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By Nima SanandajiTCS – published 14.06.2005
I arrived in Sweden in 1989 together with my mother and brother. We were refugees from Iran and since we arrived we have depended on welfare and government benefits in one way or another. In a sense I believe that this gives me a much better understanding of the Scandinavian welfare system than most ethnic Swedes have.
In Sweden my family encountered a political system that seemed very strange. The borders were apparently not very heavily watched, since the smuggler could drive us all the way from Berlin to Stockholm without encountering any government officials. Smuggling immigrants was apparently a low risk enterprise. The driver bragged about how he was responsible for getting thousands of people into the country.
Some friends of ours had emigrated to Sweden earlier and we stayed in their apartment for two days before we turned ourselves in to the Swedish police. Our meeting with the police made us wonder what kind of country we had come to. The reason was that the Iranian interpreter had secretly given us advice on how to act in order to get a permanent residence permit. Basically we were supposed to claim that my mother was a political refugee who would be persecuted and imprisoned if we returned to Iran. The interpreter also told us that Sweden is a country where the government will put a check into your mailbox each month if you don’t work. She explained that there was no reason to get a job. How could a country function if people were paid not to work?
Determining our migrant status was not an urgent matter. The departments of migration first sent us to a hotel in Stockholm. The streets of Stockholm were not crowded in the same ways as in Teheran and there was no smog or queues in front of grocery stores. Sweden seemed to be a nice enough country, much more modern and free than Iran.
However, we were soon flown to a refugee camp outside of Visby, the main city on the island of Gotland. The camp consisted of lodges and was originally built for tourists who wanted to bathe by the shores of Gotland during the warm summer months. Unfortunately, we arrived in October. Not only was the winter much colder than back in Iran, it also lasted for most of the seven months that we stayed in the camp.
Living in Gotland was an interesting experience. Back in Iran my brother and I went to school six days a week and wrote our homework about two hours each day. A lot of our spare time was spent at the local library. My father worked full-time and my mother had worked first as a teacher and later as a vice president in the kindergartens that we had attended. Later she became a housewife. In the refugee camp nobody did anything.
Nobody learned how to speak Swedish. Nobody was integrated in the Swedish society and nobody was allowed to get a job. The strong work ethic that we had brought from our home countries simpered away and we became used to the idea that social security was responsible for our lives.
Many people in the camp started stealing from the stores in the neighborhood. For instance, I remember a lady from our lodge that would steal as much as she could from a supermarket and put it in her son’s backpack. It really wasn’t a problem for her when she got caught. The sentences for crimes in Sweden were nothing compared to those in Iran. And what reputation did she have to defend in her new home country?
We never resorted to crime in the camps, but we became accustomed to the idea that there was no reason for us to work. A myth among the Iranian refugees was that the money that we each month received was what the previous Iranian Shah had lent to the Swedish government, or that it came from the UN. In any case, there was no reason to be grateful to the system for receiving it.
We continued to live on money from the government also in our second refugee camp in Gävle, which is located on the Swedish mainland. Here a dozen or so rent apartments had been converted to residences for refugees. In Gävle, we learned about a new phenomenon regarding social security; how you could cheat the government.
The vast majority of the people who lived in this location were supported by social security and had been in the Swedish system long enough to understand how it worked. Social security secretaries assumed that the people that they supported had no sense of responsibility. Also, they were responsible to see that each person had enough money to live a decent life at all times. If you told them that you had spent all your money at the beginning of the month and didn’t have any left, they gave you some more. If you told them that your children cried every day in want of new toys, they helped you. If you told them that a neighbor had stolen all you clothes, they helped you.
I remember that my mother spent a lot of her time nagging to the social secretary that was appointed to her at the time. She had all the time in the world, while the social secretary had a job to do and knew that the only way to get rid of the problem was to give my mother some more cash. From time to time you could also get something extra from the system. The best example is when social security paid my mother around 30,000 Kronors (A Swedish Krona is worth about a tenth of a euro) for stomach reduction surgery, even though she wasn’t particularly overweight and only lost 3 kilos thanks to the surgery.
I am not saying that everybody took part in cheating the system, but a revealing fact is that a social secretary for a few months gave my mother extra money because she was happy that our family would not try to cheat social security as often as others would.
Our dependency on social security continued even after we got a permanent residency and later became Swedish citizens. Although my mother got several jobs, we concluded that this really didn’t improve our family’s economy. A low pay job meant a couple of thousands Kronors more each month. However, income isn’t everything. When our mother didn’t work she could take better care of us. She could save money by buying the cheapest groceries from the shop on the other side of town and it was more economical to always be able to eat at home. Also, social security usually gave us more money than we were supposed to get. This was usually not due to cheating from our side, but rather because the social security secretaries wanted to be generous and helpful.
During the sixteen years we have been in Sweden, my mother has in total worked less than one year. One thing that my up growing has shown me is that there is little incentive to work and educate yourself in the Swedish welfare system.
According to the Institute for Labour Policies the average salary of a person who has studied at a university for three years is only five percent higher of somebody who is uneducated. Most Swedish families would have higher income if they lived off government and made some money working in the black market.For a long time the strong work ethics in Sweden has prevented people from exploiting the system. But this seems to be changing. The work ethic has dramatically fallen in Sweden. More and more people are finding ways of living off government as an alternative to working. Between 20 and 25 percent of the working age population does not work. Between 1997 and 2003 the number of people who were on sick leave increased by more than 200,000, a dramatic number for a small country such as Sweden.
There hasn’t been a great epidemic sweeping the country during this period, but rather a change in attitude. Today 62 percent of the employees in Sweden believe that it might be OK to take a sick leave even though illness doesn’t stop you from working. This attitude is probably simply an adjusting of ethics to the Swedish system. What can you expect in a country where 9 out of 10 females who are living off sick leave would have less money in their pockets if they went back to their jobs?
The European welfare systems have functioned because of strong work ethics that made people reluctant to exploit them. But these work ethics are the product of a society where you had to work in order to provide for yourself and your family. As people adjust to the political systems we have today the ideas of individual responsibility diminishes. This is exactly what has happened among the large number of emigrants who are dependent on social security. What happens when the rest of the population adjusts to the system?
The author is the president of Captus, a pro-market organization, and the editor of the Captus Journal (www.captus.nu).
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