The changing politics of immigration in Nordic countries

The chill factor: the changing politics of immigration in Nordic countries

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2023 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author, Chris Horwood, is a migration specialist and Director of Ravenstone Consult.

2023 saw immigration at the top of the political agenda in many countries in Europe and beyond. The salience of immigration in politics and the push for more restrictive immigration policies is illustrative of a greater swing to the right, even if right-wing parties do not have a monopoly on these kinds of policies. Instead, this push offers further evidence of the mainstreaming of anti-immigration and nativist attitudes affecting those in mixed migration – not least in Nordic countries.

In Nordic countries, including Scandinavia, there is strong evidence of a continuing trend towards more restrictive immigration and integration policies over the last two decades, more remarkable perhaps because up until recently, and more intensely in particular countries, such changes have clashed with these countries’ previous reputation as being welcoming liberal welfarist societies. Nevertheless, in most Nordic countries, including Iceland as a late-comer, the extent of the increasing normalisation of anti-immigration public sentiment and policy is striking. It not only questions the success of past integrationist approaches, but also exposes concerns around national identity and party-political dynamics and suggests that more recent changes are likely to remain entrenched in the medium term. How did the warm Nordic welcome become the colder embrace of today?

Population growth fuelled by immigration

Between 1990 and 2016, the population of the Nordic countries grew by 15 percent due to a combination of births exceeding deaths (natural increase) and positive net immigration (see Graphic 1). Over this period, immigration into the Nordic countries reached historical highs and net immigration accounted for about two-thirds of the total population growth, while natural increase accounted for one third. Net immigration into Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark specifically, increased considerably and became the major source of population increase, far exceeding that of natural increase.

Foreign-origin population in the Nordic countries

Source: Heleniak (2016)

All told, by 2019, the Nordic countries had approximately 3.6 million immigrants as well as 1 million second generation migrants among an overall population of 27.2 million. Immigrants and their descendants therefore represented 16.9 percent of the Nordic region’s population, with just over half living in Sweden. These figures will not have changed significantly in the last five years except for the hosting of Ukrainian refugees in 2022/3. These immigrants include people from other Nordic countries, other EU countries and non-EU countries, and many originally arrived as refugees or as guest workers or labour migrants (see Graphic 2). For example, although Syrians (who number more than 260,000, not all of whom are refugees) make up the largest group of foreign nationals in the Nordic countries as a whole, Poles are the most numerous immigration group in Denmark, Iceland and Norway, but important also for Sweden. Meanwhile, Estonians comprise the largest national group of immigrants in Finland.

Number of immigrants per 1,000 of population in Nordic countries

Source: Eurostat.

One important aspect of the changes that occurred in Nordic countries prior to 2015/2016—when large numbers of refugees and migrants, primarily from the Middle East, arrived in Europe prompting the so-called “migration crisis”—is their pace. Nordic countries (and especially the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark) have had highly homogenous societies with shared and overlapping languages, culture, trade and history. Since 1954 there has been a common Nordic labour market, and since 1994, all the Nordic states have been part of the open European labour market within the EU/EEA area. Previously they were countries of emigration, but as their societies thrived and developed after the Second World War, their shared egalitarian, welfarist and liberal values became increasingly attractive to immigrants and especially asylum seekers. Particularly in the 1980s, they opened their doors to outsiders and especially offered settlement to refugees from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Scandinavian countries had some of the most generous refugee and asylum policies in Europe while also enjoying higher than average living standards.  They deployed different approaches to managing rising immigrant populations, with Sweden broadly adopting an integrationist, multiculturalist approach, while Denmark sought assimilation and Norway combined aspects of both approaches.

