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 …

Background

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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Million_Programme).

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 http://frankaschberg.com/sets/hovsjo/1296 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: http://lt.se/nyheter/1.47788-rasistdad-mot-nya-minoriteter-i-hovsjo).

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: http://www.thelocal.se/tag/hovsj%F6.]

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 …?