Sweden: The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth

In Foreign Policy, James Traub has a worthy piece titled “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth”, which focuses on Sweden’s uber-generous accommodation of the Million Muslim March.

The numbers are astonishing.

As a nation of only 9.5 million, Sweden is taking in hundreds of thousands of Muslim ‘refugees’ (160,000 last year alone), which are astonishing percentages relative to the country’s overall population. “Sweden’s generous state,” Traub writes, has led to a “sharp increase in welfare payments, 60 percent of which go to immigrants.”

Another relevant factoid:

Sweden expects to spend about 7 percent of its $100 billion budget next year on refugees. The real number is somewhat higher, since the costs of educating and training those who have already received asylum are not included in that figure.

Traub notes the decisively different tack taken by Eastern Europe, noting their ethnic homogeneity:

Most of Europe, and much of the world, has… turned its back. The ethnically homogeneous nations of Eastern Europe have refused to take any refugees at all; Hungary, their standard-bearer on this issue, has built fences along its borders to keep refugees from even passing through.

Traub, himself a liberal, confronts his own growing skepticism:

Sweden is the only country I have spent time in where the average person seems to be more idealistic than I am. Solicitous volunteers waited to help asylum-seekers at the central train station in Stockholm even though virtually all refugees were being processed in Malmo — where the Red Cross operated a far larger set-up behind the train station. Everyone seemed calm, cheerful, organized. When I worried out loud that the country was racing off a cliff, I would be reassured that Sweden has done this before and that somehow or other it would do it again. It was a given that Sweden had benefited from its commitment to providing shelter to those in need. Aron Etzler, secretary general for the Left Party — formerly the Communist Party — told me that refugees “helped us build the Sweden we wanted.” He meant both that refugees had become good Swedes and that the social democratic model was unthinkable without the commitment to accepting them. But wouldn’t the job of integrating the new wave of asylum-seekers be vastly harder, more disruptive, and more expensive? “A strong state can take care of many things,” Etzler reassured me.

Various forms of unintended consequences are discussed, such as this one I’d never heard of involving ‘refugees’ from Eritrea:

Sweden has traditionally interpreted the standards for asylum far more liberally than most of its neighbors have. Since 2005, Sweden has accepted those fleeing persecution by nonstate actors as well as governments, and has permitted all asylees to bring in a wide range of family members. (This rule, too, has recently been tightened.) The Migration Agency accepts applications from thousands of people from Eritrea, a nation that is autocratic but currently peaceful. When I asked Pierre Karatzian, a spokesman for the Migration Agency, why Eritreans qualified, he said that many Eritreans flee the country rather than face the draft; if Sweden returns them, they will face arrest. This, however, permits the authoritarian Eritrean government to play a cynical game in which they let citizens flee and then demand that they pay a tax on their relatively lavish earnings abroad  a kind of involuntary remittance. (I was told that Eritrean embassies track down citizens abroad and demand payment.) The system guarantees a perpetual flow of Eritreans.

Traub is bold enough to mention verboten subjects like Afghanistan’s tradition of bacha bazi (“boy play”) and how it leads to Afghan ‘refugees’ molesting young Afghan ‘refugee’ boys.

The piece has many enlightening, subjective moments such as this:

Back at the Red Cross station [in Sweden], opinion was surprisingly anti-refugee, including  among volunteers. The translator said that he did not believe many of the new arrivals would ever be able to integrate into Sweden’s liberal, individualistic society. A border policeman told me, “Last summer, my grandmother almost starved to death in the hospital, but the migrants get free food and medical care. I think a government’s job is to take care of its own people first, and then, if there’s anything left over, you help other people.” I had heard the same view a few months earlier in Hungary, the country in Europe most outspokenly hostile to refugees — the anti-Sweden. Europe has not experienced economic growth in almost a decade. One could hardly think of a worse moment to ask citizens to make sacrifices on behalf of outsiders. In the United States, where growth has been more robust, the fountain of charity has run dry as well.

