Immigration Nation: Northern Lights Edition

Hovsjo Estate, Sodertalje, Sweden
The “road to wherever” is paved with good intentions: Hovsjo Estate, Sweden.

As an adjunct to my recent blog post recounting the views of my expat brother, Nelson Nones, on immigration policy and its impact on national identity, here’s another interesting missive – this time from Sweden where my brother is currently working on a long-term consulting job.

What he writes is a cautionary tale on how not to deal with the tide of foreign nationals flooding in …


I’m staying in Södertälje, a town of about 65,000 people located 22 miles southwest of Stockholm. Although Södertälje is today considered part of the greater Stockholm area, albeit on the fringe, it is an old factory town.

I’m here because Astra AB, which merged with Zeneca Group of the United Kingdom to form pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca, was founded here in 1919. Today AstraZeneca has two manufacturing sites in Södertälje, one of which is the largest tableting plant in the world.

One bit of trivia you’ll find out here: It’s the hometown of tennis star Björn Borg.

As most people know, Sweden is a very socialist market economy. The Swedes I know tell me that the only real difference between the Right (mainly represented by the “Moderate Party”) and Left (mainly represented by the “Swedish Social Democratic Party” which is Sweden’s largest political party) is their position on whether (Left) or not (Right) the government should run state-owned enterprises.

Sweden has a very generous public welfare system financed by the second-highest tax regime in the world, after Denmark. Personal income tax starts at 29%, but anyone earning over ~US$ 52,000 per year will pay between 49% and 60%.

Throw in the 25% value added tax (VAT) which is similar to sales tax in America, and you’ll get an idea of just how high the taxes are here.

Sweden is Europe’s fifth-largest country by area (not counting European Russia) but its population is only 9.5 million, so it is Europe’s third most sparsely populated country, after Norway and Finland (again, not counting European Russia and also excluding Iceland). Sweden is also relatively poorly endowed with natural resources.  For example, neighboring Norway has large North Sea oil reserves, but Sweden has none.

Recognizing this, the Swedish government aggressively pursued a policy of promoting large-scale industrial development after World War II, and this is one reason why Sweden has so many large industrial companies today. They include AstraZeneca, Volvo, Ericsson, Scania (also headquartered in Södertälje), Skanska, Saab and Alfa Laval.

To build these industries Sweden needed workers – lots of them. So it entered into a trade agreement with other Northern European countries back in 1952 which established a common labor market and free movement across borders. As a result, Sweden successfully attracted a large number of immigrants during the 1950s and 1960s from countries such as Finland, Germany, and even the Baltic States.

Another piece of important background information concerns greater Stockholm’s development since World War II. Unlike most big American cities, very few people in the Stockholm area (including Södertälje) live in single-family detached homes. Most of them live in apartments that were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s as part of Sweden’s Million Programme to build 1 million new dwellings in 10 years (for more information, see the Wikipedia article

One of the main motivations of the Million Programme was to build affordable housing for the immigrant workers recruited to fuel Sweden’s industrial growth, and quite a few of those houses were built in Södertälje because it was already a well-established factory town.

To give an idea of how prevalent this sort of housing is, I had dinner recently with one of AstraZeneca’s senior executives and his family at their home, which is a flat in a small development on the outskirts of Södertälje consisting of two-story apartment blocks, four flats per block. It’s a beautiful home, but it still is … a flat.

How It Went Wrong

Partly because of its liberal immigration policy over the years, Sweden is also one of the world’s most accommodating countries for political refugees.  In recent years, many of them have come from the Middle East; specifically Christian Iraqis and Assyrians facing religious persecution, and also Muslims.

A very large number of these refugees settled in Södertälje. Today, approximately 40% of Södertälje’s population is foreign-born and, outside of Iraq, Södertälje is the largest enclave of Iraqis in the world.

