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ICYMI: Syrian Refugees Pushed Sweden’s Welfare State To The Brink Of Collapse

Joe wrote about how we’ve doubled the amount of Syrian refugees entering the United States from April. In all, 2,700 have been relocated here, while the Obama administration has promised to resettle at least 10,000—a figure that’s been a source of controversy given that there needs to be a screening process to weed out possible terrorists. FBI Director James Comey admitted that it’s impossible to fully screen every refugee, a point that was corroborated by former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Governors from over half of the states have signaled their refusal to accept refugees relocating within their borders. That position is on some shaky legal ground, but the point is that there’s pushback.


In Sweden, there initially was little since the country has historically taken in many refugees across various countries, and it has a very liberal refugee policy. Yet, it’s one where the resources of the state have been pushed to the brink, where new restrictive policies have been adopted to curb the cost of housing the latest influx of refugees, especially from Syria, and where the whole attitude towards refugees has devolved into a debate that’s fractured this society, along with the rest of the European continent.

James Taub wrote in Foreign Policy in February about Sweden’s dalliance with Syrian refugees that have led to “the death of the most generous nation on Earth.” He noted the country’s rich history in housing and sheltering those fleeing war-torn countries. In some cases, like Eritrea, they take those fleeing forced conscription. For the most part, the country was able to soak up these newcomers, viewing them, as they once did, as a net positive concerning long-term diversity and integration. That’s one of the beautiful things about Western society—it’s not rigid. Any person, from any race, religion, or ethnicity can adapt and eventually adopt the traditions and values of Western culture; its political make up allows for tolerance (i.e. freedom of the press, speech, religion, and the right to assembly). Yet, that’s no longer the consensus as Taub writes, and integration usually forms the crux of the debate.

Sweden thought they could take on this massive feat, as their neighbors began to build walls along their borders. One could easily understand why the Swedes first thought the Syrian refugee experiment could be a success. They had accepted Muslim refugees before in the 1990s from the Balkans, where civil war was tearing the region apart over ethno-religious lines (Bosnians and Serbs). As Taub wrote, these were Muslims of a more moderate caliber, who adapted to the secular Swedish society. He noted that future generations of this group now serve as doctors and work in government, some are even ministers. That’s not going to happen with the Syrians. In the end, the government found that they had quickly run out of resources to handle the immediate needs of the refugees, and certainly could not afford taking care of them in the long term. Sweden extends its social safety net, health care, housing, and education to refugees with the same access as ordinary Swedish citizens.


Back at the Red Cross station, 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.


Even before Sweden slammed on the brakes, it seemed that the country had posed for itself a test that it could not pass, and could not acknowledge that it could not pass. The financial costs, even for one of Europe’s richest countries, were daunting. 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. It is, in any case, double the 2015 budget. Where will the additional funds come from? It’s not clear yet, but since the cost of caring for refugees is considered a form of development assistance, Sweden has already cut 30 percent of its very generous foreign aid budget, which largely goes to fortify the very countries from which people are now fleeing, to help make up the difference. Other European donors, including Norway, have done so as well.

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.

At first the Swedish government made several very modest concessions to this ugly reality. In November, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven disclosed that migrants would no longer be granted permanent asylum, and thus no longer become eligible for the massive package of social benefits that comes with it. Applicants, if approved, would receive a three-year temporary residency permit with the possibility of renewal. Refugees could still bring in spouses and children under “family reunification” policy, but those relatives would not qualify for social benefits. In late December, Sweden finally threw in the towel. Henceforth, no one would be permitted to enter Sweden without proper identity documents. The new regulations, no longer described as temporary, violated the Schengen regimen; soon after, Austria imposed similar rules. The refugee crisis has, at least temporarily, ended free movement across borders, one of the signal achievements of the European Union.

Since many refugees arrive without passports or other valid forms of identification, the new rules sharply curtailed the number of asylum-seekers arriving overland who would be permitted to enter the country. Cross-border immigration has, in fact, come to an almost complete stop. Sweden now accepts only those refugees arriving directly from Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and cleared by the U.N. refugee agency. After taking 160,000 refugees — 30,000 less than the maximum it had projected — Sweden had finally run out of room, money, and patience.


