Empowering Migrants for Employment EME


Migration in Sweden

Linda Stenström

Swedish migration history

From the mid-1800s up until 1930, about 1.3 million Swedish people emigrated to North America. This emigration left one of the deepest marks on the development of Sweden. Among the motivations for it were poverty, religious persecution, a pessimistic view of the future, lack of political freedom, and 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. In the wake of World War II, Sweden went from being an out-migration country to an in-migration country as refugees from Germany, the Nordic countries, and the Baltic states arrived. Since 1930, with the exception of a few years in the 1970s, Sweden has always had higher annual immigration than emigration.

In the late ’60s, a new authority was formed: the Swedish Immigration Board (the predecessor of the Swedish Migration Agency), and also regulated immigration was introduced. Those who wanted to come to Sweden to work had to have proof of both employment offers and housing, and they were permitted to come only if the work couldn’t be done by unemployed Swedish people. People from the Nordic countries and refugees were not covered by this regulation, and the situation led to massive immigration from Finland and also from Chile (due to the 1973 military coup).

The term of residence required before application for Swedish citizenship was reduced from seven to five years, or two years for citizens of Nordic countries. The same requirements apply today.

In 1985, a new system for the reception of asylum-seekers was introduced. 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.

In the ’90s, Sweden received about 100,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia, on account of the Balkan conflict.

In 2015, many refugees from the Middle East came to Sweden in response to war and terrorism. By the end of the year, nearly 163,000 persons had applied for asylum in Sweden, with about 51,000 of them being from Syria. Then, 2016 saw Sweden go from having the EU’s most generous asylum laws to representing the minimum EU level, because of various changes in the legislation – for example, imposing temporary border controls, temporary residence permits, and limited opportunities for family reunification – all to reduce the number of asylum-seekers. On 1 March 2016, legislation was passed on joint responsibility for receiving newcomers to the country, and all municipalities are now compelled to receive a certain proportion of the refugees. In 2019, the number of asylum‑seekers in Sweden was roughly 22,000, with Syria, Iran, and Iraq being the main contributors.

Immigration of family members has for several years been the most common reason for migration to Sweden. As of 2019, labour-market reasons are the most common reason for people not born in Europe to seek a permit to move to Sweden.

Demographics of foreign-born people in Sweden

In 2019, about two million people in Sweden were foreign-born. That amounts to about 20% of the population. Most of these people are from Syria (about 191,000), followed by Iraq, Finland, Poland, and Iran.

Figure 1. The development of foreign-born-resident numbers in Sweden, 1900–2019

The foreign-born population is largest around the three biggest cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö. In the Stockholm region, about 26% are foreign-born; a contrast is provided by Norrbotten (where Piteå is situated), where the foreign-born population is only 12%. Only about 7% of those in the municipality of Piteå are foreign‑born.

Figure 2. The percentage of foreign-born people by region, 2019

Employment for foreign-born people

In 2019, the percentage of employed persons between 15 and 74 years old in Sweden was 70.3% for people born in Sweden and 61.6% for foreign-born people. People who have lived in Sweden for only a short time show the lowest employment rate, but employment rates have increased in all groups since 2000. The largest increase is visible among people born outside Europe who have been in Sweden for at least 10 years. According to Statistics Sweden, the most common occupations in Sweden are assistant nurse in home care or in residential care for the elderly, salesperson, and primary-school teacher. Among people born outside Europe, cleaners followed by assistant nurses account for the most common occupations. Nearly 60% of all cleaners in Sweden are foreign-born.

In 2019, Sweden’s overall unemployment rate was 6.8%. For people born in Sweden, the figure was 4.4% and for foreign-born people it was 15.1%.

Figure 3. Employment and unemployment rate by national origin, 2005–2019

How long one has lived in Sweden has consequences for one’s integration into the society. The most visible differences are seen in education, employment and work conditions, the economy, housing, and democratic participation. The group of people born outside Europe with 0–9 years’ residence in Sweden is distinguishable from other migrant groups by, for example, lower school results, a weaker position in the labour market, lower income, and a higher percentage of overcrowding. The most common national origin for this group is Syrian (28%), and the most typical age is 20–39 years. For those migrants born outside Europe and having lived for more than 10 years in Sweden, school results, labour-market position, economic status, and level of crowding in living conditions are better than those displayed by people in the above-mentioned group. This demonstrates the meaning of the time it takes to become included in the society. A third of the people in the second group are from Iran or Iraq, and about half of them have lived in Sweden for more than 20 years.

Integration services

The Swedish Migration Agency handles applications from people who want to live in Sweden and apply for Swedish citizenship. The Swedish public employment service and the municipalities have separate responsibilities for integration for newcomers, with the public employment service having a responsibility for co-ordinating integration into the labour market while the municipalities are responsible, for example, for housing and education in the Swedish language. Newly arrived immigrants participate in the establishment programme that the Swedish public employment service manages. The programme is for someone who has been granted a residence permit as a refugee, a person with subsidiary protection status, or a family member.


Statistics Sweden. 
Statistics Sweden. Integration – a Description of the Situation in Sweden, Integration: Report 13.
Swedish Migration Agency.