Nordic countries' immigrants by region of origin


The 2015 migration ‘crisis’ as a watershed event

2015, when a sharp rise in the number of irregular arrivals to Europe led to a so-called “migration crisis”, was an important watershed year for immigration and asylum in Europe with implications and outcomes that continue to impact the EU as an entity, as well as its member states (and the non-EU Nordic states of Norway and Iceland). The “crisis” spilled over into 2016 and continues to be presented as such even though numbers have declined thanks to hardened borders. This essay identifies 2015/2016 as a useful period for its analysis of the specific politics and policy environments relating to immigration in all Nordic countries, except for Iceland which followed a somewhat different trajectory but may end up in a similar position (see below). Sweden has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than any other European Union member state in 2015. Norway and Finland also saw high arrival numbers of asylum seekers. Denmark had significantly lower numbers, as it barred entry to most, or directed arrivals to transit Denmark and head to Sweden.

Asylum application filed in Scandinavian countries

Source: Tanner, A. (2016) Overwhelmed by Refugee Flows, Scandinavia Tempers its Warm Welcome. Migration Policy Institute.

The sudden surge of asylum seekers at the borders of most European countries in 2015 acted as a catalyst, exacerbating existing anxieties, changing national and European immigration policies and impacting voting priorities. As confidence in the overwhelmed EU fell, political polarisation increased, with right-wing populist parties capitalising on public concerns resulting in most countries tightening their asylum laws.

The aftermath

The last seven or eight years can be regarded as the aftermath of the “migration crisis” insofar as many of the reactions to growing and ever-politicised immigration questions and changing public attitudes still define the political context in Nordic countries, as they do in other parts of Europe. The following country sections offer insights into more recent anti-migration trends but despite the long-standing earlier reputation of Nordic countries as welcoming, a history of xenophobic and anti-migrant sentiments (especially against Muslim immigrants) also rose in parallel with the rise in immigration over the last three decades or more.

As such, recent developments should be seen in the context of long-standing reflections, critiques and political activism within Nordic countries and not only as a result of the 2015/2016 “migration crisis”. The same could be said of many other European countries, each with its own journey and level of intensity and popular support over the years and each with its own contemporary iteration of policy and public attitudes. Therefore, this essay does not make a case for “Nordic exceptionalism” but suggests instead greater convergence with other Europe-wide trends. However, what is remarkable—and possibly less expected—is the degree to which the restrictive policy re-direction in Nordic countries stands in contrast with their own past approaches and, therefore, now appears far more stringent than in some other parts of Europe.

Country focus


In 2022, the number of immigrants in Denmark (excluding Danish-born descendants of immigrants) stood at approximately 652,000, representing more than 10 percent of the country’s total population of almost 6 million. In 2022, Denmark received 67,772 refugees, representing an 88 percent increase over 2021, a rise due in large part to the arrival of Ukrainians after Russia’s invasion, who between February 2022 and July 2023 numbered more than 41,000.

Denmark’s relationship with migration and asylum, and especially non-EU migration, has been both polemical and restrictive for many years and certainly long before 2015. However, a significant paradigm shift has emerged since 2015, when Danish immigration policy “moved from a focus on settlement and integration to detention and return”. Graphic 3 illustrates how a raft of restrictive policies came into force in Denmark in 2002. The nationalist and right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP) has enjoyed rapidly rising popularity since its establishment in 1995. The DPP has had significant influence on the policies of coalition governments for the last 20 years and its support peaked in 2015 when it won 21 percent of votes cast in that year’s general election (earning it 37 of the 179 seats in parliament). However, since then, its power and support have declined considerably, with the election in 2022 marking its weakest-ever performance.

Migration and asylum policy timeline, Denmark

Adapted from: Bailey-Morley, A. & Kumar, C. (2022b)

Recently, another populist right-wing party, the Denmark Democrats (formed in 2022), appeared to step into the role previously held by the DPP, although it only managed to obtain 8 percent of the vote. As other parties, including the Social Democrats (which has been in ruling coalitions since 2015), maintain firm management of immigration and restrict refugee intake, they arguably steal the thunder of the far right. The Danish left’s new aversion to immigration, globalisation and multiculturalism is a far cry from its traditional internationalism and solidarity.

