Swedish Voters React to Immigration

[guest name="Karin Rives" title="Writer/Editor, America.gov" biography="Karin Rives produces content for the State Department's America.gov website and other digital channels. She has a journalism degree from Northeastern University and has worked as a newspaper, magazine and marketing writer since 1991, covering business and environmental issues. Half Swedish, half American she has a passion for politics on both sides of the Atlantic." image=http://photos.state.gov/libraries/amgov/4110/week_4/082710-Karins-60.jpg]

Swedes protest the election of a far-right party to parliament.

Elections in Sweden don’t typically make international headlines because most of the time they’re – well, pretty boring.

Policies tend to remain largely intact in this progressive and consensus-oriented Nordic nation of 9.4 million. But last week, something changed in the country where I grew up.

For the first time ever, a far-right Swedish nationalist party with an outspoken anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda gained seats in parliament after capturing 5.7 percent of the votes. With the ruling centrist government coalition unable to reach majority, the nationalists may soon be tipping the scale between the two dominant party blocks to push their own political agenda.

The Sweden Democrats want an end to government-supported multicultural events, a sharp reduction in immigration from non-Western “culturally distant” nations, a ban on religious circumcision of boys, a 90-percent drop in refugee asylums, and so forth.

The election was a lesson in democracy and it left many Swedes offended, and some emboldened.

As other European countries tightened their borders in recent years, Sweden took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from countries such as Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly one-fifth of Swedish residents today are foreign-born, or children of foreign-born parents.

Meanwhile, discontent over the nation’s immigration policies was brewing beneath the surface.

The leader of the Swedish nationalist party needed police protection when campaigning this month.

Moving with my American family to Stockholm a few years ago, I was baffled to hear people make disparaging remarks about immigrants and expecting me to agree. “But my whole family consists of immigrants,” I would protest. “I’m practically an immigrant myself!”

There would be a puzzled stare in response. “I’m talking about the other immigrants,” I’d be told.

Those other immigrants live in large suburban neighborhoods where unemployment approaches 50 percent and crime is high. Children in schools there are more likely to speak Arabic, Somali, Bosnian or Pashtun at home than Swedish.

Few native Swedes ever set their foot in these neighborhoods or in the homes where the immigrants live, but all Swedes pay taxes to maintain their schools and overburdened social services.

The physical and cultural segregation, and the resentment it breeds, contributed to the backlash that made so many Swedes take a sharp right in last week’s election, many observers agree. Others say they welcome the opportunity to have a frank and public discussion about immigration, something they say Sweden never had.

How do you think Europe and its immigrants can learn to live together?

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