Inevitably, reaction among indigenous Swedes foments:

The reaction against the refugees has put wind in the sails of the Sweden Democrats, as it has all over Europe. Far-right parties now rank first in polls in France, Switzerland, Austria, and elsewhere. A poll last August found that slightly more Swedes identified with the Sweden Democrats than any other. This has terrified both the ruling Social Democrats and the Moderates, who have forged a tight alliance in order to keep the Sweden Democrats from power…

Paula Bieler of the Sweden Democrats describes herself as a “nationalist” who fears that an increasingly multicultural Sweden is in danger of losing its identity — “the feeling that you live in a society that is also your home.” Bieler objects, not to immigrants themselves, but to the official state ideology of integration, which asks Swedes as well as newcomers to integrate into a world that celebrates diversity, and thus casts Sweden as a gorgeous mosaic. Are native Swedes to think of their own extraordinarily stable thousand-year-old culture as simply one among many national identities? Thomas Gur, a widely published critic of Sweden’s open-door policy, says that it is precisely this reaction that accounts for the popularity of the Sweden Democrats.

There are more visceral fears, which cannot be raised inside the opinion corridor. “You cannot talk about concepts like marriage, shame, honor,” says Gur. “You cannot talk about social trust.”…

The refugee issue has split Sweden’s genteel consensus as no other question has in recent memory. As Ivar Arpi, a columnist at the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and an inveterate critic of the country’s refugee policy, said to me, “People have lost friends over this; families are divided against one another. I’ve had agonizing discussions with my mother and my little sister.” It is very hard to find a middle ground between “we must” and “we can’t.” One of the few people I spoke to who was seeking one was Diana Janse of the Moderates. I asked her if she feared that Sweden was in the process of committing suicide. “It’s an open question,” Janse replied. She worried that the costs of Sweden’s generosity were only beginning to come due, and no one cared to tally them. She had just learned that since the right to 450 days of parental leave per child enshrined in Swedish laws also applies to women who arrive in the country with children under seven, refugees could qualify for several years’ worth of paid leave — even without working, since unemployed women also receive maternal benefits. She was convinced that Sweden needed to end the practice of giving Swedish social payments to refugees, not only because it was unaffordable, but because Sweden had no interest in out-bidding its neighbors to woo refugees.

I was gobsmacked to see Traub dip his toes into this body of water:

An observation that is now taken for granted in the United States — that values matter, that they are transmitted culturally, that they can be only partly changed by social institutions — is treated in Sweden as a form of racism, as well as an implicit admission of failure. Low levels of achievement aren’t “in people’s DNA,” said Aron Etzler of the Left Party. “People change, cultures change. Society is there to give people the tools.” Swedes have good reason to have faith in their social democratic model, and they seem confident that it can do again what it has done before. Virtually everyone I spoke to on the pro-refugee side insisted that Sweden was not paying a price for its open-ended commitment to refugees, but rather gaining a benefit, albeit a long-term one. I often asked what this new generation of newcomers was going to do for work. Sweden has virtually no space for unskilled workers; I’ve never seen a more automated, do-it-yourself economy.

Traub concludes his piece with this candid and very salient observation:

Something even greater is at risk. The Europe that rose from the cataclysm of World War II understood itself not simply as a collection of peoples, white and Christian, but as a community of shared values. The refugee crisis has forced Europeans to choose between the moral universalism they profess and the ancient identities they have inherited. Eastern Europe has already reasserted its status as a white, Christian homeland — just as many people in the Middle East have reclaimed the sectarian identities they had seemed prepared to discard.

Now the Europe where the Enlightenment was born may well be making the same choice. The Muslim influx threatens Europe’s liberal, secular consensus; but rejecting the refugees also shakes one of the great pillars of that consensus. Europe may fail on both counts, driving the refugees from its doorstep while succumbing to right-wing nationalism. Americans have no reason to be complacent. It is all too possible that we will do the exact same thing.

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