Denmark’s Social Democratic prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, shocked observers in 2021 when she announced a shift to a “zero refugee” policy. For the 38 years up to 2015, Denmark accepted around 500 refugees per year. In the early 2000s, Frederiksen had denounced Denmark’s immigration policy as one of the “toughest in Europe” but, like much of the country’s political establishment, she has since changed her views. Her support in the 2022 election had never been higher amongst voters. As well as advocating a “zero refugee” policy, her government has pursued their own controversial project to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda while their applications are processed. (Although a memorandum with Rwanda was signed in September 2022, in January 2023 the Danish government announced it was putting that option on hold). Denmark has also revoked residence permits for Syrians hailing from regions it considers safe. This measure passed by 70 votes to 24 in parliament, emphasising the large consensus among Danish political parties on immigration and asylum policy.

The 2016 “Jewellery Law”, the 2018 law to ban facial coverings (niqabs/burqas) and the 2021 declaration that parts of Syria were safe for refugees to return to (or be removed to), are all symptomatic of the unwelcoming environment Denmark is deliberately creating to deter immigration, especially from cultures/societies deemed to be less compatible with Denmark’s professed liberal progressive values. In 2023, new so-called anti-ghetto legislation dictated that social housing in high-migrant areas must not exceed 40 percent of total housing. This was seen as an attempt to limit the proportion of “non-western” people in certain neighbourhoods and to force local housing associations to sell up to private developers. A recent opinion poll indicated that 46 percent of Danes think that “no more, or only a few, Muslims should be allowed to emigrate to Denmark”. While on the campaign trail in 2019, Frederiksen promised to stop immigration from “non-western countries” and to send asylum seekers to reception centres in North Africa. By contrast, as mentioned above, Denmark took in more than 41,000 people displaced from Ukraine in the 18 months following Russia’s invasion.

A correlation between the policies described above and the recently diverging trajectories of immigration from EU vs non-EU countries can be seen in Graphic 4 below.

Danish immigration by region of origin

Source: Bailey-Morley, A. & Kumar, C. (2022b)

In response to the hardening attitudes in Denmark, the UNHCR wrote to the government in early 2021 to decry the “intense political and public debate in Denmark over the past decade—a politicisation that has led to an increasingly restrictive climate and, regrettably, at times has been accompanied by a harsh rhetoric and measures that have undermined the public support for the protection and integration of refugees”.

A 2022 report on Danes’ perceptions found that “anti-immigrant stances have been embraced across the political spectrum. Increasingly negative rhetoric and hostile immigration policies are a feature of both left- and right-wing parties, with Muslims and asylum seekers particularly impacted”. While most Danes support strong border controls, almost half also agree that immigration has made Denmark a better country. They appear, however, to resist the prospect of Denmark’s traditionally homogenous society becoming even more multicultural and therefore support continuing the long-standing assimilation approach to immigrant integration. Inclusivity and equality are predicated on assimilation before “deserving” immigrants and refugees can benefit from Denmark’s generous social welfare system.

Given how long Denmark has been adopting an increasingly hard-line approach to immigration, and amid evidence of a growing preference for certain groups of refugees and migrants over others, its current position represents not so much a break from a recent and more idealist past as a progression along a continuum of severity.


