Here's Why Sweden is Reversing Course on Refugees

Study finds dramatic differences in spending across Europe

Migrants register at the central mosque in Stockholm, on Oct. 15, 2015.

Photographer: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

It wasn’t long ago that Sweden prided itself on offering one of the world’s most generous asylum policies. But that was before the Syrian conflict created the biggest migration push into Europe since World War II.

Having received the highest share of refugees per capita, Sweden is now tightening the rules. Its migration agency says it may have to reject nearly half of the 163,000 asylum applications it received in 2015.

Here’s one clue on why they’re doing it:

The average cost of welcoming asylum seekers in Europe, as measured by a GDP-weighted average, is set to rise to about 0.20 percent in 2016, more than double what it was in 2014, according to a report published last month by the International Monetary Fund.

Because spending relative to GDP reflects not just the number of arrivals, but also the relative generosity of the host country, such an average masks significant differences in national spending. A Syrian can expect little help from the state in Italy, say, but gets free language courses in Scandinavia.

That helps explain why, at a projected 1 percent of GDP in 2016, Sweden is the runaway champion in terms of spending tax payers’ money on refugees. At the other end of the scale are countries like Spain, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Focusing only on the costing side of the equation may be unwise, however.

In its 50-page discussion paper, the IMF notes that the additional public spending will “increase domestic demand and GDP" in the main asylum seeker destination countries. What’s more, those countries that implement the most successful integration policies will reap the biggest rewards in the long term.

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