Why Södertälje? Local opinions differ, but from what I can piece together it appears that:

  • Although Sweden’s industrial development policy proved very successful at first, employment in large industries is now in decline. As one example, AstraZeneca shut down its R&D center in Södertälje earlier this year in order to cut costs and consolidate R&D activities in the United Kingdom. (Previously, the Södertälje R&D center employed ~1,000 people.) Sweden’s automotive industries, especially Saab, have been hit hard by the global recession. It doesn’t help that Sweden is a very high-cost manufacturing locale today, so the country has lost many of the competitive advantages it possessed in prior years. As in America, industries have attempted to reduce high labor costs through automation, further reducing local employment.
  • Södertälje’s residential vacancy rate surged as job losses mounted and people moved away to find work elsewhere.
  • The Swedish government pays 100% of the housing cost for political refugees, who typically are unemployable because they lack the necessary language and/or job skills.
  • Södertälje is a convenient place to house these refugees, because vacant flats are readily available at (relatively) low cost, and because the town is on Stockholm’s urban fringe where the new arrivals are least likely to disrupt the area’s social fabric.

One of the Södertälje neighborhoods where the refugee population lives is Hovsjö (a tongue-twister pronounced something like “hoe-joo”). It was a Million Programme project put up between 1971 and 1975.

Unlike American ghetto neighborhoods, this one is on the far fringes of Södertälje, on top of a hill in the middle of a huge pine forest, and adjacent to a stunningly beautiful lake. It has 2,200 apartments, mostly in high-rise buildings, and is home to over 5,000 people.

You can view a documentary of Hovsjö at and I can confirm from having driven up there once, just to see it, that the images paint an accurate picture.

Is this what comes to mind when one thinks of Sweden?  Most likely not!  With the help of Google Translate, shown below is a 2008 news article that says it all (you can find the original, in Swedish, here:

New Racist Minorities in Hovsjö

“There are families who are prisoners in their own homes.”  Hovsjö Muslims, newly arrived refugees and people who stand out, are all becoming victims of harassment in Hovsjö. “I do not know why they harass me,” says Louris Kalo.

Hovsjö has become calmer for most people. But for a minority, it has become a living hell. Arriving refugees – especially Muslims – are particularly vulnerable.

“The problem must be taken seriously by politicians. There are families who are prisoners in their own homes, who take their children to kindergarten and then lock themselves inside out of fear,” says Hovsjö police chief Niclas Johansson.

One victim, who is neither Muslim nor Iraqi, is hairdresser Louris Kalo. She is Syrian but from Syria, not Turkey. “I do not know why they harass me, but the police and Securitas [the private security company] have been really kind to follow me home.”

For some reason, perhaps because she is a single woman and supports herself, she is met by taunts and she has repeatedly been forced to lock herself in her apartment after over 30 youths threw eggs at her salon and wrote bad words on the door. “Most of Hovsjö’s families are good and I do not want to move from here. But for the sake of the young people, I hope their parents do something about it before it is too late.”

Politicians know that in the past, Muslims were targeted by Christian immigrant groups. Now, however, even Iraqi Christians suffer hate crimes.

According to Mayor Anders Lago, the basic problem is that Södertälje is forced to accept too many applicants, creating segregated areas. “Södertälje has no agreement to accept any refugees at all. All those who come here do so because they have chosen to live here. But Sodertalje cannot shoulder this burden alone, so we want the government’s help to repeal the law that currently allows refugees to decide for themselves where they want to stay.”

Other news accounts point to a rising tide of violence between Christians and Muslims in Hovsjö, particularly between gangs of unemployed youths. All of the bad blood between Christians and Muslims is simply spreading over from the Middle East to bucolic Sweden.

[You can read more about Hovsjö’s litany of woe (in English) here:]

Hovsjö is not alone. There are at least two other areas that are nearly as bad in Södertälje, one of which is right up the hill from the house where I had my recent dinner (and I witnessed quite a bit of police activity then).

My dinner hosts, who are the stereotypically Swedish family and very nice people to boot, spent much of our evening together deploring the present situation in Södertälje.

I might add that, like most Swedes, they don’t mind paying high taxes, but they bitterly resent seeing their tax money given away to “hooligans,” as they would say.