Like other Nordic countries, Finland has journeyed from being a country of emigration to a country of immigration in recent years. As in Denmark, there are a wide variety of immigrants living in Finland today, including those from Russia and Estonia as well as other Nordic countries (mainly Sweden), the EU, the UK, as well as Somalia, Iraq, China and Vietnam. As with other Nordic states, 2015 saw a steep rise in the number of people seeking asylum in Finland from non-Western countries, causing anxiety and political change in the country. Over 32,000 asylum seekers submitted applications in 2015, ten times the number in 2014. Most came in from the border with Sweden and some others from Russia in what some described as an “out of control” situation for Finland’s well-developed welfare system, giving rise to some anti-migrant activism. The number of refugee reception centres grew from 24 in 2014 to 212 in 2015, evidence of the country’s fast adaptation to an evolving situation. Reportedly there are long-standing problems with refugee integration into Finnish labour markets that were exacerbated by the sudden additions in 2015. The rise also gave fuel to Eurosceptics and nativists concerned about Finnish participation in the EU quota system of shared responsibility. Authorities (former government) in Finland have announced that the country will open its doors to a total of 1,050 refugees following the United Nations’ quota requests in 2023. However, and by contrast, it accepted over 55,000 Ukrainians in the last year (2022 and 2023) and authorities have stated that this figure may reach 100,000.

Finland shares lengthy borders with Sweden and Norway, but its longest border (1,340 km) is with Russia and this mainly runs through forest and sparsely populated areas. It is an external border of the EU and NATO, which Finland joined in April 2023, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That same month, in line with plans made in 2022, Finland began building a fence and increasing surveillance along the southern stretch of this border in response to fears that Russia might replicate Belarus’s 2021 facilitation and encouragement of large-scale irregular migration to the EU.

On the political front, the anti-immigration Finns Party (formerly the True Finns) grew out of the anti-establishment populist Finnish Rural Party and recorded  its strongest-ever electoral win in the 2023 parliamentary elections despite many fractures among far-right political entities. Over the last decade or more, and as is typical of populist radical right parties, the Finns Party has combined left-wing economic policies and economic nationalism with socially conservative values and ethnic nationalism.

The right-wing coalition government that came to power in April 2023—which includes the Finns Party— is seeking to roll back more welcoming and inclusive policies for migrants and refugees brought in at the start of the year by ex-PM Sanna Marin, in particular undocumented migrants. Denying healthcare and other services to undocumented migrants is designed to create a hostile environment. The government is also exploring deportation options to third countries, just as Denmark did in 2021. The new government seeks to tighten their migration (and asylum) policy to be better aligned with other Nordic countries. In response to the new policies, there is talk of Helsinki becoming a “sanctuary city”, defying the central government. It’s early days for the new government but clearly their immigration intentions converge with those of other Nordic countries and are likely to become more rather than less restrictive in coming months and years.


Iceland’s trajectory in terms of emigration and immigration is quite different compared to other Nordic countries, not least due to its isolated geographical location, which historically precluded the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers and migrants. Recently, however, the country has seen a rise in migration and asylum seekers and, with it, the now-predictable accompanying political and policy reaction.

As one of the least populated countries in the world, with just 380,000 inhabitants, the statistics around immigration and asylum in Iceland need to be appreciated as atypical of Nordic countries. Its immigrant population may have numbered just 61,000 in 2022, but in per capita terms (16.3 percent of the population), this places it at the top of the Nordic league.

Over the last two decades, immigration in Iceland has mainly been driven by the needs and opportunities of the economy and people coming to Iceland either as a spouse or for family reunification. The history of migration to Iceland in this period is heavily influenced by economic booms and busts. For example, the years between 2000 and 2008 saw exponential growth in the Icelandic economy, ending in the much-publicised collapse of the Icelandic banking sector.

Unlike in other Nordic countries, in 2015, the total number of refugees in Iceland only grew modestly, from  93 in 2014 to just 170 in 2015. However, every year since then has seen a significant increase, especially between 2021 and 2022, when the number of refugees rose by 186 percent, from 1,830 to 3,290, largely due to arrivals from Ukraine. The majority arrived from Ukraine and not because of increased resettlement although Iceland is noted to be continuing its ‘steadfast’ support to UNHCR. The top three nationalities of refugees in Iceland are now Ukrainian, Venezuelan, and Iraqi. As of mid-September 2023, 3,250 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Iceland since Russia’s invasion, and they continue to do so at a rate of about 200 per month. The Icelandic government grants Ukrainians nearly instant resident status on humanitarian grounds and fast-tracks them for employment and other support.

