Thoughts on Refugees, Sweden, and Margaret Wente

The following is a guest post by Alex Fielding. Alex is a human rights lawyer from Camrose, Alberta (and a good friend of mine), who is currently living in Stockholm with his family. — SP

While Margaret Wente’s editorials are thought provoking and initially appealing to read, they are also frequently and disappointingly misleading whenever you dig beneath the surface, particularly with her June 1 piece in the Globe and Mail (“Sweden’s immigration consensus is in peril“). I am a Canadian living in Sweden taking Swedish classes with immigrants from Iraq and Syria and have followed the immigration debate closely. It has been frustrating to see much of the media’s portrayal of the violence in Stockholm’s suburbs, particularly the international media, which inevitably fails to mention how older refugees in those suburbs have denounced this violence by young, angry men.

The biggest problem with Wente’s editorial is her conflation of immigration and refugee policy.  She seems to be critiquing Sweden’s admittedly generous refugee policy (which accepts many Somalis, Afghanis, Syrians and Iraqis regardless of skills and education), but then lumps it together with their immigration policy, which in fact only accepts “economic immigrants” (as opposed to refugees or family-class immigrants or EU citizens) if they have a letter from an employer that has been vetted by the migration board to ensure the wage is appropriate.

For example, Wente states that “Unlike Canada, Sweden doesn’t select for skills, education or the potential to succeed.”  This is simply wrong.  Like Sweden, Canada doesn’t accept refugees based on skills, education or the “potential to succeed” but rather the risk of torture and violence if they were to return to their country of origin.  And like Sweden, Canada restricts economic immigrants based on employment needs. Sweden requires a letter of employment as mentioned above. It is hard to fathom a better indicator of the “potential to succeed” for economic immigrants than a job offer.

Yes, there are problems with Swedish immigration and integration, which cannot simply be solved by more benefits.  But these problems, in contrast with Canada, have much to do with the previously very homogenous nature of Swedish society, the fact that immigrants need to speak fluent Swedish not English (which most of them already speak), and an unspoken suspicion of certain immigrants amongst employers who use the same kind of logic underpinning Wente’s article.  For example, in a recent exercise reported by The Local, an English-language newspaper in Sweden, a Romanian student sent 20 CVs out with his name, and 20 more with common  Swedish names. He received zero responses from the first 20, and 13 interview offers from the second set. And he was Romanian, so presumably a few steps above the “semi-literate people from the tribal cultures of the Middle East or Africa” on Wente’s hierarchy of immigrants.

Refugee policy is different from immigration policy and must be assessed differently. Sweden is significantly more generous than Canada in accepting refugees from places like Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who would otherwise face a high risk of violence, torture or even death, an issue that Wente conspicuously fails to mention. Shutting the doors to Syrian refugees when 80,000+ civilians have already been killed, most of them by a brutal dictator, is not such an easy, cut-and-dry solution. Sweden has taken in a disproportionate amount of refugees relative to other countries like Canada because the doors of these countries are often closed.  In 2012, Canada took in 5,412 refugees, a 26 % drop from 2011. Sweden took in 12,576 refugees that same year, more than double that of Canada in a country with less than 1/3 of its population.

Of course these refugees have more integration issues than educated and skilled economic immigrants, and Sweden must continually try to improve its program of integration in an open yet respectful dialogue. That said, asylum-seekers should not be judged on their skills and education, but the risk to their lives and their families’ lives.  Sending them back to daily sectarian attacks in Iraq, chronic instability in Somalia, civilian attacks in Afghanistan, or Syria’s humanitarian disaster and civil war is not the answer to the violence by a small minority of angry young men. We are lucky to have been born in Canada, but instead of misconceiving that luck as something we have earned and must protect against outsiders, we should recognize that privilege and carry it with some humility, generosity and respect.

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