INTEGRATION AND SEGREGATION OF NON-EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS IN SWEDEN SINCE THE 1980s: An Alternative Approach to Include Them into a Mainstream Society (Excerpt) / Wakana Tsukioka


The common image of Sweden today is that of a country with an advanced welfare system or that of a country that is environmentally advanced. Another aspect of Sweden which stands out is the fact that it is the largest immigrant-accepting country per capita in Europe. Since the end of World War II, Sweden has accepted a number of immigrants. From the mid-1980s, increasing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers came to Sweden. Compared with other Nordic and Western European nations, Sweden has adopted a relatively “generous” immigration policy, which has made it easier for immigrants to live in Sweden. In 2014, the population with a foreign background[1] in Sweden was 2,092,206, which amounted for 21.5% of the total population (Statistics Sweden: SCB, 2015). After the mid-1980s, the language, culture and religion of immigrants in Sweden have become more and more diversified, which is the result of increasing numbers of refugees from non-European countries. Consequently, the integration of immigrants has become a major political issue in Sweden, despite the fact that the government already introduced Swedish language courses and started working on the integration of immigrants since the mid-1960s. The Swedish government’s approach to the integration of immigrants mainly focuses on language acquisition and promoting labor market participation of immigrants. Along with these integration measures, the Swedish government has promoted cultural pluralism by encouraging the maintenance of culture and identity of immigrants unlike other European countries such as France and the United Kingdom (Wiesbrock, 2011). Despite these integration measures, the segregation between immigrants and native Swedish in living quarters, at the workplace and in school is apparent. Segregation reduces interaction between immigrants and native Swedish which further leads to an increased social division in Swedish society.

This paper defines the terms “immigrants” and “native Swedish” as follows. Immigrants are defined as people who came to live in Sweden permanently, particularly from non-European countries such as Turkey, Middle Eastern nations and African countries. This study applies this definition because this immigration group has faced the problems associated with segregation in Swedish society the most. The definition includes both labor immigrants, refugees and their children even if they are born in Sweden, the so-called second generation. Although there are significant numbers of immigrants from European countries in Sweden, especially Nordic countries such as Finland and Norway, they have less difficulties being integrated into the mainstream society. The reason for this is they share a similar language and culture with Sweden. This reduces the tension between the different groups and they can get integrated into Swedish society more easily. The term “native Swedish” refers to people born and raised in Sweden by non-immigrant parents. In this paper “native Swedish” does not mean exclusively the indigenous people in the northern part of Sweden called the Sami. However, the Sami are included in the group, native Swedish.


The Characteristics of the Integration Program in Sweden

The Swedish government offer integration measures for newly-arrived immigrants on the basis of the three principles: equality, freedom of choice, and partnership. According to Wiesbrock (2011), the integration program in Sweden has four main characteristics, which are different from the integration policies in other European countries (p. 51).

First, the government offers a free introduction programs to newly-arrived immigrants with residence permits for at least one year, which include language courses, orientation courses about the Swedish society and vocational training. However, it is not obligatory for immigrants to take part in the courses (Wiesbrock, 2011, p. 52). Nevertheless, to participate in the introduction program is beneficial for immigrants. Only newly arriving immigrants who participate in the introduction program can receive full financial and housing support from the government and the municipalities (Wiesbrock, 2011, p. 52). These benefits encourage the immigrants to participate in the introduction program, although it is completely up to each immigrant. Thus, the Swedish integration measures are on a voluntary basis, although major European countries introduce mandatory integration courses and/or integration tests (Wiesbrock, 2011, p. 51).

Second, the main objective of the integration program is to promote employment of immigrants. As to the language courses, the content and vocabulary are highly related to the working situations so that the immigrants become fluent in work-related Swedish language. Aside from language courses, the government also offers the vocational training and other measures for entry to the labor market, such as the assistance of matching job-seeking immigrants and employers. Immigrants can enjoy the support specifically designated to help integration during the period of the program. However, when the program finishes, they no longer can take special measures for employment, and they can only get the employment supports as general Swedish citizens (Wiesbrock, 2011, p. 53).

Third, immigrants can get citizenship more easily compared with those who live in other European countries, since “Sweden does not require a language test or knowledge test for obtaining citizenship or long-term resident permit” (Andersson, et al, 2010b, p. 39). People who have a permanent residence permit or have lived in Sweden for five years can apply for the citizenship. As for refugees, they are eligible for citizenship after four years of stay in Sweden. In addition, Sweden permits dual citizenship since 2001, which enables immigrants to possess citizenships of both Sweden and other countries of origin. Once they get the Swedish citizenship, immigrants become eligible to vote in national elections or be elected to the Swedish parliament. In addition, it would be advantageous when the immigrants want to work in other EU countries. In principle, foreign citizens with permanent residence status and those who have citizenship, possess the same rights and obligations. However, having the Swedish citizenship gives more benefits to immigrants.