Despite the relatively modest numbers of immigrants in the country and the (possibly related) overwhelmingly positive attitude towards foreigners among Icelanders, the right-of-centre ruling coalition, with support from the anti-migrant People’s Party, made life much harder for many asylum seekers in 2023. In March, a large majority of MPs passed controversial legislation which, among other measures, allows immigration authorities to withhold essential services such as healthcare and housing from asylum seekers 30 days after their claims have been refused. Reportedly, the government has carried out some forced deportations and generally intends to be more hard-line in relation to the rapidly rising number of asylum claims submitted each year. Iceland is not regarded as having any political party with a populist radical right agenda with the same degree of popular support as those in other Nordic countries. But immigration started much later in Iceland than other countries and its effects are only now beginning to be felt (and politicised), so current tendencies to react against further immigrant arrivals and control asylum seeker numbers may foreshadow a future more aligned with other hard-line Nordic immigration policies.


Norway’s story of emigration and immigration has been running for centuries, but over the past 30 years or so the number of people with an immigrant background living in Norway increased significantly. The most represented nationalities are (in descending order), Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish, Somali (these four making up 25 percent of all immigrants), German, Iraqi, Syrian, Filipino, Pakistani and Eritrean. Additionally, from the mid-1980s, thanks to Norway’s generous asylum policy, significant numbers of refugees fleeing wars and oppressive regimes in Iran (mainly Kurds), Chile, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia were offered settlement.

However, amid growing concerns by some over rising numbers of immigrants, in recent years Norwegian immigration policy has been characterised by stricter policies towards asylum seekers. Despite this, whereas around one million people with an immigrant background lived in Norway in 2013, this number had increased to nearly 1.5 million by 2023. First-generation immigrants now represent 16 percent of the total population of 5.5 million, a large proportion compared to other Nordic countries that is illustrative of the openness and welcome that Norway has offered immigrants, including refugees.

Norway’s asylum figures are interesting insofar as that after a relatively modest 18 percent spike between 2015 and 2016, there followed five years of decline as it became tougher for asylum seekers to remain in the country. Then, in 2022, there was a 64 percent increase over 2021 due mainly to the large number of arrivals from Ukraine. As of mid-September 2023 Norway had taken almost 57,000 Ukrainians. Several thousand of those who sought asylum in Norway in 2015— mostly Afghans and Syrians—cycled into the country from Russia, taking advantage of a legal loophole. The Norwegian government responded rapidly with legislative amendments, one of which allowed new arrivals to be turned back at the border (although the loophole itself has not been closed). Norway was thus the first Scandinavian country to change its laws to deter migration in response to the European “migration crisis”.

First- and second-generation immigrants in Norway

Source: Statistics Norway (as presented in Immigration to Norway)

According to UNHCR, 4,255 asylum applications were submitted in Norway in 2022, mostly by citizens of Syria, Afghanistan and Russia, and most are expected to be accepted based on past decisions. This is a far cry from the Danish aim of “zero refugees”, and although some voices in Norway’s years-long immigration debates want the country to follow Denmark’s suit, no anti-migrant party has ever governed on its own.

The Progress Party was formed in 1973 and calls for a strict immigration policy, integration of immigrants and removal of irregular immigrants and of foreigners who commit crimes. Following the 2017 general elections, it became the third-largest party in parliament. It was also a partner in the government coalition led by the Conservative Party from 2013 to 2020, during which time it ensured the creation of a Minister for Integration and increased the process of deporting failed asylum seekers and migrants with criminal convictions. Although more moderate than others in the Nordic region, the Progress Party is regarded as a populist radical party by some, but has been in significant decline in the polls more recently. Irrespective of the ups and downs of the Progress Party, a harder line has been taken in Norway in relation to immigration and particularly asylum seekers. Indeed, the mainstreaming of stricter immigration approaches could be behind the Progress Party losing its monopoly and its attraction to voters. In November 2021, the UNHCR Representation for the Nordic and Baltic Countries wrote a 12-page letter to the Norwegian government voicing its concerns and displeasure over “restrictive measures […] which were aimed at dissuading future arrivals of asylum-seekers”. The letter noted that “many restrictive changes have been introduced in Norway with respect to the legal framework on family reunification, gradually making it more difficult for refugees to reunite with their families. As a result, the Norwegian procedures for family reunification are amongst the most expensive and restrictive among the Nordic countries.”