The Moral of the Story

If you’re going to open the door to immigrants and refugees, then:

  • Don’t put the new arrivals on the dole.
  • Make sure they’re able to earn their own living after they arrive – not by offering “make work” jobs, but through the cumulative effects of fiscal and economic policies that stimulate domestic demand for workers having the skills, knowledge and abilities that the new arrivals possess.
  • Remove whatever incentives might cause the new arrivals to crowd into ghettoes (like the Mexican border zone in the U.S., or the dreary estates of Södertälje).  As an example of an alternative approach, America’s immigration policy in the 19th century was to give away rural (and widely dispersed) homesteads to immigrants.
  • Focus on attracting immigrants for economic or educational reasons, not on refugees for humanitarian reasons.  This may sound harsh, but it’s not as cruel as the social dysfunction (and even mayhem) that exists in places like Hovsjö. 

As people say, “The road to h*ll is paved with good intentions.”  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and reaction to what Nelson is reporting from “bucolic Sweden.”  Could it be that the grass is not actually greener …?

3 thoughts on “Immigration Nation: Northern Lights Edition

  1. A very interesting article! People want to emigrate to have a better life, but sometimes they still want to live as they were living in their own countries. I think if someone chooses to emigrate to another country, they have to adapt to that country’s ways.

    Last year, I went to Norway looking the possibility of work and to stay there, but sadly I had to come back (to Italy). During my stay there (3 months), I tried to do the same things that Norwegians do because if I’m going to live there, I’d need to learn their customs and lifestyle.

    They (the Norwegians) respect those immigrants who live there and speak their idiom, demonstrating that they’re interested in living there and blending in.

  2. Here’s an interesting article from today’s “business insider” website on warehousing the poor in France….its all about immigration policy there, too.

    I have a lot of thoughts about this issue, and it is precisely what I have been struggling with for decades – NOT to make Hispanic communities like these slums in Sweden, France, UK or even New York City.

    One key to all this is to help the community prosper … on its own. Help the poor become enterprising, and start new businesses – and they will bring their community up.

    Another idea is to NOT concentrate the population in one area – but to disperse it as broadly as possible. A third idea, is to NOT allow high density housing – period. For any reason (not just for immigrants or the poor … for anyone).

    In the “Socialist 60’s” in the UK, the government went on a rampage, building low-cost housing in very large quantities (the same happened throughout the world, and is still happening …) to fulfill some Utopian dream of housing everyone. (It wasn’t totally Utoipian; they had their shrewd reasons – they wanted to buy votes en masse, they skimmed off these construction projects (yes there is corruption everywhere), land was bought and sold, etc.).

    Now, much of that housing is also filled with immigrants – Europe’s new poor. Most of the indigenous Europeans have actually moved up a notch or two on the class ladder. That is fact. Much like the situation in the U.S., where vver 50% of America’s historically poor African-American population has migrated upwards too. Of the 40 million or so African-Americans, something like 20 million are now embedded in the Middle Class or even yes, Upper Classes. There are still some 20 Million African-Americans stuck in poverty – but every day this number is actually dwindling.

    There are actually something like 80 Million people in the U.S. at or near the poverty line, so in fact the demographics of America’s poor has changed dramatically these past 30 years. And that is good.

    What do you do, when ordinary Americans don’t want to work in a poultry plant? How do you house the inevitable ‘refugee labor’ from Haiti or Guatemala – who love these same jobs and do well at them? How do you make it work for them, the plant, the town … without creating slums, or unaffordable housing?

    How do you reconcile a population that needs to be concentrated – if only because they need neighbors who speak the same language, day care for their kids, shops that stock their unique foods and condiments etc., versus a need to deconcentrate to avoid the creation of slums, gangs, and cycles of violence and poverty?

    I am persuaded that basically all neighborhoods should be balanced or mixed. The wealthy should NOT live in exclusive neighborhoods and the poor should NOT live in other neighborhoods. Every zip code, every town, every neighborhood should have some share of other uses – and this includes commercial units as well as slightly higher-density for lower income brackets.

    It is snobbery and prejudice that concentrates the rich in one place and the poor elsewhere. The problem that school busing was supposed to solve was precisely this issue. I am a very big advocate of mixed use ‘communities’. That is why I built a mixed-use complex: shops on the first floor with entrepreneurs from the community they serve – along with residential units above. I put my money where my mouth is.

