Photo by Ulf Bodin

Citing threats to “inner order and security,” Sweden announced this week that it would reassert control of its borders. For decades, Sweden has been known for its generous asylum policy. Only the relative difficulty of getting to the geographically isolated and historically homogenous kingdom kept the flow of refugees at a manageable level. In the 1980s, Sweden welcomed approximately 25,000 asylum seekers every year. In a single week last month, however, 16,000 individuals from the Middle East and North Africa sought entry, throwing this nation of 9.5 million people into full-blown crisis.

Prior to entering the European Union in 1995, Sweden balanced its generous asylum policies with an onerous visa system. Like most European countries, it refused to grant visas to individuals from countries suffering from “unrest,” and it imposed hefty fines on any airline or shipping company transporting individuals from such countries. After entering the E.U., however, Sweden became subject to the terms of the Schengen Agreement, which abolished Europe’s internal border controls. Migrants who made it to Italy or Greece could travel within Europe to the most generous countries—such as Sweden—and apply for asylum there.

Last month, the Swedish Migration Agency released its official immigration projections for the next two years. In 2015, the agency said, 190,000 individuals are expected to arrive in Sweden—nearly triple what the agency had projected a few months earlier. The agency estimated that it would cost $3.5 billion to manage the influx, a cost that could reach as much as $8.6 billion by 2017. The Swedish government wants to finance the cost of resettling these asylum-seekers through loans and by raising municipal taxes.

If the influx was overwhelming, Sweden had only itself to blame. Until this week’s announcement, the government in Stockholm had elected not to enforce the Dublin regulation, an E.U. law stating that a refugee has to apply for asylum in the first European country he or she sets foot in. This meant that Sweden didn’t send asylum seekers back to the countries where they first arrived in Europe, instead allowing the application process to begin in Sweden. In the interim, the applicant had full access to Sweden’s social-welfare system, including health care and education, even if he or she was living underground. Most asylum seekers who have made it to Sweden have done so illegally, usually by paying someone to smuggle them in.

Where are these migrants coming from, and why now? Many reports suggest that the civil war in Syria is responsible for the surge, but in fact, just 34 percent of the mostly young, mostly male asylum seekers pouring into Sweden are Syrian. Unaccompanied adolescent males from Afghanistan make up the largest cohort. During the 13-year, American-led war in Afghanistan, a total of 1,000 Afghan immigrants arrived in Sweden; during a single week this past October, 2,000 came. They’re not fleeing war. They’re responding to incentives—Sweden’s generous system of social benefits coupled with Europe’s open invitation to come.

In Sweden, as in much of Europe, skepticism about this open-door policy is interpreted as racism. Sweden recently cut $950 million from its foreign-aid budget. Those funds will now go toward dealing with the massive influx of refugees. The scale of the crisis is likely to require more cuts from other welfare programs.

Malmö, the Swedish city with the highest concentration of immigrants, offers a glimpse of what the future holds. Already essentially bankrupt, Malmö stays afloat thanks to a yearly $600 million bailout from the federal government. It consistently ranks as the worst Swedish city for income, education, employment, and quality of life. Without help from Stockholm, Malmö’s structural deficit would exceed Greece’s. And yet, even with such a cautionary example to learn from, Sweden has no plan. In two years, the country will spend the equivalent of two defense budgets—or the entire cost of unemployment benefits for the current population—on welfare for new immigrants. The government has not announced which spending programs it will cut or taxes it will raise to pay for it.

What’s happening in Sweden, and in Europe as a whole, is not a refugee crisis but a migration crisis, one caused less by world events than by Sweden’s generous welfare system and Europe’s open-border policy.


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