As Norwegian politicians watch and sometimes duplicate developments in Denmark and Sweden, the concern is that an intolerant anti-migrant approach has become even more mainstreamed and normalised. With the left in Denmark having success with rightist approaches to immigration, parties on both ends of the political spectrum in Norway are comfortable with harder-line policies.


Of all the Nordic countries, Sweden’s recent shift in immigration policy is the most surprising, representing a long pendulum swing away from its reputation as the spiritual home of European liberalism and the most welcoming for asylum. Indeed, although there are dramatic new policy changes to highlight, some could argue the changes are the culmination of a gradual reaction to excessive openness and the failure of integration over recent years.

For a historically homogenous population of just over 10 million, foreign-born residents made up around 20 percent of the population in 2022. When combined with their descendants (second-generation immigrants), that proportion rises to 25 percent—and to 40 percent  of people under 50.57 Sweden hosts over 50 percent of all immigrants residing in the Nordic region. The cost of hosting refugees in Sweden accounted for a large share of the country’s reported overseas development assistance (ODA), between 2014 and 2022, peaking at $2.7 billion in 2015 (34 percent), before gradually dropping to a decade low of $88 million in 2021 (2 percent of total ODA). But Sweden’s recent and ongoing hosting of more than 50,000 Ukrainian refugees is likely to push the proportion of ODA spending back up considerably.

Of the 2.15 million people born outside of Sweden, the highest number comes from Syria and, as Graphic 2 illustrates, over half (54 percent) of all immigrants are from non-Nordic and non-European countries. In 2022 Sweden hosted a total of 278,000 refugees.

Long-term migration trends in Sweden

Source: Public narratives and attitudes towards refugees and other migrants. Statistics Sweden, 2021b.

As Graphic 5 illustrates, 2015 represented a peak year for As Graphic 5 illustrates, 2015 represented a peak year for Swedish asylum openness. In 2015, the Swedes were initially proud to accept 163,000 refugees (mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan), but by the end of the year they were implementing their own restrictions on new irregular arrivals. In per capita terms, Sweden showed the strongest responsibility across Europe in 2015/16 by taking in the largest number of asylum seekers, with 10,000 arriving every week at the peak. The cost of refugees in 2016 for Sweden was an eye-watering $6 billion. But perhaps the longer-term cost has been a volte-face in public support and political investment in the country’s immigrant-driven multicultural society. Again, the impact of 2015 in Nordic politics and society is conspicuous. Prior to 2015, people have argued, integration worked better in schools and jobs, but 2015 was a tipping point when a critical mass of un-integrated refugees in particular became unworkable and problematic, not least in terms of cost to the state and growing crime and violence and the evident ghettoization of foreigners. Despite this, Sweden has been accepting 5,000 refugees every year since 2018, but in 2023 it is offering to take in just 900. According to one source, Sweden has welcomed more than 41,000 Ukrainians since the start of the Russian invasion, mostly in 2022. However, the same source recorded high numbers earlier in the year.

