Walking around Stockholm, there was something immediately obvious: this was not one of the homogeneous societies I had become accustomed to. In Korea, one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, it was strange to see anyone who didn’t look predictably Korean. I even developed an eye for spotting facial differences between Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. As I passed through Mongolia, I couldn’t help but think that everyone looked like the stereotypical Mongol, and their shared heritage with Ghengis Khan and the Mongol empire is a proud one. Once I crossed into Russia, the faces made an abrupt change to the expected sharp features and light skin. Even through Estonia, Finland, and northern Sweden and Norway, people overwhelmingly fit the European stereotype.
Stockholm was very different. Particularly in the area where my host lived, the train was full of people of dark skin, light skin, curly hair, straight hair, religious attire, thick beards, hard features, soft features, big eyes, small eyes, long noses, crooked noses, on and on. I heard languages from the all-too-familiar accentless American English to unidentifiable Middle Eastern and African dialects.
This was exactly the feature I was on the lookout for when I arrived in Sweden. With the rise of anti-immigration sentiment across the US and Europe, there has been a lot of rhetoric coming through the media about the dangers of Sweden’s open-door policy. Sweden and Germany were taking the lead in hospitality toward the refugees fleeing the exceedingly violent Middle East. It seems, though, that people are fearing that Sweden has reached its limit.
The rise of the Sweden Democrats, a political party with roots in the Nazi Party, illustrates the rapidly changing opinions toward immigration. Recent legislation has clamped down on immigration numbers, reverting to an “EU minimum.” (I’m still trying to determine exactly what that means.) Border security has risen with officials checking documents of even the Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes who commute daily across what had been invisible borders.
The most credible fear I have heard is the problem of integration. With such a rapid influx of refugees, communities of these newcomers have sprung up, making neighborhoods much like the Little Italy or China Town of large American urban centers. This phenomenon is only retarding the process of integration of refugees as they find comfortable places without the need for learning Swedish or adapting to cultural norms. The economic and social impacts are still yet to be fully seen.
Based on my personal observations and conversations with locals, the influx has been mostly transparent. Social safety nets and public services are still in place and functioning normally. There are some levels of apparent homelessness, but from my observations, it’s far less than any large American city. Anyone in Sweden who needs a roof and place to sleep can find one. The streets of Stockholm are dotted with beggars, but they are overwhelmingly old Roma women, a group that has been disenfranchised for centuries. I even heard the claim that these women are often on tourist visas, and will return to their homes in Eastern Europe after a brief collection of donations.
I’m unsure of the economic specifics, but from all observable criteria, Sweden is handling the influx of migrants and refugees just fine. Certainly it would help if they could share the burden with the rest of the developed world, but the recent decision to shut the door seems premature.
On my last night in Stockholm, I attended a rally protesting the new legislation. They chose the location because it was the same spot where government officials had gathered this summer to express their willingness to help refugees. Unfortunately, the number of motivated young Swedes willing to brave the cold to show their solidarity was pitifully small, perhaps a couple hundred at most.
It appears that Sweden has caved in to pressures of the rest of the jingoistic and fearful developed world. Their intentions were noble, but they just couldn’t go it alone.
Politics aside, Stockholm is a beautiful city. Its cobblestone streets and ancient architecture give it an exotic charm. Even at the end of autumn, the streets of Gamla Stan, the city center, were crawling with tourists.
Even though the light was limited, and the sun peaked only a few degrees above the horizon, I thoroughly enjoyed wandering this amazing city.