Some 40,000 Syrians have arrived in Sweden since the conflict began. And following a decision to offer permanent residency to all Syrians, Sweden is expecting more than 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014, many of them from Syria.
In its largess, Sweden diverges from countries like Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark, which have taken in far fewer Syrian asylum-seekers — generally granting them only temporary residency — and just several hundred United Nations-sponsored refugees each. Even more dramatic is the contrast with Norway.
A far wealthier social democracy than Sweden, Norway spends a greater share of gross domestic product on humanitarian assistance than any other country in the world. It also has the lowest unemployment in Europe and, like Sweden, several decades of experience with immigration.
Yet Norway is not encouraging asylum-seekers. When I recently asked one of the very few Syrians I met in Oslo why he had chosen Norway, he said, “I thought Oslo was in Sweden.” And while the Norwegian government has agreed to resettle 1,000 United Nations-selected Syrian refugees, this summer it rejected 123 of them because of medical conditions deemed too serious for local health services to manage.
This has put Sweden and Norway on opposite sides of an emerging debate: whether advanced welfare states designed for small and homogeneous societies in the mid-20th century are capable of absorbing large numbers of non-European foreigners.
In Sweden, a closely patrolled pro-immigration “consensus” has sustained extraordinarily liberal policies while placing a virtual taboo on questions about the social and economic costs. In Norway, a strong tradition of free speech and efficient administration has produced a hard-nosed approach about which refugees, and how many, to take in.
The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has calculated that because of all the social, health, housing and welfare benefits mandated by the state, supporting a single refugee in Norway costs $125,000 — enough to support some 26 Syrians in Jordan. And the Norwegian press has reported that following an alleged terrorist threat from abroad in July, Norway’s immigration authorities deported asylum seekers who raised security concerns.
Unlike the far-right Sweden Democrats, which have been shunned by other Swedish parties, Norway’s own anti-immigration party, the populist Progress Party, has entered a coalition government and makes its concerns heard. Solveig Horne, the minister of children, equality and social inclusion, and a member of the Progress Party, complains that Norway already has more asylum seekers than it can accommodate. “More and more are allowed to stay in Norway,” she told me in Oslo last month. “But many communities are saying, ‘Wait. We have to be sure we can integrate the people we already have.’ ”
This is just the kind of blunt talk that is strictly avoided in Sweden. Take the comments of the incumbent prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, a few weeks before last Sunday’s election. He asked voters to “open their hearts” to Syrian refugees, even though the escalating cost of supporting them would preclude further welfare benefits for Swedes. The comment caused an outcry — not because it seemed to favor refugees over Swedes, but simply for suggesting that refugee policy needed to be considered on economic grounds. [Scandinavians Split Over Syrian Influx, By Hugh Eakin, September 19, 2014, emphasis added.]