The Borlänge FUA has about 150,000 inhabitants and is located 200 km NW of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. The region has a twin city urban core made up by Borlänge and nearby Falun, both having 50,000 to 60,000 inhabitants with a geographical distance of 21 km from city centre to city centre. Remaining four municipalities within the labour market region make up a third of the FUA’s population. Borlänge emerged as a major steel and paper production region in the 20th century and in parallel to experiencing a still ongoing deindustrialization process, it has seen a substantial influx of refugee migrants, which have become the focus of the local inequality debate.
Main challenges, trends and policies
Borlänge, like many other Swedish cities, experiences a series of problems related to residential segregation. This situation has many causes but economic reforms in the early 1990s resulted in under investments in housing construction, increasing commodification of housing, affordability problems and increasing sorting of households along tenure and neighbourhood dimensions. In Borlänge and elsewhere, physical housing quality is often good but neighbourhood conditions vary considerably across urban space. Refugee migrants from Africa and the Middle East tend to live clustered in rental-dominated districts and as their integration into the labour market overall has worked poorly, incomes are low and many children grow up in larger families experiencing overcrowded housing conditions. Due to lack of affordable housing for bigger families, this situation is difficult to solve without improving labour market integration of both immigrant males and females. The housing aspect of inequality is therefore directly connected to other dimensions of social integration.
Borlänge’s decline as a centre for manufacturing has not resulted in high unemployment or severe crises. Rather, the city has been able to successfully restructure into a more service-based economy. The loss of manufacturing jobs has not least affected migrants: more than a quarter of foreign-born aged 15 to 64 are economically inactive – compared to 7.5% of the FUA’s native-born population – but the levels of unemployment and NEET indicate that the young immigrants have seen some improvements over the past decade (however, unemployment rate for the 20 to 30 year olds in Borlänge FUA is still twice as big as the national average). Municipal actors identify recently arrived immigrants as a core group for interventions and targeted measures within the adult educational programme have been launched. Interviewees in Borlänge stress that in order to improve integration efficiency and reduce NEET in the long run, interventions have to start much earlier and have their focus on children in pre-schools and primary schools.
Since the 1990s the Swedish educational system has become more polarised with increasing differences in outcomes between high and low achieving children and across primary and secondary schools. Reasons behind these developments lie in many political-institutional and demographic shifts. The primary educational challenge in Borlänge in terms of equality is to succeed in schooling the many minority students that have arrived. The share of minority students not entering and –if they enter– not finishing upper secondary school is very high. Another critical aspect is the lack of certified teachers both in private (run for profit) and municipal schools. Borlänge pursues an ambitious adult educational programme and aims to make the vocational training programmes more attractive and relevant for the young. The Borlänge strategic plan for 2020-2023 focuses on a holistic framework where parental involvement and cross-professional teams are important aspects of how schools operate, in particular in poor neighbourhoods.
Aspects related to immigration, asylum and minority issues
Borlänge’s history as an industrial region is also a history of migration, primarily rural-to-urban migration from within the region but also labour migration from outside of Sweden. What makes Borlänge different today is the more recent influx of people originating from outside of the Nordic countries who have settled for refugee and humanitarian reasons. The expansion of the number of immigrants has primarily taken place after 2007 and more than 40% of the current circa 15,000 foreign-born have been added after 2012. These later arrived migrants comprise predominantly Somalians, Syrians and Iraqi who, as pointed out above, live clustered in a few rental-dominated neighbourhoods. The residential pattern spills over into school segregation and risks leading to increasing tensions as the native-immigrant inequality dimension has emerged as the key aspect of inequality in the city. It is also in response to this challenge we identify the most innovative parts of local policy development.
Discussion and main conclusions
- Sweden has a low rate of material deprivation, including for the urban young. However, neither poverty nor inequality are abstract concepts in Borlänge. Borlänge has one of the highest frequencies of child poverty in Sweden and a high proportion relying on social allowances, schools in poor Borlänge districts have had a substantial shortage of qualified teachers, and second generation immigrants too often live in crowded housing which affects school outcomes. Borlänge is also one of the most ethnically segregated middle-sized cities in Sweden.
- Residents in Borlänge with an immigrant background tend to be less well-off compared to native-born in terms of employment, incomes, housing and students’ educational achievements and this gap has grown over time. This is not only a Borlänge pattern but can be found all across Sweden. This means that potential reasons or drivers for this ethnic inequality dimension are related to national and systemic factors rather than local ones.
- Most local actors view (especially refugee) immigration issues as key challenges for efforts to combat inequality in employment, education as well as in housing.
- In education, inequality manifests itself in obvious discrepancies between natives and the foreign-born in the share of students entering and –if they do– finishing upper secondary school and this is true both nation-wide and in the region. One explanation but not the only one is the extraordinary developments in the years around 2015 when many refugee migrants arrived to Sweden, including to Borlänge, many of whom were un-accompanied teenagers.
- De-industrialization has contributed to the current labour market integration problem facing more recently arrived refugees. According to our informants, the demand for labour in the modern Borlänge economy is more or less restricted to those leaving upper secondary school with a passing grade.
- Inequality in housing in Sweden is not so often related to its physical quality dimension. Most, including the relatively poor, live in modern housing of a reasonable standard. However, housing affordability has been a growing problem in urban Sweden for a couple of decades. Building more is a stated aim by Borlänge municipality but the problem is that new housing is very expensive and that it is unlikely to improve the outlooks for those who currently lack housing or who live in overcrowded conditions. Like for education and the labour market, most housing inequality issues discussed in Borlänge are in one way or another related to the situation for recent groups of immigrants, and their neighbourhood conditions.
- Interviewees point out residential segregation as a key problem needing policy development and new approaches. Segregation is seen not only as a geographical reflection of inequality but plays an important part in producing and reproducing inequality. Most interviewees strongly believe in negative contextual effects of concentrating poor people.Tackling segregation calls for cross-professional and cross-sectorial collaborations among municipal actors as well as intensified collaborations with housing companies and civil society actors.
- Three broad approaches that are now on the agenda of Borlänge policy makers have a capacity to affect inequality produced by segregation:
1) Try to affect neighbourhood sorting and concentration of poverty by considering segregation effects in planning for new housing developments and for allocation of new refugees across neighbourhoods;
2)Try to counteract neighbourhood isolation by improving communication (links, flows) between poor neighbourhoods and other neighbourhoods, and the city centre;
3) Try to mitigate effects of poverty concentrations by allocating municipal resources as to compensate for social disadvantage both in the short and in the long run.
- It is still too early to fully evaluate the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. Sweden partly diverged from the rest of Europe in not activating any lockdown in the spring of 2020 and the government decided not to close schools. Overall, employment levels are now back at pre-pandemic levels and certain groups – such as non-European migrants – had a higher level of employment in November 2021 than for any point in time over the past three years. Although their level of employment is far below native Swedes this is anyhow a positive trend.