Refugee crisis reveals Sweden’s ‘national psychosis’

Exhibition uses black humour to ask questions about split personality of Swedish society

Refugees outside the Swedish Migration Agency’s arrival centre  in Malmo. Photograph: Stig-Ake Jonsson/TT News Agency/Reuters

Refugees outside the Swedish Migration Agency’s arrival centre in Malmo. Photograph: Stig-Ake Jonsson/TT News Agency/Reuters


In Stockholm, even the problem districts have much to offer. Like Botkyrka, a multicultural municipality of 85,000 people where over 100 languages are spoken.

The first glimpse on arrival is a familiar one to any European visitor: motorways and social housing tower blocks that have seen better days.

Then I am reminded I am in Sweden when I see the high-end playground on the shores of a beautiful lake, glistening in the winter sun. In one direction lies a mosque with a white minaret, in the other a bright and bustling multicultural centre.

For years Botkyrka was the Ballymun of Stockholm. But as Sweden struggles with an influx of refugees – nearly 200,000 this year to a country of nine million – central government has headhunted the local politicians here. Their years spearheading integration efforts have made them a hot commodity in Stockholm. But locals in Botkyrka have a refreshingly unSwedish habit of asking important, awkward questions that not everyone in this Nordic nation wants to answer.

Take the multicultural centre’s current exhibition. Provocatively titled National Psychosis, it uses black humour to ask serious questions about the split personality of Swedish society: open and tolerant on the surface and, deeper down, closed and lonely.

“Don’t we think we live in a great country that helps people in tough times, don’t we always hear how good we are?” the exhibition asks visitors on arrival. It’s no secret that most Swedes – and, indeed, much of the world – agree that Sweden is great.

But how much of this perception is real, the exhibition asks, and how much is simply the product of self-perpetuating logic and successful marketing? Sweden hasn’t been to war for 200 years, the exhibition points out but, as the world’s 11th-largest arms exporter, its weapons most certainly have. Swedes are among the world’s loudest, proudest environmentalists – yet also among its biggest meat-eaters.

Attitude to immigration

“Swedish identity – and people’s very firm ideas here of who belongs, who doesn’t and who never will – is the elephant in the room of the refugee debate,” said Irishman Samuel Brett, living in Stockholm and visiting the National Psychosis exhibition. “Unless that is addressed, it has the potential to tear this country apart.”

Sociological surveys reveal Sweden as an outlier nation in Europe: where people are raised to trust the state, but not necessarily each other. What sounds like an academic question has now become a key integration challenge: how to bridge the distance between the Swedes already here – and the 200,000 new arrivals.

Grappling with this question is Leif Magnusson, operations manager of the Botkyrka Multicultural Centre. Ask him what preoccupies him most these days and, unprompted, he mentions the distance that exists between people in Sweden, what he calls “our Swedish culture of loneliness”.

“Where there is a distance, people create their own fantasies about the religion, culture and threat posed by others,” he said. “That’s why we need centres like ours to bring people together.”

In Sweden these days, the strained mood is palpable. Despite long-running rumours of its demise, the Swedish consensus model – high taxes in for a top-drawer social services – seems, to outsider eyes, like a fabulous invalid. On the other hand, the far-right, refugee-critical populists are tipping 20 per cent in polls.

Across the country the same vexing question is being asked: will the arrival of young refugee families mark the last-minute rescue of this ageing welfare society – or place a pillow over its face and press? “We in Sweden are a happy, superficial people,” said Inger Johansson, a translator and intellectual living near the multicultural city of Malmö. “But I don’t know how happy people will be when the first cuts to services become apparent. Either people will commit to this or there will be outright hatred and violence.”

Confidence vs doubt

Of course Sweden is not unique: every country in Europe is susceptible to national narcissism, thus every country needs its own version of Stockholm’s National Psychosis exhibition. The avant garde Swedes may be first, as always, on this, but they won’t be the last in Europe to face a refugee rude awakening.