The last feature is that municipalities play important roles in are in the implementation of integration measures. Until 2010, each municipality had responsibilities for providing and managing introduction programs and organizing the reception of refugees. It was municipalities that provided housing, education, healthcare and other social support for integration, whereas the expense was covered by the central government (Andersson et al, 2010b, p. 41; Wiesbrock, 2011, p. 53). Therefore, there were considerable variations in the outcome of integration. In 2010, the responsibility of municipalities for coordinating the introduction program was taken over by the government agency for public employment service to minimize the gap of the quality between municipalities (Wiesbrock, 2011, p. 53). Yet, municipalities oversee the reception of newcomers, the offer of housing and education for immigrants, and they are still important factors for integration.

Thus, the Swedish government has encouraged integration of immigrants by offering opportunities to learn the Swedish language and culture, and giving support for employment. In addition, the government entitled immigrants to the equal rights in many fields. Meanwhile, the Swedish government has promoted cultural pluralism. For example, the government permits dual citizenship, and offers opportunities to study mother tongues of the immigrants. From this perspective, the Swedish integration policy is unique compared with the ones in other European countries. Nonetheless, the integration policies do not always function successfully in the process of integration, and some criticisms against them exist. Sweden offers generous economic assistance and language courses without fees to immigrants, which is expected to equalize the difference in the employment level. However, Valenta and Bunar mentioned that such a “generous” support makes immigrants passive and dependent on the governmental support, which increases marginalization of certain groups of immigrants (Valenta and Bunar, 2010, p. 9). In other words, “generous” support does not necessarily encourage immigrants, and rather prevents them from actively participating in and attempting to get accustomed to the host society. They also mentioned that there is a limitation of language and knowledge oriented integration measures (Valenta & Bunar, 2010, p. 10). Moreover, the Swedish integration policy respects individuals’ choices about how they commit to the integration measures, which has negative aspects as well. For instance, it fails to motivate immigrants to get accustomed to the host society.


Approaches to the Integration of Immigrants: A Case Study of United Invitations

As discussed earlier, ethnic segregation is a serious issue in Sweden, making it more difficult for non-European immigrants and native Swedish to interact with each other. Although the Swedish government has taken integration measures, they could not prevent ethnic segregation in the Swedish society (Castles, Haas & Miller, 2014). In order to make a less segregated society, some initiatives which attempt to promote the integration of immigrants have begun in Sweden at the grass-roots level. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to interview the organizer of one such initiative: United Invitations. This section examines United Invitations (Invitationsdepartementet in Swedish), which was initiated by Ebba Åkerman, as an alternative to political approaches to social integration in Sweden.

An interview with Ebba Åkerman was conducted in Stockholm on May 18, 2015. She is a native of Stockholm, and has a B.A in Art History from Stockholm University and a M.Sc. in Sustainable Enterprising from Stockholm University, Resilience Center. The initial purpose of the interview was not for this thesis but it was later found to be fruitful for this study. This interview was conducted by three Japanese exchange students at Uppsala University in Sweden, including myself. In the interview, we discussed mainly two topics: 1) the activity of United Invitations, 2) the support system for entrepreneurs in Sweden. This paper mainly uses the information from the first points. The paper also refers to the official website of United Invitations and Åkerman’s speech in Geneva Peace Talk in 2015 to complement this information.


The Overview of United Invitations

United Invitations is a non-profit, non-governmental activity, which aims to connect immigrants and native Swedish by encouraging them to dine together. The purpose of these dinner tables is to make immigrants feel more at home in Sweden and Swedish language, and help the native Swedish get accustomed to their new neighbors. United Invitations aims to promote integration at an individual level by giving opportunities to have first contact with native Swedish and immigrants through dinner tables. To have dinner together is a completely voluntary activity, which is arranged by “dinner ambassadors”, who are responsible for the arrangement of the dinner table. Anyone who is interested in getting to know people coming from other countries, and who learns Swedish and wants to know native Swedish can join this activity.

