Migration in Sweden

From the mid-1800s up until 1930 about 1,3 millon Swedish people emigrated to North America. This emigration left one of the deepest marks on the delveopement of Sweden. The motivation for emigration was for example 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 the 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 when refugees from Germany, the Nordic countries and Balticum came to Sweden. Since 1930, with the exception of a few years in the 1970s, Sweden has always had larger annual immigration than emigration.

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

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.

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.

In the ‘90s Sweden received about 100 000 refugees from former Yogoslavia, due to the Balkan war.

In 2015 a lot of refugees from the Middle east came to Sweden due to war and terrorism. At the end of 2015 almost 163 000 persons had applied for asylum in Sweden and about 51 000 of them was from Syria. 2016 Sweden goes from the EU:s most generous asylum laws to the minimum EU level due to some changes in the legislation, for example temporary border controls, temporary recidence permit and limited opportunity for family reunion. All to reduce the number of asylum seekers. 1 March 2016 a joint responsibility for receiving newcomers to the country is legislated and all municipalities are compelled to receive a portion of the refugees. 2019 the number of asylum seekers in Sweden was almost 22 000 people, mostly from Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Immigration of family members have for several years been the most common reason for migration to Sweden. From 2019 labour market reasons is the most common reason for people not born in Europe to search for a permit to move to Sweden. 

Demographics of foreign-born people in Sweden

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

Figure 1. The development of foreign-born residents in Sweden 1900-2019












The foreign-born population is biggest around the three biggest cities Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. In the Stockholm region about 26 % is foreign-born, to compare with Norrbotten (where Piteå is situated) where the foreign-born population is only 12 %. In the municipality of Piteå there are only about 7 % foreign-born.

Employment for foreign-born people 

2019 the percentage of employed persons in Sweden between 15-74 years old were 70,3 % for people born in Sweden and 61,6 % for foreign-born people. For people with a short period of living in Sweden the employment rate are the lowest, but since year 2000 the employment rate have increased in all groups. The largest increase is in the group born outside Europe that has been at least 10 years in Sweden. According to Statistics Sweden, the most common occupations in Sweden are assistant nurses in home care or elderly residential care, sellers and elementary school teachers. For people born outside Europe cleaners followed by assistant nurses are the most common occupation. Nearly 60 % of all cleaners in Sweden are foreign-born. 

2019 the unemployment rate in Sweden was 6,8 % in total. For people born in Sweden the number was 4,4 % and for foreign-born people the number were 15,1 %.

Figure about Employment and unemployment rate

 Figure 2. Employment and unemployment rate by origin 20052019

Integration services

The Swedish Migration Agency are handling applications from people who want to live in Sweden and apply for Swedish citizenship. The Swedish public employment service and the municipalities have different responsibilities for integration for newcomers where the Swedish public employment service have a coordination responsibility for integration to the labour market and the municipalities, for example, are responsible for housing and Swedish education. Newly arrived immigrants participate in the establishment programme that the Swedish public employment service manage. The programme is for people that have been granted a residence permit as a refugee, a person with subsidiary protection status or a family member.

Linda Stenström
Quality and EU coordinator
Piteå Municipality

Statistics Sweden
Statistics Sweden, Integration – A description of the situation in Sweden, Integration: Report 13

Swedish Migration Agency