 1992 under great duress, but in time before the bombing of the city.

‘We left before I had to see exploding grenades and bombings that came later. For me it was more psychological, imagining all the horrible things you as a child associate with the word war.’

Fled to Montenegro

She remembers her exit from Goražde as swift and unexpected. ‘My older sister, younger brother and I got a call from our father who said that we only had ten minutes to meet some guys, get into their car and leave,’ Vildana says.

Terrified, she had no idea who the men were or where they were taking her. She understood later on that it had been her parents’ only choice to get her and her siblings out of the city in time. The men took them to Montenegro – still a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the time – where her parents joined them a few days later.

‘In Montenegro, the police were known to arrest Muslims and bring them to the Bosnian Serb Army, so we were still not safe and continued to flee into Macedonia.’

Macedonia, having seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, was safer, but her family wanted to flee the region altogether and continued all the way to Turkey. By June that same year, relatives already in Sweden were able to send them plane tickets from Turkey to Stockholm.

Learnt Swedish quickly

In Sweden, they lived in different refugee camps and had short stints in the small northern towns of Gällö and Ånge before May 1993, when they moved to Borås where Vildana’s uncle and his family already lived.

Integration came easier to Vildana compared with many other refugees, not least because she was relatively young and picked up the language quickly. ‘It took me just a few months to learn Swedish and then I took it from there,’ she says.

After completing Swedish high school, she studied journalism at a local Folkhögskola, a form of adult education institution common in Sweden. She got her journalism degree in 2001, after which she spent a year in Bosnia to reconnect with her roots.

Fights for equality

Today, she works as a full-time freelance journalist covering complex topics that are close to her heart, like tolerance and equality.

‘I try to give my point of view and what to do about racism, the importance of acknowledging that it exists today in order to be able to do something about it,’ Vildana says. ‘I feel it is my responsibility to write about it. The moment we stop talking about things that are tearing our society apart, that is the moment when bad things will win.’

‘I am proud to be part of a country that gives shelter to those in need.’

She has considered Sweden her home for a long time and feels that it’s important to show what Sweden has always been about – freedom and democracy for all. ‘The beauty of it is that I feel I have the freedom and power to fight for equality for all the people living here,’ Vildana says. ‘But most of all, I am proud to be part of a country that gives shelter to those in need.’

Still, the heavy sadness Vildana feels about leaving her home has never left her and she thinks about it often.

‘It’s a big difference leaving a country by choice. Like many other Bosnian families, we were forced to leave our homes, friends and whole lives,’ Vildana says. ‘When I think about it now, I still cannot believe I lived through such a horrible thing. Before the war, I lived the same way as any Swedish child, with all the same opportunities as children here.’

Vildana Aganović was interviewed by Lola Akinmade Åkerström.


Video: Dima, war refugee


Quick facts about Dima:

  • Age: 18 years
  • From: Iraq
  • Came to Sweden: In 2009, with her family

The film about Dima is a part of the project ‘Homestead – somewhere in Sweden’, by ROT produktion: nagonstansisverige.se.


Kamran Assadzadeh, long-term resident


Meet Kamran Assadzadeh, an intensive care nurse at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. Born in Iran in 1962, Kamran served two years of compulsory military service during the Iran–Iraq war, which granted him legal permission to leave Iran in 1985. Two years later, he came to Sweden.

‘My goal from day one was to get through military service to obtain my passport, to become free, move abroad and study,’ Kamran says.
The eight-year war and the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini were the main reasons Kamran left Iran.

To Sweden via France

During the war Kamran served as an armed guard in Iran’s capital, Tehran, tasked with observing bomber aircraft that left for Iraq. ‘I was lucky enough never to get sent to fight at the border, which was my main worry during the two years,’ he says. ‘If they had sent me to the border, I probably would have fled.’

As soon as he was cleared to leave the country, Kamran went to Toulouse, France, on a tourist visa to live with the sons of an old colleague of his father’s. He began studying literature, but when it was time to renew his visa, the French authorities wanted him to apply for a student visa from the French Embassy in Iran. Since that request was impossible to meet due to the ongoing war, he had to look into other alternatives.

‘I remember seeing all the snow from the aeroplane just before arriving at Arlanda Airport outside of Stockholm. It was in January and full-blown winter.’

‘A neighbour to my family in Tehran had told me about Sweden, that it was easier to integrate into the system to work and study there, but that I would have to learn the Swedish language first.’

