Shortly before the Swedish parliamentary and local elections, free market think tank Timbro published a book by journalist Erik Hörstadius called Vårt nya land, Sverige efter flyktingkrisen (“Our new land, Sweden after the refugee crisis”).
The timing is impeccable. In May, an article in Expressen showed that immigration was the single most important issue for voters, according to a survey by research consultancy Demoskop. Third came integration. The (booming) economy came seventh - as can be expected.
So how is Sweden really doing after the refugee crisis?
Almost one in five residents in Sweden are born abroad. But more than nine out of ten hold Swedish citizenship (SCB). This implies that they immigrated more than five years ago, before the so-called refugee crisis.
The employment rate among foreign born is almost 8% lower than among Sweden born. But it grew more than twice as much than for Sweden born last year (SCB).
Reality is a tricky thing. The nationalist party Sweden Democrats grew to be the third largest party at national elections a couple of weeks ago. Foreign-born Swedes are well represented in their support-base. It tells us that there is a widely shared narrative of recent immigration and integration being very problematic.
Hörstadius’ book is a more than welcome complement to the debate. He calls it a roadtrip and that’s exactly what it is. He travels the country by train. Visiting those who engage in the public debate - politicians, bloggers, vloggers - but also the refugees that fled to Sweden and those who worked hard to provide a decent reception.
He takes the debate out of Stockholm (get your google maps ready…) and visits towns that have been changed by the presence of newcomers over the past three years. He gives a voice to those who are often voiceless in public debate - the refugee, the social worker, the emergency care practitioner. Those that are emotionally falling apart because of the stress and insecurity of being in the waiting place. Those that compassionately and pragmatically care for the waiting ones. Those that need to deal with the aggression and crime related to the presence of the hopeless.
Hörstadius is not out to prove a theory or an ideology. He is simply telling people’s stories. Some of the stories are depressing and dark, whilst others are hope-inspiring. And all those who speak from experience admit - there are no easy solutions.
An interesting finding in the book is that one of the cornerstones of Swedish culture - the quiet agreement that one should not stand out, think differently or create conflict - has prevented us from having a healthy debate around recent immigration. Addressing issues that arise with the arrival of refugees was tabu until quite recently and perhaps it still is in some circles. The effect is that trust for those in power erodes and that we end up with a more racist and polarized society.
Another important question raised is whether a multicultural society is indeed something to strive for, as political and cultural elites in Sweden seem to do. Former policeman of Afghan origin Mustafa Panshiri has some sharp thoughts on this topic. He agrees that work and housing are important for successful integration, but points out that fundamental values also need to be understood. And that perhaps understanding them isn’t enough, they also need to be shared, a form of social integration.
Vårt nya land does not present us with well-checked facts and figures, nor does it leave us with any clear-cut answers. But it does challenge us to see beyond the conversations we have within our little circle of friends and our own political opinions. It takes us right to the doorstep of people that may think very differently than us. And it portrays the people that deal with the nitty-gritty, day-to-day messiness of a changing society. For that, it is certainly worth the read.