As the end of a hectic year approaches – one that saw Russia invade Ukraine in February and spark a war showing few signs of ending – a migration crisis is brewing across Europe.

Countries in the European Union received nearly 100,000 asylum applications in October, which was its highest monthly total in six years and even exceeded the numbers from several months during the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016, according to the union’s asylum agency. The October total does not even include the millions of Ukrainians who have fled the war so far.

But one EU country traditionally welcoming of immigrants is hatching plans that will make immigration and integration there more challenging moving forward.

In October, Sweden’s new government coalition announced an agreement that includes broad proposals aimed at decreasing the amount of immigrants brought into the country, a dramatic shift in precedent for a country long-known to be welcoming to non-citizens seeking a better life. Experts say while it’s too early to know how the plans will really impact migration, the possibilities are concerning.

“The general approach is to lower the standards in order to make Sweden less attractive as a destination,” says Bernd Parusel, a senior researcher at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies.

Analysts argue this push began when the Sweden Democrats, a far-right political party, made big gains in the country’s September parliamentary elections and, as a result, gathered more political influence. In fact, the party’s share of power has “been growing in every single election,” according to Siddartha Aradhya, a postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University.

Then came October’s Tidö Agreement, which lays out the policy priorities of the Sweden Democrats and three other governing parties: the Moderate Party, Christian Democrats and Liberals. While just one component of the coalition’s broader plans, the proposals related to modifying migration law are wide-ranging. The coalition hopes to make conditions and requirements for family reunification, labor immigration and Swedish citizenship more strict. Even the country’s asylum reception legislation “will be adapted to ensure that it is not more generous than is required of any member state under EU law.” The package is “very comprehensive,” says Parusel, who notes that about 19 pages of the 62-page agreement document are devoted to asylum, migration and integration.

“Immigration to Sweden has been unsustainable,” reads a statement by new Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of the center-right Moderate Party, delivered in October to the country’s legislative body, the Riksdag. “This government’s message is that this cannot continue. A paradigm shift is now taking place in Swedish migration policy.”

Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria and King Carl Gustaf, in the background at center of table, sit with incoming Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, center right, and Speaker of the Swedish parliament Andreas Norlen, center left, during the change of government council at the Royal Palace in Stockholm on Oct. 18, 2022.(Jessica Gow/TT News Agency via AP)

Sweden’s evolving stance on immigration has actually been several years in the making, both polling data and insights from experts show. Until recently, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, the country embraced more open and generous asylum and immigration policies as other European countries were becoming stricter, according to analysis by the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Sweden also took in more people per capita than any other European Union country during the 2015 refugee crisis, as reported by Reuters.

But analysis from U.S. News & World Report’s Best Countries survey indicates a representative sample of Swedes have been wary of immigration since at least 2018. Asked whether they agree with the statement, “My country should be more open to immigration,” only between 30-40% of Swedish respondents did so over a five-year range starting that year. While the percentage of agreement rose from about 36% in 2021 to nearly 42% in 2022, the latter share was among the lowest of European countries surveyed. The survey is part of an annual perception-based ranking of countries that this year was based on responses from more than 17,000 people in regions spanning the world.

Parusel points to other opinion polls indicating the Swedish public has become “more skeptical” of immigration, particularly since 2015, when thousands of people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq left their war-torn countries for Europe.

“I’m sure that’s probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for many people,” Aradhya says. “Up until that point, Finns were the largest immigrant group in Sweden and after (late 2015) onward, it’s the Syrian population that became the largest foreign-born population in Sweden. This was a momentous shift in that perspective.”

Sweden is already scaling back its immigration policies. The country is not among the 10 that are hosting the most Ukrainian refugees, according to another Brookings Institution piece. And the Swedish government has proposed admitting a quota of only 900 total refugees in 2023, after allowing at least 5,000 each year since 2018, the Swedish Migration Agency notes. More recently, the Parliament voted to increase the salary requirement for labor migrants in an effort to tighten the rules.

This and the other sweeping proposals from the coalition have troubling implications for both immigrants in Sweden and displaced people hoping to find a safe haven there, experts worry.

For example, the policy that would make family reunification more difficult will hurt immigrants within Sweden who are already “likely to be scarred” from experiences back home, Aradhya notes. There is a “signal effect” caused by the proposed measures too, according to Parusel, who says Sweden could become “perceived as less welcoming – as more, perhaps, hostile to refugees,” which would impact both the people who want to pursue safe haven in the country and the immigrants that are already there.

On a similar note, there are the issues around how migration is discussed in the country, especially by followers of the Sweden Democrats. Specifically, there has been a “sort of merging of migration and crime in discourse” even though there is “no sort of research showing that there exists such a causal kind of relationship,” says Annika Lindberg, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies. In 2017, for example, Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to distribute a press release providing facts and context to combat the dissemination of “simplistic and occasionally inaccurate information about migration, integration and crime” in the country.

But this linkage has persisted. Even former Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, of the center-left Social Democrats, said in August that the country’s failure to integrate immigrants has led to parallel societies and gang violence, according to Reuters.

The “radical” anti-immigration policies the new government is now pushing means that migrants will likely continue to be stigmatized, adds Andrea Spehar, an associate professor in political science also at the University of Gothenburg. As parties like the Sweden Democrats gain influence, migration-related stereotypes will remain a political talking point, experts say.

“They have, perhaps, also an interest in keeping that issue alive, because they think people will vote for them as long as immigration is perceived as a problem,” Parusel says. “So I would, personally, not think that the current attitudes will go away quickly.”

The Year in Photos: 2022

LVIV, UKRAINE - MARCH 09: Eugene says goodbye to his partner Tanya before boarding a train to Dnipro from the main train terminal on March 09, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine. As Ukrainian civilians in the east flee to the relative safety of western cities such as Lviv, and abroad to escape Russia's assault, many military personnel are heading east to help with the war effort. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

All of these effects, while serious, are still theoretical at the moment. Spehar guesses several of the proposals will not be implemented, but Parusel predicts the reunification restriction plan, for example, is possible to get through Parliament and be legislated “relatively quickly.” The government also still needs to appoint committees – referred to in Sweden as “inquiries” – designed to develop more concrete policies, he notes.

One inquiry is set to be scheduled for the spring of 2023 with the specific task of “adapting Swedish asylum legislation to a legal minimum level,” according to Erik Engstrand, the press secretary for the government’s migration minister. He adds that a bill limiting residency permits issued on humanitarian grounds will be presented to Parliament “as soon as possible.”

But otherwise, Engstrand notes the agreement “contains different parts with different timelines” and there isn’t a precise time frame as “processes are ongoing.”

However these matters proceed, Aradhya says the high share of Sweden’s population being foreign-born – about 20% as of 2021 – won’t simply go away.

“The diversity has been here since the ’70s,” he says. “Those people aren’t leaving, and they have families and they have children and grandchildren here. This is their home and this is their children and grandchildren’s home. It’s a process that’s been happening for such a long time. Now that there’s a backlash, it’s not like they can rewind that time.”

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