In 1987 Kamran moved to Sweden alone as a refugee. ‘I remember seeing all the snow from the aeroplane just before arriving at Arlanda Airport outside of Stockholm. It was in January and full-blown winter,’ he says.

Surprised by egalitarian society

He was pleasantly surprised by the egalitarianism when he first arrived. ‘In Sweden, I couldn’t tell the rich from the workers straight off. The differences were less apparent. Sweden struck me as an idealistic country, with resources there for everyone in society. It wasn’t unthinkable that the king and a shop assistant could be roomed in the same hospital.’

Kamran took the neighbour’s advice to heart and took Swedish courses for immigrants. After four months in Sweden, he was granted permanent residency. ‘I was obviously relieved. It meant I could begin my studies and really plan for the future.’ He also found a job providing assistance and care to elderly at a geriatric clinic.

‘Most of the elderly I worked with couldn’t speak any language besides Swedish, so this forced me to learn Swedish quicker. Through this job I learned so much about the Swedish culture, history, food, and traditions like Midsummer, Christmas and Easter,’ Kamran says.

For roughly two years, he worked with the elderly in the evenings and on weekends while studying Swedish and English during the day.

Eventually, Kamran got comfortable enough with the Swedish language to study at university, and he enrolled at Uppsala University. He studied to become a nurse, an opportunity he says he never could have had if he had remained in Iran. ‘During the war, there were so many restrictions and the universities were closed.’

He spent three years studying general nursing and one additional year specialising in intensive care education in order to work as a specialist. He later went on to receive a master’s degree, and today he divides his time equally between training students and interns, and working in the intensive care unit.

Integrated easily

Kamran says that integration into Swedish society came easily because he was proactive, which allowed him to get ahead in certain aspects.

‘I have always had a positive attitude and was able to quickly use my Farsi language skills to be an impromptu interpreter at work for Iranians who were having operations or who needed help translating medical terms.’

‘As I see it, if you yourself have decided to move somewhere, then it’s self-evident to learn the language and culture, to make an effort to fit into society, to contribute, and to want to vote.’

Still, Sweden in many aspects remains intriguing to him. ‘The culture is so different from my own that it is still exciting to learn new things every day,’ he says. ‘After all, I lived in Iran until I was 23, so part of me will always be very Iranian.’

Kamran lives with his partner, but his extended family still lives in Iran.

Kamran Assadzadeh was interviewed by Lola Akinmade Åkerström.

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Iraq War and EU migration

2000 2012

When Sweden joined the Schengen co-operation in 2001, this meant open borders between the country and other European Union (EU) member states and an influx of other EU citizens into the country looking for work and love. Migration in total – both to and from Sweden – grew after 2000. Almost 29,000 people from countries outside of the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA) moved to Sweden for work during the 2000s.

Head of the press unit at the Swedish Migration Agency, Fredrik Bengtsson, says: ‘In Europe, Sweden is a key destination and recipient country for asylum seekers.’

Södertälje, a small town just south of Stockholm, is a case in point, and an extreme one at that. In 2007, the town accepted 1,268 Iraqis, which equalled 5 per cent of all Iraqis arriving in Europe or 1.5 per cent of the population of Södertälje. As a comparison, the US and Canada combined took in 1,027 Iraqis the same year.

Interestingly in 2011, more people emigrated from Sweden than in 1887, the peak year of emigration to the US. This time mostly to neighbouring Norway, Denmark and other European countries, but also to the US and China.


The five main reasons for migration to Sweden:

  • To be with close family
    People migrating to reunite with close family members remain one of the largest immigrant groups into the country. In 2014, over 40,000 people were granted permits to Sweden to come live with their families and close relatives, and the top nationalities represented were Syrians, Somalis and people with no state or country (stateless).
  • Asylum
    Sweden has signed the UN Refugee Convention, which means that the country has vowed to examine and grant asylum to people recognised as refugees according to the Convention. Most asylum seekers in 2014 came from Syria, Eritrea or were people with no state or country (stateless). The number of refugees coming to Sweden nearly tripled between 2010 (12,130) and 2014 (35,642).
  • Work opportunities
    Sweden’s booming start-up and technology industry means lots of foreign workers – especially in the IT field – are looking for lucrative job opportunities in the country. In 2012, roughly 20,000 work permits were granted, a peak year to date. The top three countries represented were Thailand, India and China. Read about working in Sweden at work.sweden.se.
  • Studies
    Chinese students remain the largest group of migrants to Sweden who come to further their studies with roughly one-fifth of granted study permits in 2014, followed by Indian and American students. Read about studying in Sweden at studyinsweden.se.
  • Love
    Often called love refugees, these are immigrants who come to Sweden after falling in love with a Swede or Swedish resident while visiting Sweden, or meeting them abroad. They are usually grouped as ’migrating to be with close family’, but these set of immigrants are a distinct group in that their reason for migrating is often newly found love.