    Mixed use, lower density – everywhere is the key. Have the kids mingle – rich with poor. Have the parents mingle – rich with poor. white with black, Hispanic with Asian! Forcing a mix, is like forcing people inside corporations to mix. Many companies create ‘opportunities’ for executives and labor to mingle in hallways, staircases, lunch rooms etc. to foster communication, understanding, chance meetings, etc. At the end of the day – its all about ‘mixing’ … which engenders mutual respect and understanding. If forces empathy.

    This is NOT a socialist idea. This is good business. This is good policy. It is how you maximize prosperity, and allow and enable for social mobility across generations and time. Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs were not born into wealth. Yet arguably they contributed to more wealth creation than any of their peers. Those with genius, or simply the will to work hard, should be afforded a chance to pursue their dreams (and make us all rich in the process).

    I am convinced that human beings are naturally prejudiced, and that prejudice is a defense mechanism genetically wired into human brains through evolution – like fear. If you saw someone different come down the hills, you knew to run – to simply save yourself and your tribe members. You have to have prejudge (pre-judging) to have a chance of survival.

    By forcing people to mix – as naturally as possible – you are overcoming fear and prejudice and thus helping humans simply appreciate and respect one another.

    I am not advocating busing. Busing is unnatural. But enabling mixed-use land usage is a nice, more subtle and more nuanced approach. But for me it was a tough road: It took over three years of planning and zoning meetings. It took getting zoning variances. It took a big fight that few people would ordinarily stomach. The enemies of a solution are the very people who sit on these boards and who simply don’t understand the value of mixed use, ‘medium’-density versus housing segregation (which is basically what they push for). Many of these board members have issues.

    Every neighborhood should have balanced use. A percentage of commercial, a percentage of medium density, a percentage of lower density. Every neighborhood – not every town, not every city – every neighborhood.

    One final thought, with 75 Million Americans retiring in the next 20 years, the need for additional immigrant labor will be more acute. And with record budget deficits, and federal debt – one way out of hell is to increase the taxpayer base. Basically, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” More immigrants will flow in, and in record numbers.

    We can turn this into an opportunity instead of creating new problems. New forms of mixed use development, new types of retail stores (that are neighborhood-based), new (better) ways to integrate our new fellow Americans – and more importantly, their children!

    America can lead the way on this issue. As for the Europeans? Well, lets just say this: There’s a reason I emigrated to the U.S. from Europe (as an Iranian Muslim). Fifteen percent of the French voted for Le Pen (ultra-right party), and every European country has their version of Le Pen.

    The Europeans are snobs, and that will never change. They will never allow their local planning departments to introduce some moderate-density mixed use units into their towns and villages. The best thing that can happen to the Muslims in Europe is for their home countries to democratize, prosper and basically welcome them home. They simply need to leave. Europeans will never be hospitable to them!

    If the Europeans really want them out, they should stop supporting dictators in their home countries. Three times in the last 100 years, Iran’s democratic movements have been undermined by Europeans. The truth is, as long as they can warehouse immigrant — sweep them under the rug — they will keep ripping off their nations!

    Right now today, for example Britain is behind the Aliev regime in Azerbaijan, backing the emirs of Bahrain and Qatar … I could go on. Immigration is the long-term, direct consequence of all this. Its a reflection of another set of shortsighted (stupid) policies by these same European elites. That is the awful truth.

  3. I follow politics, current events and the side-effects of a government determined to ignore human nature and market forces.

    Other than a thoughtful read of your brother’s observations and those from others like him, I don’t know how we make Americans realize that government actions don’t occur in a vacuum. The immediate impact of what was done by the Swedish government must have seemed like a a great solution at the time.

    We have laws that we are unwilling to enforce. This has created a class of people who are living in the most free nation in the world – quietly in the shadows or brazenly in defiance – but they are not free.

    Recently, Marco Rubio, a Florida Senator, suggested a tiered immigration plan where those who are already here can apply for resident status and avoid deportation but not an amnesty-type, automatic, citizenship. Naturally the benefits associated with citizenship, like voting, would not be included with this “resident immigrant” status. There must be an incentive to become a citizen.

    I thought it was a good idea, but there will be the predictable “Second class citizen!” outcry from immigrant advocates.

    Three of my friends have become citizens after a long and expensive process; they immigrated from Poland, Korea and Brazil. They are the most outspoken against amnesty and the “Dream Act”-type of legislation.

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