Understanding Sweden’s diversity

Migration: Understanding Sweden’s Diversity

You might be surprised that Sweden’s cultural landscape is a lot more diverse than you think, shares Lola A. Åkerström, about migration in Sweden.

Kamran Assadzadeh, an intensive care nurse at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm

Kamran Assadzadeh, an intensive care nurse at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.  Photo by Lola A. Åkerström

For decades, the global image of Swedes has often been associated with tall blue-eyed blondes. However, the country is a lot more culturally diverse than you might expect. Sure, Sweden still has its fair share of leggy blondes but it also has a large number of ethnic migrants who have lived in the country for at least two or three generations, and who contribute to all aspects of society – from entertainment to business – making Sweden a richer place to live in terms of culture.

From prominent Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović, born to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother to Swedish pop star and Eurovision winner Loreen whose parents are first generation Moroccans, roughly 20 per cent of Swedish citizens and residents come from a different ethnic background.

The word “migration” itself covers both the concept of emigrating from Sweden (emigration) as well as immigrating to Sweden (immigration), and to start understanding migration in Sweden and how this has changed, it’s important to look at various key timelines that have helped shaped the country’s diversity.

For centuries, there has been a lot of migration – mostly with the emigration of Swedes in the 1800s and early 1900s to the return of Swedes in the 2000s as well as immigration of large cultural groups from South America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Africa over the last 30-40 years.

Founded in 1969, the Swedish Immigration Board which is now known as the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket) was commissioned by the Swedish Parliament and government to track as well as handle Sweden’s migration policies which cover refugees, immigration, emigration, repatriation support, and international cooperation.

Jorma Latva, who moved from Finland during the peak of the big work migration to Sweden, as a 21-year-old in 1968.

Jorma Latva, who moved from Finland during the peak of the big work migration to Sweden, as a 21-year-old in 1968. Photo by Lola A. Åkerström

Key timelines for migration

While Sweden is currently seeing some of its highest immigration to date, the Swedish Migration Board also keeps some historical records to give an insight into how the country’s cultural landscape has changed over the centuries.

Historic migration

During the Middle Ages, Germans from the Hanseatic League – Germanic merchant trading communities – were the largest immigrant group into Sweden followed by the Finnish people who settled in Sweden in the 1500s. Romani people starting migrating as early as the 1500s while Walloons, which are French-speaking people from Belgium immigrated in the late 1600s as Sweden’s iron industry began to develop.

Other key groups that came into the country were Jews who started arriving in the 1700s alongside French artists and intellectuals. Once brick buildings started popping up all over the country, Italian workers skilled in bricklaying and stuccowork started moving in.

1800s – 1930

But no migration event has left a bigger mark on Sweden’s cultural landscape than the great emigration of Swedes to the Americas and Australia between the 1800s up until 1930. For over a century, 1.3 million native Swedes left the country to escape poverty and religious persecution, and to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

1950s – 1960s

For decades, Sweden was mostly an emigrating country until refugees escaping World War II (WWII) began to slowly change Sweden back into an immigrating country which is what it is today. Migrants from Germany, and other Nordic and Baltic countries made up the bulk of immigrants. While many Germans and Scandinavians returned home after the war, many immigrants from the Baltics remained.

The next set of migrants during these decades were workers from Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and other Balkan countries who came looking for job opportunities once WWII was over.


To combat the rapid raise of immigration, the Swedish Migration Board began to regulate the process especially when it came to workers. People were required to start showing proof of any employment offers, financial support, and housing arrangements before they were granted permits to move into the country.

Vildana Aganović. She is an established freelance journalist living in Borås, a city in the south-west of Sweden that she now calls home. A lot has happened since she first arrived in Sweden with her family in 1992, as a teenage refugee from the Bosnian War.

Vildana Aganović is an established freelance journalist living in Borås, a city in the south-west of Sweden that she now calls home. A lot has happened since she first arrived in Sweden with her family in 1992, as a teenage refugee from the Bosnian War. Photo by Lola A. Åkerström


“From a European perspective, Sweden is a primary destination and recipient country for asylum seekers,” shares Fredrik Bengtsson, Director of the Press Office at the Swedish Migration Board.

The rise of asylum seekers escaping oppressive dictatorships and communism began in the 1980s when Sweden saw some of its highest immigration from countries like Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Eritrea, and Somalia as well as South American countries which had repressive regimes.

This was also when Silvio Durán Michea, a graphic designer originally from Chile, immigrated to Sweden where he has now been living for close to 30 years. “When I moved here from Chile, “shares Durán Michea, “it was during the time of the Pinochet dictatorship, and coming to Sweden to stay gave me security and order which I like.”

The 1990s brought massive immigration from the Balkans during the ethnic cleansing wars with over 100,000 Bosnians being granted asylum in Sweden alongside 3,600 Kosovo Albanians.


When Sweden joined the Schengen cooperation, this meant open borders between the country and other European Union (EU) member states and an influx of other European citizens into the country looking for work and love. Refugees from active war zones like Syria continue to immigrate to Sweden.

In 2013, there were over 50,000 asylum seekers with the five largest groups represented being from Syria, Eritrea, people with no state or country (Stateless), Somalia, and Afghanistan.

But one of the largest immigrant group into Sweden are actually returning Swedes. According to the government, roughly 20,500 Swedish citizens returning home were the single largest immigrant group in 2012; accounting for about 16-17 per cent of total immigration.


Samir Mutawi, a film producer and production manager. Originally Palestinian, she comes from Jordan and has dual British–Jordanian citizenship. Photo by Lola A. Åkerström

Main reasons for migration today

There are five main reasons migration continues heavily in Sweden:

Migrating to be with close family

People migrating to reunite with close family members remain one of the largest immigrant groups into the country. Thousands of people are granted permits to Sweden to come live with their families and close relatives, and the top nationalities represented were Somalia, Iraq, Thailand, and more recently, Syria.

Work opportunities

Sweden’s booming start-up and technology industry means lots of foreign workers especially in the IT field are looking for lucrative job opportunities in the country. The top three countries of work permit applicants are Thailand, India, and China represented in the immigrating workforce.


Often called love refugees, these are immigrants who come to Sweden after falling in love with a Swede or Swedish citizen while visiting or abroad. They are usually grouped as coming to live with their families or close relatives, but these set of immigrants are a distinct group in that their reason for migrating is often newly found love.


Chinese students remain the largest group of migrants to Sweden who come to further their studies, followed by Turkish and American students.


Because Sweden signed the UN Convention on refugees, this means that country has vowed to examine and grant asylum to people recognised as refugees according to the Convention.  Sweden was the first country in the EU to grant all asylum seekers from Syria permanent residence permits.

While not a reason for migration, tourism to Sweden is steadily increasing. In terms of visitors to the country, the highest numbers of tourists are Russians, followed by Chinese and Indians. Tourism often becomes a precursor to immigration when visitors explore the country and decide they’d like to come back to study, work, or be with a love interest they met while on vacation.

Learn more about the interactive Migration in Sweden multimedia project I contributed to in partnership with the Swedish Institute.


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Author: Lola A. Åkerström

Lola Akinmade Åkerström is an award-winning writer, photographer, and travel blogger, and is also the Founder/Editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm. Her photography is represented by National Geographic Creative. She tweets at @LolaAkinmade.

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