Video: Sirwan, war refugee


Quick facts about Sirwan:

  • Age: 21 years
  • From: The Kurdistan Region of Iraq
  • Came to Sweden: In 2007, without parents

The film about Sirwan is a part of the project ‘Homestead – somewhere in Sweden’, by ROT produktion: nagonstansisverige.se.


Linda Samir Mutawi, love refugee


Meet 36-year-old Linda Samir Mutawi, a film producer and production manager. Originally Palestinian, she comes from Jordan where she grew up and her parents reside. With dual British–Jordanian citizenship, she moved to Sweden in 2013.

Every year, thousands of modern-day migrants move to Sweden to be with their partners. Linda is one of them. ‘My Swedish husband and I met at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2011 during a work reception,’ Linda says.

By the time they started a relationship and got married, her husband was the one with the more stable work situation. So they decided it made more sense for Linda to move to Sweden. ‘And with everything going on in the Middle East politically and economically, we felt it was the right choice for us that I make the move,’ she adds.

Starting over

Transitioning to a new country is always challenging, especially during the first year. ‘I knew I had to start over in a foreign country with a foreign language. I had to find work, find friends, and make a home for myself,’ explains Linda, whose Swedish is still quite limited. She recently started studying Swedish for immigrants, language courses offered for free by municipalities.

‘(But) I always thought Stockholm was one of the prettiest cities I have been to. The challenges that we face back home on a daily basis are not really present here,’ she adds.

She points to the fact that Sweden has an organised and modern system that works. But she was initially worried that the ‘lack of spontaneity, the serious societal rule following, and the conventionality of life here’ would be a bit too calm for her, coming from ‘a more expressive culture’.

Considering she’s been in Sweden for a relatively short time, Linda feels she has integrated quite well into society and this is mostly due to the fact that she has family and friends here. Her husband and his family and friends are mostly Swedish, and she already had a few Swedish friends prior to moving.

‘I love the fact that there is such a work–life balance, and the system is so efficient.’

‘I have also lived in Europe and the Middle East and have travelled and lived in a number of countries, so I adapt easily to new environments and new people,’ Linda points out. ‘Swedes are also quite welcoming. I have found them to be very warm and open to me, which of course is essential to feeling accepted into your new community.’

Work–life balance

She believes Sweden sets a good example of accepting refugees, which in turn leads to a large influx of foreigners in search of a higher quality of life, something Sweden is widely known for. But the integration issues need to be tackled in a more effective way, she adds.

Linda looks forward to exploring the rest of the country and learning as much as she can about her new adoptive home. ‘I love living in a city that inspires you at every turn; there’s so much history and culture in the city and always new things to explore,’ she adds. ‘I love the fact that there is such a work–life balance, and the system is so efficient.’

‘I have had my moments,’ adds Linda, ‘but overall I have been very happy here.’

Linda Samir Mutawi was interviewed by Lola Akinmade Åkerström.

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The integration issue

2013 2014

The Swedish population grew by more than 100,000 in 2014. This was the result of record high immigration (127,000) and more births than deaths. But more than 50,000 people also chose to leave the country.

Refugees from active war zones continue to immigrate to Sweden. In 2014, there were over 80,000 asylum seekers, with the three largest groups being Syrians, Eritreans and people with no state or country (stateless). Only Germany received more asylum seekers than Sweden in 2014, followed by Italy and France.

Head of the press unit at the Swedish Migration Agency, Fredrik Bengtsson, says: ‘The year 2014 was the second highest level on record for asylum seeking applications; second only to 1992 when more than 84,000 people, many of them fleeing the former Yugoslavia, requested asylum in Sweden.’

This is because Sweden grants permanent residence permits to all Syrians who are in Sweden seeking asylum. Since the war in Syria started, around 70,000 Syrians have come to Sweden.

In 2014, every fifth immigrant was from Syria, making Syrians the single largest immigrant group. This makes for a change since usually, most people moving to Sweden are actually returning Swedes.


More and more children come to Sweden without family. From the ten countries in the chart above, around 9 per cent were so-called unaccompanied minors.