The kibosh came down, literally, in January when Sweden announced that 80,000 Syrians would be deported. There also seems to be a problem concerning debating the issue, especially when it comes to integration. Syrians aren’t the only refugees facing problems in Sweden, but they’ve become the most immediate crisis given their surge towards Europe. Taub wrote that recent refugee groups, like the Somalis, have had trouble integrating into society. Taub quoted Diana Janse, a foreign policy adviser to the Swedish Moderate Party, who noted the observation with the Somalis and wondered how would “10,000-20,000 young Afghan men who had entered Sweden as ‘unaccompanied minors’ fare? How would they behave in the virtual absence of young Afghan women? But she could barely raise these questions in political debate.” Taub added that unaccompanied minors have special protections in Sweden, with those arriving without parents becoming wards of the state. Yet, to question whether one group could be integrated as well as a previous one is tantamount to racism in the country—a rather paralyzing form of political correctness, where an innocuous inquiry like that would be viewed negatively, though it’s exactly the type of questions that apparently need to be asked.

Taub added that Sweden has absolutely no room for low-skill labor. And while the political left of the country views the nation’s elderly as an area for work with these newcomers, he notes that the old people of this Nordic country have it together regarding their own care.

“Old people in Sweden seem awfully self-sufficient. You can’t push someone’s wheelchair if they’re going to cross the street on their own,” he writes.

Still, he places some blame on how individualistic the responses to the crisis have been towards Syrian refugees, while noting the European Union response has been met with total disaster (a plan to disperse 160,000 refugees among EU states has only relocated 272). While noting that Europe will probably close most of its access points for refugees, and only allowing those who have been screened (sound familiar), Taub ends his lengthy piece by saying things could've been different:


Yet it need not have ended this way. If their neighbors had pitched in, Sweden could have afforded the price of its remarkable generosity. At the Davos forum in January, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, said bluntly, “We are a continent of 500 million people; we could easily handle this task if we cooperated, if we met this as a union and not as individual member states.” But Europe did not cooperate. Already the Schengen rules lie in tatters. The refugee crisis threatens European foundations as even the recent euro crisis did not. “If we cannot handle this as a European union,” Lofven went on to predict, “the European Union in itself is at risk.”

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.

Frankly, there are other issues at play here. For starters, the whole refugee mindset was rocked by terrorism and the horrific gang rapes that occurred in Cologne, Germany, and throughout the continent, starting on New Years’ Eve. At least 500 rapes were committed on that night. On April 1, conservative Mark Steyn, along with UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, historian Simon Schama, and Canadian Lawyer Louise Arbour, who has persecuted people guilty of using rape as a weapon of war; debated the global refugee crisis in a Munk Debate held in Toronto, Canada. The event is sponsored by the Aurea Foundation, which deals “in the study and development of public policy.” Here, Steyn noted the rampant sexual assaults that have occurred since the start of this crisis, and how nations are accommodating to the cultural prism of the refugees, instead of simply telling them we don’t grope or rape women. This is not a welcome element. Moreover, Islamic State (ISIS) is definitely using refugees to move its operatives into neighboring Europe and possibly the United States. There are grave national security concerns, and to ignore them based on some absurd ethos of political correctness is reckless. At a time when ISIS is stretching the limits of its global reach, this isn’t a time to consider which Western values we possibly could be undermining by not allowing these refugees into the United States, or elsewhere in Europe.


For Sweden, they learned the hard way—with their checkbooks. Blessedly, the shift in public opinion was based off of finances, instead of dead bodies, though Taub noted that an act of terrorism within Sweden would rapidly alter the “national mood.” In the U.S., that mood was changed on 9/11. For Europe, they’re still reeling from horrific terror attacks in Belgium and France. Open arms leads to economic insufficiency, while also inviting possible terrorist elements that intend to do harm to innocent people. Europe and the U.S. need to vet these people unless we wish to open ourselves up to a potential disaster.

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