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Family Migration Policies and Politics: Understanding the Swedish Exception

Year: 2011

Type of text: article

Published by:  Journal of Family Issues. 36(11):1490-1508

Language: English

Author: Karin Borevi

Pages: 19

Available at:

Short description of text

The article analyses and explains the Swedish political approach to family migration from a European comparative point of view. This analysis starts from the notion that internationally Sweden has been known for its liberal refugee policies and has often been presented as a multicultural model for immigrant integration, some commentators have even argued that Sweden is an exception to the “civic integrationist turn” since integration demands and tests carried out in other countries have not been very widely applied in Sweden. In this article the author first discusses differences and similarities of Swedish family migration policies compared to broader European tendencies. The text goes further to try and answer the question why Sweden maintains a policy approach which in some important respects diverges from other European countries. To explain this the text analyses the political processes behind two family migration policy decisions, one in 1997, which severely restricted the eligibility criteria for family migration for members outside the nuclear family, and another in 2010, which introduced financial support requirements for family migration in Sweden. The texts’ answer to this question is by focusing on two points: welfare state ideology and party politics.

Most important results

“The analysis shows that Sweden applies equally strict eligibility rules for members beyond the nuclear family as most other European countries. Moreover, Sweden introduced such stricter rules much earlier than other countries. In other respects, however, Swedish family migration policies stand out as exceptionally liberal in European comparison; few, if any, requirements are imposed on the sponsor and joining family members acquire equal rights status either immediately or 2 years after admission.”

“Swedish regulations as to who are eligible for family migration are not very different from the situation in other European states. While the country belongs to a more liberal cluster of states in defining who belongs to the nuclear family, it seems to have been earlier than several other countries in introducing more restrictive eligibility criteria for family members beyond the nuclear family. Swedish family migration policies however are substantially more liberal than most counterparts across Europe when it comes to the few, or indeed nearly absent, requirements, as well as to the equal rights status immediately acquired by admitted family members.”

In 1997 installing financial requirements, and economic responsibility for the sponsor for family reunification was not taken upon, and much contested. Such requirements were regarded to run counter the prevailing welfare state and immigrant integration principle to treat immigrants on the same terms as natives.

“The 2010 financial support requirements should be considered as an important move in the direction of the general European policy trend to make family migration conditional on the individual having attained certain integration achievements. In practical terms however, the impact of the reform did not alter the strong commitment to the Swedish ideology of welfare state universalism; due to the extensive list of exemptions which the Christian Democratic Party had managed to push through in the coalition government’s process of internal negotiations, extremely few people were affected by the reform.” The article argues that the same welfare state ideology that was in place in 1997 contributes to explicating the particular design of the 2010 requirement which was to demand from a sponsor only to be capable of supporting himself or herself and not also joining family member(s).

Another point that the article makes is regarding party politics. “The conflict lines between parties in the Swedish context—and the absence until recently of a parliamentary right wing populist party—have contributed to a situation where established parties, to a higher degree than many other European countries, have managed to keep the “immigration issue” away from the political debate. Furthermore, when political conflicts over immigration have occurred in Sweden, they have often concerned charges that immigration control is too restrictive, rather than too generous which seems to be the normal pattern in current European politics”. In the case of the 1997 this particular feature of Swedish politics contributed to party political mobilization against the tightening of conditions for family reunification. The author also notes that Swedish family migration policies are intertwined with party competition and coalition strategies demonstrated in the policy processes leading up to the 2010 change in family migration policy.

Theoretical perspective/framework

Inspired by Strasser et al. (2009), the following analysis compares the features of Swedish family migration policy in relation to three analytical questions: Who are eligible for admission on family grounds? What requirements must be fulfilled by the joining family member and/or the sponsor? What rights are joining family members entitled to after admission?


“The article is divided into two sections. The first gives a general picture of how Swedish policies on family migration should be characterized in a comparative European perspective. The second section provides an analysis of the political processes behind two important family migration policy decisions in the Swedish context, namely the 1997 restriction of extended family migration and the 2010 introduction of a condition of economic independence”.

Summarised by: Hammam Skaik