Trump-eting Sweden

“Take a look at what happened in Sweden,” President Trump exclaimed during his speech to CPAC last Friday. “They understand I’m right. The people there understand I’m right.” He was referring to the debate–now entering its second week–surrounding his comments about the destructive impact of refugee migration to the Scandinavian nation. His defenders praised him for having dared to call out what others deny by highlighting Sweden’s struggles. But his commentary on the subject is hardly groundbreaking. Throughout the past years, western political figures on both left and right have reacted to Sweden’s policies with concern. That includes former President Obama, who in 2015 sent an envoy to the southern city of Malmö to address growing anti-Semitism amid rising tensions. It also includes Sweden’s government and media establishment which, since the peak of asylum seekers in 2015, has undergone one of the most abrupt transformations of policy and public conversation in the country’s modern history, curbing the levels of immigration and better allowing for public discussion of refugee migration and the challenges it brings. 

No, the novelty of Trump’s statements this past week lies not in its commentary on Europe, but rather in its intended message to domestic audiences. Sweden, he implied, serves as a warning to Americans—a harbinger of things to come should the US fail to embrace his reforms. It is in this assertion that the President’s statements falter. 

To begin with, the volumes in question diverge dramatically between the two nations. In 2015, 163,000 people arrived in Sweden to seek asylum, equaling roughly 1.6% of the country’s overall population. This record setting number pushed Sweden’s reception infrastructure past a critical threshold: shelters reached their capacity, after which migration agencies were unable to account for and direct migrant children, and law enforcement admitted they could no longer monitor the movements of foreigners in the country. Even after drastic reductions in immigration, Sweden’s government is still struggling to find housing, as well as hospital and school space for natives and new arrivals alike. In contrast, the United States accepted just under 70,000 refugees in 2015 (the latest figures available). During the final years of his administration, President Obama advocated taking in 110,000 refugees annually by 2017, with at least 10,000 of them being from Syria. Even that aspirational number—deemed excessive by opponents—would have amounted to less than 0.05% of the total U.S. population, and is less than half of what our admissions infrastructure had withstood during the 1980s. 

But relative numbers aren’t the only difference. The bulk of recent refugee migration to Sweden results from spontaneous flows of people at their borders or those already within the country. This means that Sweden has less control over the refugee population it receives. Asylum seekers will be dominated by those physically or financially positioned make the northward journey, and that leads—among other things—to an overrepresentation of young men. Alternately, the U.S. has typically managed its humanitarian admissions abroad, allowing for a more selective and often equitable process. 
While variations in the relative size and composition of refugee immigration ought dissuade leaders from making crude comparisons between Sweden and the U.S., so too ought the obligations each society observes toward newcomers. Sweden’s liberal asylum policies coexisted uneasily with its own egalitarian ideals and imperatives toward social equality. Bringing refugees and their families to minimum standard of living in Sweden is challenging and costly, and this is exacerbated by refugees’ shockingly low levels of employment. In contrast, while refugees do draw a disproportionate amount of public welfare funds during their initial years in the U.S., their move into the workforce tends to come quicker than what is often seen in Western Europe. The Migration Policy Institute reports that newly arrived refugee women in the U.S. tend to match employment rates of the native born within six months of arrival; refugee men surpass those rates.  

And then there are the intangibles. As Mattias Karlsson of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party remarked during a 2013 debate, “the United States is a country of immigrants. Sweden isn’t.” This is felt acutely at the cultural level. An American identity based on ideals and civic commitments is more easily embraced by a diverse population. Swedish identity, on the other hand, remains a nebulous and elusive target for the country’s immigrants who struggle to belong when belonging seems to consist, not only in political ideals, but also in language, religion, and even ethnicity. 

Unsurprisingly, outcomes for immigrants differ between Sweden and the U.S.—especially for Muslim populations. Segregation and alienation remain a reality for many of Europe’s Muslims, and countries as small as Belgium or Sweden are thought to be the source for nearly twice the total number of ISIS fighters than come from the entire U.S. Further, surveys taken by the Pew Research Center throughout the past decade indicate broad success for Muslim Americans, with roughly 80% saying they are satisfied with their lives and consider their communities attractive places to live, as large a percentage as the general population achieving a middle-class income, and fewer than 10% reporting that they have closed social circles.

International comparisons of refugee policy thus require sensitivity to the differences occurring in different places, and citizens have the right to expect such nuance from their leaders.