A visual history of "multiculturalism" in Sweden - and the society's attitude towards it

By Karthik Muthuswamy

Sweden is one of the most multicultural countries in Europe today, with more than a quarter of its population being of foreign background.

This can be traced back to the 1970s when the labour migrants that came from various European countries became a sizeable population in Sweden. In 1975, the Swedish parliament - led by the Social Democrats and the prime minister at the time, Olof Palme - made a decision in favour of a new immigrant and minority policy and opted for multiculturalism.

Mahama Tawat, Associate professor at Jönköping University, said: “Multiculturalism is used in reference to ethnic pluralism in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. The policy aims to give recognition and promote immigrants’ culture (practices and beliefs) by giving them official group rights, institutionalised in policies and the constitution. In addition, it also aims to give financial support to their ethnic associations, newspapers, festivals, mother language teaching, etc.”

Thus Sweden, along with Canada and Australia, became one of the first countries in the West to adopt this idea formally. Since then, immigration to Sweden has been steadily increasing.

In recent years, “the political and media discourse has focused on the shortcomings of Swedish immigration policies. This discourse has negatively affected public opinion and Sweden has experienced a steady increase in sympathy for anti-immigration policies”, according to a study on attitudes towards immigration and ethnic diversity.

A brief look before the 1970s

Before the second world war, the social democrat concept of Folkhemmet (the people’s homes) aimed to modernize society while diminishing the impact of social class. Assimilation, as opposed to integration, was the political stance regarding immigrants. Sweden was largely culturally and linguistically homogeneous at this time except for the Sami and Tornedalian minorities.

After the war, Sweden opened its borders primarily for labour immigration.

In the 1950s and 1960s, migrant workers moved from Finland and other European countries. By the end of 1970, the share of the foreign-born population was nearly 7%, and almost all of them were from Europe.

In 1975, the Swedish parliament voted for multiculturalism. The following years saw a transition from a labour-based to a refugee-based immigration. People primarily came from the Middle East, South America and Yugoslavia.

Sweden joined the European Union In 1995 and the Schengen area in 2001. Following this, Sweden received more immigrants from Europe. By the end of 2010, nearly 15% of the population were foreign-born of which 6% were from outside Europe.

The 2010s saw more than 100k immigrants moving to Sweden each year reaching the peak of 163k in 2016 during the Syrian civil war. By the end of 2021, nearly 20% of the population was born abroad.

Today, the population of Sweden is nearly 10.5 million of which around 2.1 million (20%) are foreign-born. They represent more than 180 nationalities, making Sweden one of the most diverse countries in the world.

In addition to the 20% foreign-born people, 6% of the Swedish population are born in Sweden to two foreign-born parents. Thus more than a quarter are of foreign background.

Attitudes towards immigration and ethnic diversity

"Sweden has had a generous migration policy for a relatively long time" and has experienced a steady increase in the share of population with foreign backgrounds. While the integration issues remain, "the anti-immigration political parties, have focused on the shortcomings of Swedish immigration policies". The Diversity Barometer survey (2005 to 2020) from the study on attitudes towards immigration showed "a positive trend in Swedes’ attitudes up to 2014. The subsequent years showed an increased negativity explained by the refugee crisis in 2015 when Sweden received many refugees. Negative public and political discourse about refugees, and restrictive immigration policies in Sweden are also attributed to the refugee crisis". However, the study also showed that "the attitude has become more positive in the recent years. This is especially seen among the people "that have the experience of working/studying and socialize frequently with people of foreign background".

"Positive attitudes were more established among women, younger people, those with higher education, people living in larger cities and those with more contact with people with foreign background."

The study further showed that "a negative assessment of the cultural consequences of immigration is a reason for the deteriorating attitudes towards immigration. The negative attitudes of the working class and their decision to vote for right-wing populist parties are mainly due to considering the nation’s culture at threat from immigration. "Today, Sweden is facing augmentation of anti-immigration political parties and groups. Extreme attitudes towards ethnic diversity risk increasing polarization (...) which in turn may complicate integration and cohesion."

These positive and negative attitudes will play a vital role in the upcoming elections.

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Method and data

Data can be found here and here. Note that Oceania represents less than 0.1% of the population and hence is not shown in the graphs.

Do you want to give feedback or just want to discuss something? Did you find something interesting while exploring the graphs? It is potentially a new story! Your thoughts/suggestions are highly valuable to me - don’t hesitate to contact me.

Visualisation made with Flourish and Scrollama.

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