After decades operating with policies opposite to Denmark’s, it now appears Sweden may be adopting a similar hard line. General elections in September 2022 delivered a minority centre-right coalition that depends on support from the Sweden Democrats, giving the far-right party its first taste of direct influence over government policy. Some consider the coalition will result in radical and consequential shifts in domestic and international policy akin to a “dystopian nightmare”. According to one analyst, the coalition’s rapidly struck Tidö Agreement with the Sweden Democrats presents a “radical tightening of immigration policy, directly inspired by Danish rules”, particularly with regard to asylum, and reversed a wide range of earlier regulations and benefits. After a surge in gang violence involving guns and explosives in parts of Sweden in April 2022, many people made a connection between immigration and crime, while the police are being given more powers to address crime in immigrant communities.

The Sweden Democrats are regarded as a populist radical rightist party by some commentators, and its popularity and influence have been rising steadily in recent years, culminating in its 20.6 percent share of votes cast in September 2022. Earlier this year, one of its representatives and the minister for migration and asylum policy jointly announced that Sweden would soon launch an awareness campaign to discourage migrants from coming to the country.  The message was that immigration to Sweden has been unsustainable, that it could not continue and that “a paradigm shift is now taking place in Swedish migration policy.”

Convergence and contradictions

The famously welfarist Nordic countries are not immune to the hard realities of demographic shifts with their resulting shrinking native populations and proportional ageing and labour demands. Neither are they immune to current economic pressures, including slower growth, higher costs of living and inflationary pressures that affect people’s perceptions and confidence to be open to newcomers. These are difficult times for societies to balance the economic growth, current and future dependency ratios and taxation potential that underpin successful welfarist, egalitarian countries, and the Nordic countries are feeling it. In comparison to the rest of Europe, the Nordic countries offer examples of historic trends that exceed typical openness to mixed migration and refugee settlement but also examples of where they fall below average levels. At this moment, however, as a group they share a tendency towards more restrictive policies as nationalist and nativist voices gain prominence in the political sphere. At the same time, of course, we see strong support for Ukrainian refugees in an apparent bucking of the prevailing aversion to receiving refugees in large numbers. If this can be characterised as a contradiction, it remains to be seen what further contradictions and adaptations Nordic countries—and, for that matter, other European and OECD countries—will have to make to address deepening labour shortages while maintaining restrictive and nationalist immigration policies. More recently, Italy is a prime example of embodying these contradictions, with its hard-line approach to irregular immigration while laying plans to receive high numbers of labour migrants in the coming years.

Immigration is arguably part of a solution to growth by restoring sustainable dependency ratios in ageing societies, while generous asylum policies maintain countries’ ethical internationalism and compassion. But in an apparent contradiction, the Nordic countries’ strong sense of national identity (based on longstanding homogeneity) is challenged by rising immigration and compounded by political systems and dynamics that give minority nativists disproportionate influence through coalition governments that are now typical throughout the region. These impulses and contradictions can be seen in the varying ways that Nordic countries treat different nationalities (for example, Ukrainians versus non-European migrants and asylum seekers), or in how they continue their high-level support and funding for the refugee regime globally (for example, through UNHCR) while at the same time aiming to reduce refugee intake to a minimum—supporting instead a consistent vision that ideally refugees should be hosted in their regions of origin. As a region and per capita, the Nordic countries are amongst the largest UNHCR contributors in the world.

Rather than representing a form of “Nordic exceptionalism”, the Nordic states have much in common with many countries in Europe. Even if every country’s journeys and dynamics are unique, immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants in mixed movements tops political agendas everywhere. In many cases, the events of 2015/2016 can be seen as a unifying catalyst towards a place of convergence. Right-leaning or far-right governments and parties are directing anti-immigration and restrictionist policies in, inter alia, Germany, France, Austria, Spain, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and the UK. A similar trend can be seen in most regions worldwide. Even traditional centrist and left-leaning parties are adopting restrictionist policies, to the point that they have become mainstreamed. Countries are watching one another, learning from each other and seeing what they can get away with while maintaining their image as rule-based, rights-based societies and while a raft of policies becomes normalised. What is perhaps exceptional in the Nordic region is the extent of change taking place in countries that until recently were bastions of an altogether more open and arguably compassionate approach.