Integration – a hot debate

Every sixth person of the current Swedish population was born in another country. What happens after immigration remains one of the hottest debates around the country. These debates highlight just how complicated and conflicting the issues surrounding diversity are – from studies praising Sweden’s integration policies to articles showing just how far Sweden still has to go in terms of integration.

The riots in some Stockholm suburbs in 2013 put the spotlight on some of the challenges of integration. Many international media covered the disturbances.

A more recent topic for debate concerns beggars, an increasingly common sight on Swedish streets. Many of them come from Romania and Bulgaria, and many of them are Roma. Their presence provokes and raises questions: Why are they here? What can Sweden do? The European Commission’s Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) is one initiative aiming to help the most vulnerable people, in Sweden as well as in other EU member states.

According to the Swedish Migration Agency’s prognosis, the number of asylum seekers will continue to be high in 2015 and 2016. A DN/Ipsos survey from March 2015 shows that six out of ten Swedes feel that immigration is mainly beneficial for Sweden. At the same time, six out of ten Swedes feel that integration works badly.

The main crux of the debate remains how best to integrate migrants from different countries into the Swedish workforce and society, how to provide them with opportunities and ensure they have equal rights.

Read about Sweden’s migration policy at government.se.

Read about the Swedish asylum regulations at migrationsverket.se.

Read about working in Sweden at work.sweden.se.


Mouhanad Sharabati, modern refugee


Meet Mouhanad Sharabati, a 30-year-old lawyer from Syria. Graduating from Damascus University Law School in 2006, he practised law in both Syria and Lebanon.

In 2011, he co-founded Syria Relief Network, a group of humanitarian aid NGOs that helps displaced Syrians, many of which are in neighbouring Lebanon. It also provides legal assistance for Syrian refugees and those crossing the Lebanese borders illegally.

He also worked with the Kayany foundation, an NGO based in Beirut that aims to meet the needs and ensure the rights of children of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
In a cruel twist of fate, Mouhanad has now been living in Sweden for close to six months as a displaced Syrian himself.

‘I didn’t choose to leave my country, I was compelled to leave,’ Mouhanad says. ‘I was a graduate student about to defend my Master’s thesis project when I found myself having to leave my country.’

At that time, he was faced with only two choices: leave the country or stay and be forced into military service to fight with Syrian regime forces in their war against the Syrian people. ‘This is something I couldn’t even imagine doing so I decided to leave,’ he says.

A safer place

Leaving his beloved Damascus in order to preserve his personal safety was a difficult decision for Mouhanad because he knew he probably won’t be able to go back to Syria until its political situation has changed.

‘Despite feeling bad and the guilty emotions I had about leaving my country, when I think logically about it, I believe I made the right decision,‘ he says. ‘I miss everything – home, family, friends and the old days, but I have to admit that Syria is no longer a suitable and secure place where I can live, work and have a family.’

Thousands of Syrians have fled to Europe in search of better lives, including many close friends of Mouhanad. ‘My friends who reached Sweden before me told me about the good treatment and respect of human rights here,’ he says.

‘Sweden is a place where I can start over and live a respectable life and think of having a job, family and children.’

Mouhanad’s opportunity to live a safer and more comfortable life came when he was granted a Schengen visa and then residency in 2014.

He chose Sweden for two main reasons. ‘First of all, it is a secure place where I can finally feel physically and psychologically safe; a place where I can start over and live a respectable life and think of having a job, family and children,’ he says.

His second reason has to do with Sweden’s reputation on human rights issues, which was very important to him.

An inclusive society

Having spent less than a year in Sweden, Mouhanad understandably doesn’t speak Swedish fluently yet, but he regularly attends language classes. Learning the language has helped him socialise and make friends with locals, and he feels he has already integrated well into Swedish society.

‘Speaking English made it easier for me to communicate with others since almost everybody speaks English here,’ he notes.

He strives to keep an open mind and positive attitude towards his new life in order to adjust faster, trusting his Swedish friends who have explained different customs and everyday know-hows.

‘It is a privilege to be a resident of Sweden where people are respected regardless of religion, belief, colour, appearance and nationality,’ Mouhanad says.

‘Having rights just because you are a human being is a great feeling.’

Mouhanad Sharabati was interviewed by Lola Akinmade Åkerström.


Video: ‘If you were forced to flee from Sweden?’


Young Swedes talk about how they would feel about being forced to leave their home country.

This film is a part of the project ‘Homestead – somewhere in Sweden’, by ROT produktion: nagonstansisverige.se.

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