The idea of this activity comes from Åkerman’s experience as a substitute teacher for a Swedish Language program for foreigners (SFI)[2] in Botkyrka[3] from 2013 to 2014. As a teacher, she got to know immigrant students and realized that some of them did not have any opportunities to speak Swedish outside the classroom because of social segregation. Besides, she was personally invited to many dinner tables by her students, where she could get to know more about every person, not only as a teacher, but as a friend. These experiences inspired her to initiate this activity. First, she asked her students if they wanted to have dinner with native Swedish and asked those who said yes to fill in the application form. At the same time, she appealed her Swedish friends to have dinner with immigrants using SNS such as Instagram and Facebook. Finally, she arranged the first dinner in Stockholm in March 2014. At the beginning, she used Facebook as a platform for the dinner arrangement and it was a small-scale activity. After she was interviewed on a morning radio program called P1-morgon directed by her friend, this activity started to attract the attention of the general public in Stockholm. The activity has grown and 400 dinners were held in the first year. Nowadays, this initiative spread to the other parts of Sweden, and other European countries including Germany, Belgium, The United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria and Greece.


The Process of the Arrangement of Dinner Tables

The dinner is free of charge and it is always held at a participant’s home. At least one of the participants should be a person who has moved to Sweden from a different country, and participants are allowed to bring their friends, spouses and children. The process of arranging dinner tables is quite simple. Those who wish to host or participate in the dinner table can apply from the website or e-mail. They have to tell their names, nationality, the place they live, dietary restrictions, family structure, available date and phone number. Immigrants are required to tell if they are fluent in Swedish or not as well. Then volunteers called “dinner ambassadors” arrange the dinner table based on the information given by both immigrants and native Swedish. Arrangement is based on the basic information, especially the available date and time, but hobbies or characteristics are not taken into account. Both hosts and guests are informed of only basic information and contact address, and they were encouraged to contact each other before the dinner tables. There are no rules about what to eat, what to talk and what to do during the dinner tables. How to spend the time is completely up to the participants, and it is not obligatory to arrange following dinner tables. Interestingly, 25% of people who participated and hosted dinner, met once or several times after the first dinner, according to the survey of 200 participants conducted two month after dinner tables. Even though the arrangement is less restricted, unlike internet dating services, it could be said that the participants can enjoy the dinner tables.


The Analysis of United Invitations

The Activity of United Invitations plays an important role in connecting the immigrants and the native Swedish. Therefore, it makes it easier for the immigrants to access the networks of native Swedish. The access to the networks has significant meanings in integration of immigrants mainly from two perspectives, language acquisition and employment. Moreover, this approach is unique and different from traditional approaches for integration, which have been taken by the government in Sweden. This section examines the significances and uniqueness of the United Invitations in terms of promoting the integration of immigrants into the host society.


Language Proficiency

First, previous research suggests that proficiency in the language of a host society is one of the important aspects in the integration process, especially integration into the labor market (Chiswic, 1991; Delander et al., 2005). It not only hastens integration but also enhances the possibility of economic success (Chiswick & Miller, 1996, p. 19). In Sweden, free language courses were offered to refugees and those who came to Sweden for family-unification in 1970. Two years later, the Swedish government decided to entitle immigrants to take 240 hours of paid language courses. Such language courses have developed and today it has become a part of the introduction program for adult immigrants, called “Swedish for Immigrants (Svenska För Invandrare: SFI)”. SFI provides basic knowledge in Swedish language and knowledge about Swedish society to improve immigrants’ performance in the labor market (OECD, 2010). In the interview, however, Åkerman mentions that some of students at SFI do not have any Swedish friends to speak with in Swedish outside the class due to social segregation in Stockholm (Åkerman, personal communication, 18 May 2015). If students have less opportunities to speak Swedish, immigrants cannot become motivated to study Swedish and brush up their language abilities. According to the statistics compiled by the Ministry of Labor in Sweden, 34,104 people took SFI from 2007 to 2009. 61.8% of students completed the course. On the other hand, 23.4% dropped out and 14.8% did not complete the course within two years (Arbetsmarknadsdepartementet, 2011). This number shows that more than one-third of the students dropped out of SFI. One of the factors for this dropout is that immigrants are not motivated to study Swedish. Chiswick and Miller (1996) insist that to live in communities where the majority of habitants are immigrants speaking minority language hinders immigrants from becoming fluent in the language of the host society (p. 20). It is because they can live their daily lives within their communities without speaking the language of the host society. From this perspective, the dinner tables of United Invitations give immigrants the first step to contact and make further connections with native Swedish, encouraging them to acquire Swedish.

Moreover, the Swedish language course (SFI) has another problem. Wiesbrock pointed out that “integration courses might increase segregation of immigrants” (2011, p. 59). It is because when immigrants take part in the introduction course, they are separated from every-day life in the host society, and they can only meet other immigrants (Wiesbrock, 2011, p. 59). Thus, the activity of United Invitations is helpful to keep immigrants connected to the host society, while it also offers an opportunity to speak Swedish. If the immigrants make use of both the language course and the dinner tables, they can brush up their Swedish language abilities without being segregated from the host society.


