Refugees: Welcome to Sweden, You’ll Get a Job in a Decade

Social media star Mahmoud Bitar amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook in his flight from Syria to Sweden. Now, he posts videos joking about life as a refugee near the town of Oerebro.

Bitar is getting many offers to work as an actor, but can only “eat and sleep” as he waits for a residence permit. “It’s not as easy to live in Sweden as you may dream of,” said Bitar, who worked in a hotel in Aleppo before fleeing in a trek that took him through the Middle East, Turkey and Greece on his way to Scandinavia.

He could be one of the lucky ones as soon as he gets his residence permit, in a year or so. But if the past is anything to go by, about half of the refugees arriving today in the Nordic nation will still be unemployed by 2025.

The country of 10 million people has over the past decade become a haven for those fleeing conflict in the Middle East, first from Iraq and now from Syria. The nation accepted about 80,000 Iraqis since early last decade and has welcomed about 100,000 Syrians since 2011.

Yet Sweden has had limited success in absorbing its new countrymen and women. According to the National Audit Office, only 53 percent of refugees who arrived in 2003 had found jobs by 2013. Of those who arrived two years ago, only about 30 percent are now employed.  Sweden’s unemployment rate is currently 7 percent.

The pressure on the labor market and the economy as a whole is getting more and more critical. With 7,000 refugees arriving in Sweden last week alone, the government said Friday it was trying to find room in former prisons and buildings managed by state-owned companies to house people. About 100,000 people are stuck in the asylum system.

Contrasting views

Public opinion is divided. An Ipsos poll released over the weekend showed 44 percent of Swedes accept more refugees versus 30 percent who want fewer. And the population is growing more polarized, with support flocking to the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party that won 13 percent in last year’s election.

Oscar Sjoestedt, economic policy spokesman for the Sweden Democrats, said the Swedish system isn’t set up to handle large waves of refugees since it doesn’t have an “American model with low-wage jobs.”

“Overall, in groups with low education levels, also those born in Sweden, the unemployment rate is high,” he said. “That obviously goes for those who are born in other countries. It’s just that a significant part of those who come here have only primary education.”

The government, which took power last year, is now working on getting refugees into jobs faster, for example through tailor-made education for professions to improve matching.

“It shouldn’t have to take that long,” Migration Minister Morgan Johansson said. “We see that those who arrive from Syria are quite highly educated, and for them it’s mainly about learning Swedish.”

The government will also increase the number of places in education and vocational training to about 83,000 in 2019 from the planned 56,000 in 2016. Many in Sweden are also welcoming much-needed labor to tackle a looming demographic hump.

“We have high unemployment, but we also have 80,000 available jobs and a shortage in some professions,” Johansson said.

Swedish companies are welcoming the inflow, in particular the highly-skilled people from Syria.

Ameer Abdulal, 35, who has a masters degree in business administration and has worked in sales and marketing in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, came to Sweden last year. After working five months in a restaurant in Stockholm and applying for 40 jobs without getting any interviews, he’s now in a one-month internship program at steelmaker SSAB.

“It’s not easy to find a job matching your qualifications and education,” Abdulal said. “Thankfully, I’m now working almost in the same field that I studied and worked in before.”

Skills needed

Finding skilled workers is a “question of survival,” said Monika Gutén, SSAB’s head of human resources. That was one of the reasons the company recently started a project to hire refugees as interns, she said.

SSAB can’t simply move its steel factories if it’s unable to find people with the right skills, Gutén said.  “There is a giant need for us to find engineers who can supplement their education with Swedish language skills.”

Learning the language, that’s exactly what Bitar needs, he said. “I hope that they will expedite the residence permit process because I’m here to work and pay taxes, not here to sit back and relax at the camp,” he said. Bloomberg