The Swedish Model Isn’t Only Economics, It’s Generosity to Migrants

Culture leaders and celebrities are reminding everyone that asylum seekers aren’t terrorists but are among the first victims of terror.

David Stavrou
David Stavrou
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People taking part in a candlelight rally in solidarity with migrants seeking asylum in Europe, Stockholm, September 14, 2015.
People taking part in a candlelight rally in solidarity with migrants seeking asylum in Europe, Stockholm, September 14, 2015.Credit: AFP
David Stavrou
David Stavrou

In many ways, Europe won’t be the same after last Friday’s attacks in Paris. Security arrangements, border policy and multiculturalism will all be affected.

In Sweden, one of Europe’s leaders in absorbing migrants, the art and culture world has mobilized to support the government’s generous policies and attempts to raise awareness. And now, following the Paris attacks, culture leaders and celebrities are reminding everyone that the migrants aren’t terrorists but are among the first victims of terror.

“This is our most political year,” says Git Scheynius, director of the annual Stockholm International Film Festival. The event, which runs until November 22, is dedicated to migration.

“The documentaries we’ll show will help people know the facts, and the feature films will deepen human understanding,” she says, noting that there’s also a new competitive category of films on current events and human rights. “Films can alter social reality,” Scheynius says.

Over the summer, the migrant issue reached Swedish popular culture as well. At the end of September a fundraiser was held for the UN refugee agency and the Red Cross.

Politicians, intellectuals and artists volunteered in a concert that raised around $5 million. Singers performed who usually shun political events. There were speeches criticizing the government for not doing enough for migrants.

Bjorn Wiman, the culture editor at Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.Credit: DN

Despite its image as a serene, even dull country, Sweden is enduring dramatic times. It’s one of the few European countries to openly invite asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa. In recent months, 1,000 migrants a day have entered the country, with 190,000 expected for all of 2015.

So Sweden, with a population of 10 million, is investing energy and resources to absorb the newcomers. Swedes generally support the government’s generous migration policies, and many people volunteer to help.

But there are also opponents. Support for the Sweden Democrats, a party that wants to keep the gates closed, has climbed to 20 percent, and in recent weeks absorption centers have been set on fire. Last month a far rightist killed a student and teacher in a school where many students are children of migrants.

In these circumstances, artists and culture leaders have become more dominant in public debates, notes Bjorn Wiman, the culture editor at Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

“The first serious articles I ever commissioned as an editor were on the era of population migrations that we’re now in. Cultural figures in Sweden have taken a clear humane position stressing that all human values are equally valuable,” he says.

“This is expressed in books, films and plays. We’ve been aware of the situation for a long time now; we’ve known that the current crisis was bound to happen because of the global movement of people.”

Git Scheynius, director of the Stockholm International Film Festival.

In addition to the concert fundraiser, other events have abounded in recent weeks. Churches have held musical charity events, a Stockholm photography museum is exhibiting pictures on children who have fled Syria, the national theater is holding discussions on Roma who wander Europe begging for alms in its streets.

And last week, Stockholm’s municipal theater held a series of events for child asylum seekers who have reached Sweden without their families.

“The movies don’t only deal with emotions but tackle questions of morality and the wider aspects of the problem,” says Scheynius, the director of the Stockholm film festival.

She cites the film “Lampedusa in Winter,” an Italian-Austrian-Swiss production that tells about the receiving community, not just the migrants, and the Swedish film “In Search of a Better Life,” which follows Gypsy women beggars on a trip back to their homes and families in Romania.

Sweden’s cultural community isn’t ignoring political and economic aspects of the crisis. The highlight of the September charity concert was a lecture by researcher Hans Rosling, who discussed the political and economic implications of Syria’s refugee crisis.

Wiman, the culture editor at Dagens Nyheter, says the mission is to make clear that the crisis was inevitable. “The state of these refugees is connected to the climate crisis, to political crises and to wars,” he says.

“Migration is a natural human response. Borders are unnatural, having been defined based on political and economic power. As intellectuals we have to say this.”

Dagens Nyheter is taking this seriously. In early September it declared its support for generosity and humaneness and opposition to hatred and racism. The small notice was crafted by Wiman and the paper’s editor-in-chief.

It was signed by 100 influential Swedes in culture, the arts, sports, academia, religion and politics (including all living former prime ministers). Among the signatories were members of ABBA, soccer player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the musician Avicii and members of the Wallenberg family.

Comparing Sweden and Israel’s reaction to asylum seekers is a bit difficult because of the differences between the two societies and of course the geopolitical differences. Still, to understand Sweden’s position, imagine if twice as many migrants as are now in Israel entered the country within a few months.

Imagine the public response being a national mobilization to absorb them, costing tens of millions of shekels. Events would be held at the Habima Theater, the Tel Aviv Museum, the Israel Festival and on Channel 2 to raise funds and increase awareness.

Imagine a petition for equality – let’s say in Haaretz – signed by 100 influential Israelis including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, soccer player Eran Zahavi, singer Shlomo Artzi, author Amos Oz, tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva, the chief rabbis and the president of the Technion technology institute.

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