When we study the history of Sweden, we can see how different groups of people have immigrated to this country over hundreds of years.

Some examples of such “historical” immigration would be

  • Germans from the Hanseatic League who came in the Middle Ages
  • Finnish Romans people who came as early as in the 1500s
  • Walloons, who were drawn to Sweden to teach ironmongery in the late 1600s
  • Savonian people, who in the 1600s moved from the (then) eastern half of Sweden, were granted certain tax relief if they settled in the virgin forest – in the area now known as finnmarkerna (land of the Finns)
  • Jews, who were given permission to settle in four Swedish cities in the 1700s
  • French artists, philosophers and intellectuals in the 1700s
  • Italians skilled in stuccowork, when the brick cities were built in the 1800s
  • Scottish people, who among other things started breweries.

The great emigra­tion is a threat to the nation

Even if there has always been immigration to Sweden, the great emigration between the mid-1800s up until 1930 has left the deepest mark on the development of the country and in people's memory. Many families in Sweden still have family ties to the USA, Canada, South America or Australia. Over the course of 100 years, nearly 1,3 million Swedes made their way to those places; their motivation for seeking happiness “over there” included

  • poverty
  • religious persecution
  • a pessimistic view of the future
  • lack of political freedom
  • a sense of adventure and various gold rushes.

World War I in combination with immigration restrictions in the USA slowed down this emigration that was a major social problem in Sweden. As a result of World War II, Sweden went from being an emigration country to an immigration country. Since 1930, but with the exception of a few years in the 1970s, Sweden has always had larger annual immigration than emigration.

War refu­gees and the work­force of the 1950s and 1960s

It was the refugees from Germany, the neighbouring Nordic countries and the Baltics who, over the course of World War II, turned the emigration country Sweden into an immigration country. Many of these refugees returned to their homelands after the war, but many remained; among them were most of the Balts.

After the end of the war it was instead labour immigration from Scandinavia, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey and other countries that took over. Sometimes it would take place under organised forms, through the labour market authority recruitment, but most of the time, people found their way to Sweden on their own.

On 1 July 1969, a new authority was formed: the Swedish Immigration Board, which would work with both integration and immigration matters.

The regu­lated immi­gra­tion of the 1970s

At the end of the '60s, regulated immigration was introduced. Those who wanted to come to Sweden to work had to have proof of both employment offers and housing. The then Immigration Board would perform a labour market assessment, together with labour market parties, and only if Sweden was in need of foreign labour would a permit be granted. If there were unemployed people in Sweden able to perform the job, no residence permit was given.

However, for the following groups, no such labour market assessment was carried out:

  • Citizens of the Nordic countries, who since 1951 have had the right to settle and work in all of the Nordic countries without special permits.
  • Refugees
  • Family members who wanted to unite or reunite in Sweden.

The new, regulated immigration policy had the following consequences in the '70s:

  • Non-Nordic labour immigration was reduced
  • The Nordic, and in particular the Finnish, immigration increased drastically over a few years, and then fell as drastically a few years later when there was an economic boom in Finland.
  • The non-Nordic family reunion immigration, i.e., the immigration of family members increased
  • The refugees came intermittently, most often in direct connection to armed conflict or crises, such as the 1973 military coup in Chile.

The period of residence in order to apply for Swedish citizenship was lowered from seven to five years, two years for citizens of the Nordic countries. The same requirements apply today.

The 1980s – decade of the asylum seekers

In 1985, a new system for the reception of asylum seekers was introduced. The responsibility was handed over from the labour market authorities (AMS) to the Swedish Immigration Board (the predecessor of the Swedish Migration Agency).

In the mid-80s, the number of asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Eritrea began to rise all over Western Europe.

At the end of this decade, asylum seekers also started arriving from Somalia, Kosovo and several of the former Eastern Bloc countries. When the communist oppression fell apart, it became easier for people to leave their countries, while living conditions at first deteriorated rather than improved.

The waiting periods to get a decision became longer, the number of reception centres increased and more people also had their asylum applications rejected, as they had not always been driven away by persecution. Instead, the reason was often poverty, a pessimistic view of the future and a dream that the future would be brighter in Western Europe than at home.

1990s – ethnic clean­sing in the Balkans

The '90s saw both positive and negative experiences. On the positive end of the scale was the end of the Cold War, the democratisation and the growing economic development in several of the earlier communist dictatorships. Several long-term states of war ended, for example in Lebanon, Eritrea, Iran and Iraq, and the number of asylum seekers began to drop.

On the negative end was the breakdown of Yugoslavia and the subsequent division of the land, war, terror and ethnic cleansing. For the first time since World War II, this forced record numbers of people in the middle of Europe to flee. In Sweden, a little over 100,000 people from former Yugoslavia, mainly Bosnians, found a new home.

As the millennium was drawing to a close, Sweden was one of several countries to participate in a joint action, under the leadership of UNHCR, to evacuate 3,600 Kosovo Albanians from Macedonia to Sweden. The intention was to provide them with temporary protection while waiting for their homeland to become a safe place of residence and the rebuilding could start.

In 1995 Sweden joined the EU. In 1999, the European Council set the goal for the EU to develop a common asylum and migration policy over time.

In 1997, more restrictive provi­sions with regard to immi­gra­tion of family members

The age limit for family reunification was lowered to apply to children under the age of 18, as opposed to the previous age limit of 20. The possibility of elderly parents, especially widows and widowers, to reunite with their children in Sweden was removed. The provision regarding the “last link of the family chain” was also removed; this link often being a single, adult sibling who had been left behind in the homeland when the other siblings and parents moved to Sweden.