Integration into the Labor Market

As mentioned in Chapter 2, the unemployment rate of immigrants is higher than that of native Swedish, and especially non-European immigrants have difficulties in finding jobs with higher salaries. Language acquisition is absolutely one important aspect of labor market participation. However, research conducted by Swedish economists and sociologists show that the lower position of immigrants in the labor market cannot be explained only by their human capital such as education, training and language skills (Andersson, 2007, p.70). In that context, the access to native networks is advantageous for immigrants to participate in the labor market. According to Andersson, residential areas and neighbors have effects on immigrants’ performance in labor markets. He mentions that immigrants residing in their ethnic communities in Sweden’s three largest cities (Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo) have disadvantages in income development (2007). Andersson (2007) raises two main factors: a) external stigmas stereotypes of non-European immigrants by Swedish, b) less functional informal networks of immigrants than those of native Swedish (p. 82). For these reasons, immigrants who live in segregated cities have difficulties in finding jobs and increasing their in income.

Eternal stigmas and stereotypes from native Swedish prevent the integration of immigrants in the labor market. Some native Swedish employers believe that “certain migrant groups are not particularly productive, because they are too often absent due to sickness, or they lack the capacity to work in teams,” although these beliefs are false (Rydgren, 2006, p.708). The native Swedish tend to ignore the variations within one ethnic group and the characteristics of each individual, and put stereotypical images (Rydgren, 2006, p. 709). These stereotypical beliefs make people of certain ethnic groups less likely to find jobs not because of their individual skills, but their ethnicity. In some cases, immigrants with non-Swedish names have less opportunities to get job interviews, or their resumes are likely to be ignored (Bursell, 2007, p. 14). On the other hand, it is an efficient way for employers to collect information of applicants by using the stereotypical beliefs. It is possible to guess people with Swedish-sounding names are, on average, more fluent in Swedish than those who have non-Swedish names since many immigrants have arrived in Sweden recently (Bursell, 2007, p. 7). Thus, such stereotypes and external stigmas prevent immigrants from being integrated into the labor market.

Moreover, the usage of informal networks is another important factor in job-seeking in Sweden. In this paper, informal networks indicate informal methods, such as family connections, personal (non-family) connections, school connections, and direct offers from employers (Forsé, 2014, p.259). In Sweden, informal networks play an important role in finding jobs, although formal networks for job-finding, such as a nation-wide system of public employment agencies in each municipality, have been established. In addition, employers are required by law to inform the employment office of job vacancies. In contrast, one study shows that between 1990 and 1998, only 20 to 26 percent of newly employed people used formal methods to get employment. The same study also shows that between 23 to 40 percent of unemployed people found former jobs through formal methods (Behtoui, 2008). These figures suggest that informal networks are the main job-finding methods in Sweden. As well as job-seekers, firms and employers prefer to hire people using informal methods such as recommendations from employers of the firm because it is more likely that firms will get high-ability job-seekers. The other reason is that employers are restricted to dismiss employees by law, and it resulted in employers hiring native Swedish. A study by Olli shows job-seekers who get jobs through informal networks are more likely to be successful in a position than those who get jobs through formal methods (Olli, 2005, p. 28). Nevertheless, if immigrants do not have any personal contacts with native Swedish, it is hard to access to the informal network of native Swedish. Behtoui states that “[w]e are embedded in various networks of associations, and various resources which are accessible via our social networks have a substantial impact in our position in the labor market (Behtoui, 2006, p. 19)”. However, the distribution of available jobs is not equal among social networks, that is, “some people’s networks do not provide the same opportunities for mediating jobs as others do (Olli, 2005, p. 28)”. In other words, the quality and the quantity of jobs offered by the networks of immigrants are lower than jobs offered by the native networks.

United Invitations, therefore, aims to encourage immigrants and native Swedish to connect with each other and establish mutual trust. The stereotypical thinking could be diminished if native Swedish would know the immigrants not as the people in certain ethnic groups, but as individuals. In addition, it enables immigrants to access the native networks more easily by using the contact with the native Swedish provided by the dinner tables. It possibly enhances the chances for the immigrants to get better jobs which they cannot get through their ethnic networks. From these perspectives, United Invitations helps immigrants integrate into the labor market in Sweden.


Uniqueness in the approach of United Invitations

The other significance of United Invitations is the way it approaches social integration. The approach of United Invitations is unique in a way that it makes a positive approach to both the immigrants and the natives, and promotes establishing connections at the individual level. Most of the people in Sweden have positive attitudes toward immigrants. However, the attitudes have not contributed to the integration of immigrants. According to the report of UNCHR, one-third of the population never interacted with non-European immigrants. Also, 66 % of the respondents in the survey[4] agreed with the claim “[t]here are groups of immigrants who fail to integrate into our culture (UNHCR, 2013, p. 23)”. This attitude of the Native Swedish and a lack of interaction with immigrants could be a barrier for the integration of immigrants.

The government and municipalities in Sweden have taken measures for the integration of immigrants, such as Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) or support for employment by agencies. These measures are only for immigrants, and native citizens are not included in the processes. In addition, when immigrants meet Swedish people in language courses or municipality offices, boundaries are set in their relationships, such as students/teacher, immigrants/officers or supported people/supporters. In contrast, at the dinner table immigrants and native Swedish are equal. The immigrants can connect with the native Swedish, and at the same time the native Swedish can get opportunities to know new neighbors who they might never meet. One of the obstacles to promote the integration is a lack of interaction between immigrants and native Swedish, and corresponding indifference. So, as to promote the integration of immigrants, it is necessary to change the awareness of both immigrants and native Swedish since it is not about helping immigrants but about cooperation with each other. Åkerman stated that the dinner tables make it possible to establish trust between immigrants and natives, leading to integration at an individual level (Åkerman, personal communication, May 18, 2015).

Segregation became larger in Stockholm, and that made it difficult for both immigrants and natives to get to know each other, which resulted in further segregation. Since United Invitations is a new activity that started in 2014 and there has not been any research on the effects of this activity. Therefore, it is not certain how strong of an impact it has on the integration of the immigrant population. However, according to a survey of 200 participants conducted by Åkerman two month after these dinner table meetings, 99% of participants feel that having dinner together contributes to a more inclusive society (E. Åkerman, 2015). Hence, United Invitations offers opportunities for interaction between immigrants and native Swedish at an individual level, and it possibly encourages the integration of immigrants.



Sweden has accepted a large number of immigrants since the end of World War II. Especially after the 1970s, immigrants and refugees from non-European countries have increased, and integration of these immigrants became a major issue in Sweden. The Swedish government has adopted integration policies based on three principles: equality, freedom of choice, and partnership. It has also taken integration measures such as the introduction program and assistance for job-matching to promote the integration of immigrants. Nonetheless, segregation between the native Swedish and non-European immigrants in living quarters and labor market have occurred in Sweden, especially in large cities. This thesis discussed that one of the strong factors that cause segregation both geographically and economically lies in the attitudes of the native Swedish. However, the integration measures by the government work on only immigrants by giving support. Moreover, this paper indicated that the current integration measures taken by the government to promote integration and encourage immigrants are limited.

On the other hand, the activity to promote the integration of immigrants at an individual level, such as those by United Invitations, proposes a different approach from the measures introduced by the government. At first, the activity aimed to establish mutual trust between the immigrants and the native Swedish through sharing dinner tables, which not only supports immigrants but also changes the attitudes of native Swedish. Moreover, the activity motivates immigrants to learn Swedish and Swedish culture, and connects the immigrants to native Swedish living in different parts of the city. Considering these characteristics, the activity can make up for the shortcomings of the integration measures by the government to a certain extent, such as the difficulty of language courses designed to motivate immigrants to learn Swedish.

Hence, the activities organized by grass roots organizations like United Invitations, are important in the integration of immigrants into the society. However, other activities organized by individuals, NGOs and NPOs to promote the integration in Sweden are not discussed in this paper. United Invitations is one of those activities, and efforts to promote integration are made by various actors. Nowadays, one-quarter of the total population in Sweden are people with foreign backgrounds, and it is inevitable for native Swedish to interact and collaborate with immigrants in every-day life. In addition, an increasing number of immigrants, mainly refugees from non-European countries, come to Sweden, and the issues related to the integration will probably become more serious in the near future. Such non-governmental activities at a grassroots level will help the integration of immigrants by changing attitudes of the native Swedish toward them and motivating them to participate in the host society.



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[1] A foreign background is defined as those who were born abroad or who have parents born abroad.

[2] SFI is offered by the government and municipalities for foreigners who have resident permission in Sweden.

[3] Botkyrka is an area which has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants in Stockholm, a capital city of Sweden.

[4] The original data of this survey was cited from Mångfaldsbarometern by Mella and Palm (2012). However, I do not refer to the original text since it is written in Swedish.

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