Lack of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion docu­ments is a growing problem

In 1992, a total of 84,000 people, mainly from former Yugoslavia, sought asylum in Sweden. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of asylum seekers was fairly low, once the open acts of war had seized in the former Yugoslavia. In 2000, the numbers rose again, and the level of asylum-based immigration has continued to be high ever since, with the exception of 2005 and 2006, when a temporary dip was noted.

As seen from statistics from previous years, the number of asylum seekers has changed fairly drastically over the years.

One problem was (and is) that more and more people are without identification and travel documents, which makes the asylum examination complicated and drawn-out. As fewer and fewer cases led to a residence permit, the lack of documents also became a hindrance to implementing the refusal-of-entry decisions that were made. In the Board's reception systems, the number of people with decisions for refusal-of-entry increased, and they could not be forced to return.

The EU coope­ra­tion emerges in the 2000s

In the spring of 2001 Sweden joined the Schengen cooperation, which opened the borders between the then 13 Schengen countries, and meant that these countries would grant entry visas for the entire Schengen area.

An increasing number of EU citizens made their way to Sweden to work for shorter or longer periods of time.

In 2001 the Act on Swedish Citizenship changes entailed the possibility of holding a dual citizenship, meaning that it is now possible for a person to keep their old citizenship when becoming a Swedish citizen.

At the end of 2005, the Swedish Parliament introduced a provisional act according to which persons have been refused entry but have not left Sweden can have their cases reassessed by the Migration Agency.

A little over 30,000 people who had previously been refused entry were assessed in accordance with the provisional act, of whom around 8,000 had kept hidden in the country.

In March 2006 one of the largest judicial reforms in decades was implemented when the Aliens Appeals Board of Sweden, the authority that used to assess appeals of the Migration Agency´s decisions, was closed and replaced by three Migration Courts and one Migration Court of Appeal. (Since 2013 there are four Migration Courts.)

1 July 2006 Swedish legislation was changed to make the municipalities responsible for accommodating unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. This was previously the responsibility of the Migration Agency. The number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum increased during this time, from around 400 per year to several thousands, which put a great deal of strain on the municipalities.

The 2010s

In August 2010 the right of asylum-workers to work during the processing period was established, under certain conditions, e.g., that the person is able to prove their identity. In accordance with earlier legislation, the Migration Agency would only grant the person an exemption from the obligation to hold a work permit if the processing of the matter was deemed to take longer than four months.

In 2011 the universities and other higher education institutions introduced fees for students from outside of the EU. This cut the number of visiting students down from around 13,000 to around 6,000 per year.

As of 1 July 2013 people who are residing in Sweden without permission are entitled to the same subsidised health and medical care as asylum seekers, i.e., emergency care. Children who are residing in the country without permission are entitled to full health and medical care, including dental care.

In September 2013 The Migration Agency grants permanent residence permits to all Syrian and stateless persons who have arrived from the war-torn Syria.

2015 – the refugee crisis

12 November 2015 Sweden introduced temporary border controls. The aim was to reduce the number of asylum seekers. At the end of the year 162,877 persons had applied for asylum in Sweden. Many (51,338) came from war-torn Syria.

2016 – Sweden goes from having the EU’s most gene­rous asylum laws to the minimum EU level

4 January 2016 Sweden introduced temporary identity checks in order to try to reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to Sweden.

1 March 2016 A joint responsibility for receiving newcomers to the country, draft legislation 2015:33. All municipalities are compelled to receive a portion of the refugees.

1 June 2016 Change in the Reception of Asylum Seekers Act (LMA), etc. An asylum seeker who has received a negative response to his/her asylum application loses the right to aid if he/she does not leave the country voluntarily. An asylum seeker who has received a definitive decision stating that he/she is to be expelled or deported loses the right to a daily allowance, and to asylum accommodation paid for by the Swedish Migration Agency. Families with children under 18 will still have the right to aid until they leave Sweden.

20 July 2016 – New tempo­rary law – valid until July 2019

(the law is extended until 19 July 2021)
In previous legislation, all persons in need of protection generally received a permanent residence permit. Now, everyone who applies for and is given asylum receives a temporary residence permit. Persons who are granted refugee status receive a 3-year residence permit. Persons granted subsidiary protection status receive 13-month residence permits. If the reasons for the person’s protection remain valid when the residence permit expires, he or she may apply for an extended residence permit.

Quota refugees may still receive a permanent residence permit.

Limited opportunity for family reunification: The opportunity for family reunification is restricted to those who have refugee status who have received a 3-year permit. Refugees must be able to support both themselves and their family who receive a residence permit. It is also necessary for the family to have a residence of sufficient size and of adequate standard.

July 2019 – the temporary law is extended to 19 July 2021
When the temporary law is extended in July 2019, the right to family reunification also includes persons granted subsidiary protection status, if they are deemed to have good chances of receiving a permanent residence permit.

New law on upper secondary education. From July to the end of September 2018 some young people whose application for asylum had been refused, were able to apply for residence permits for studies at upper secondary level. One of the conditions was that their asylum application must have been submitted before 24 November 2015, and that they had been waiting for more than 15 months for a decision.

Those who were granted a residence permit for upper secondary education received permits for 13 months with the possibility to extend the permit if the requirements were met.

Total number of applications: 11,745.

Last updated: 2020-09-10