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chapter 3

The Nordic geography of diversity

Author: Timothy Heleniak
DATA AND Maps: Karina Berbert, Anna Vasilevskaya and Timothy Heleniak


Until recently, the Nordic countries were quite homogeneous – almost everyone was native-born, spoke the same language and shared similar cultural values. Due to high levels of immigration in recent decades, they have become increasingly diverse. With deaths exceeding births, the population increase in the Nordic Region is now primarily due to more people migrating into the countries than leaving them. This is a continuation of an ongoing trend observed over the past three decades, whereby two-thirds of the population increase in the Nordic Region is attributable to there being more immigrants than emigrants and only one-third from births outnumbering deaths.
Globally, 3.6% of the world’s population are migrants, according to the UN’s definition of a person residing outside their country of birth (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division 2020). The proportion of foreign-born people is significantly higher in the Nordic countries, which has contributed to increasingly diverse populations in terms of ethnicity, race, language and culture.
The existence of both ‘old’ and ‘new’ minorities reflects a shift in the countries of origin of people migrating to the Nordic countries. Older migrant groups primarily consisted of persons from the other Nordic countries, with small numbers coming from elsewhere in Europe, mostly Western Europe (the EU15, prior to several expansions this century). Newer migrant groups consist of persons from the EU accession countries, as well as from countries outside of Europe, with many of the latter arriving as refugees.
Migration is a challenging social and policy issue that has led to contentious debates spanning the political spectrum. On the one hand, there are those who favour immigration because it brings in people with new ideas and skills, who can help alleviate labour shortages and slow population ageing. On the other hand, there are those who oppose immigration because they perceive that newcomers are difficult to integrate and could become a burden on both society and public finances. This chapter does not address this debate but shows patterns of diversity at national and regional levels resulting from increased immigration.
The successful integration of these new migrants is important not only for the migrants themselves but also for the Nordic societies to which they have migrated. There are many aspects to integration, including spatial. The opposite of integration is segregation, in which new migrant groups cluster with their ethnic kin and do not mix with native-born Nordic groups. While some of this is natural, prolonged exposure to segregated neighbourhoods or areas can become a barrier to successful integration and lead to the development of parallel societies (Massey & Denton 1993). There are numerous examples of marginalised migrants in large urban areas across the Nordic Region (Righard, Johansson & Salonen 2015).
The rest of this chapter consists of four sections. The first discusses how identity is measured in the Nordic countries. The second and third sections analyse trends in diversity at national and regional levels. The conclusion discusses the implications of increased diversity. 

Measuring identity

The Nordic countries’ national statistics offices do not classify people by race or ethnicity. Most ceased collecting statistics on race following the misuse of this kind of data in World War II. The census in Sweden has not included a question on race since 1945 (Axelsson 2010). However, Sweden does collect data on individuals’ places of birth and for some people, their parents’ and grandparents’ places of birth. Whether a person is native-born in a Nordic country is not a perfect indicator of their ability to integrate into Nordic society. However, country of birth has shown to be a robust indicator of integration potential (Gustafsson & Österberg 2022). Based on this, and for reasons of data availability, country of birth is used as an indicator of diversity and segregation, not only at national level but in various different geographic contexts.
Spatial segregation is important because it is closely linked with social segregation. The place where someone grows up and lives has a profound influence on their life chances. Immigrants who cluster in neighbourhoods with others from their country or region of birth often become isolated from the larger Nordic society to which they have migrated. While being surrounded by ethnic kin upon arrival can be a source of assistance and comfort, if spatial segregation persists it can also lead to parallel and unequal societies. It can also lead to delays/difficulties in learning Nordic languages, which has been shown to be a crucial factor for advancing in the labour market.

National diversity trends

Due to high levels of immigration and low fertility among the native Nordic populations, the shares of foreign-born populations have increased substantially in recent decades and have now reached historically high levels. Sweden has long had a higher foreign-born population than the other Nordic countries, and its share of residents born outside Sweden has increased from 9% to 20% since 1990 (Figure 3.1). In 1990, in both Norway and Denmark, foreign-born residents accounted for 5%. This has since increased to 17% in Norway and 14% in Denmark, the latter of which has had more restrictive immigration policies. Finland had the smallest share of foreign-born residents in 1990, just 1%, but that has now increased to 9%. For decades, even centuries, Iceland was an extremely homogeneous and closed population, so the recent rise in the foreign-born population is quite a departure. The share of foreign-born residents in Iceland has increased from 4% in 1998 to 22% currently. Much of this is due to high levels of labour migration and increased tourism, with many new migrants working in this sector. The levels for Sweden and Iceland, where around one in five residents are foreign-born, are among the highest in Europe, and are higher than traditional migration destination countries such as the United States.
Among the autonomous territories, Greenland’s share of foreign-born residents has been steadily declining as native Greenlanders have taken over roles in administration previously held by Danes. In the Faroes, the proportion of foreign-born residents has been steadily increasing since the end of the fisheries crisis in the mid-1990s, and now stands at 16%. A similar increase has been observed in Åland, where one in five persons are foreign-born (outside of Finland). Including those born in mainland Finland, 38% of the population were born somewhere other than Åland. Like the increase in the foreign-born population, the percentage of those born outside Åland has steadily increased since 2000, when it was 27%.
Figure 3.1: Foreign-born population in the Nordic countries (1990–2023)
Source: Nordic Council of Ministers (2024)
Analysis of more detailed data on the foreign background of people and their ancestors provides a more nuanced view of the foreign-origin population beyond the binary perspective of native-born versus foreign-born.
This section is an updated and condensed version of a previous report (Heleniak, From Migrants to Workers: International migration trends in the Nordic countries, 2018).
Note that the Nordic countries define and tabulate data on immigrant or foreign populations differently, and no attempts at comparability have been made across the countries.
Iceland: Iceland collects detailed data on the foreign-born population, including place of birth and parents’ place of birth. People are first divided into those with no foreign background (i.e. both they and their parents were born in Iceland) and immigrants. Another category is those born abroad with an Icelandic background. Immigrants are further categorised into first- and second-generation. There is a further disaggregation of people born in Iceland with one foreign-born parent and those with two foreign-born parents.
In 1996, 95% of the population had either no foreign background or had been born abroad but had an Icelandic background (Figure 3.2). Only 2% of the population were immigrants, and less than 1% were both born abroad and had at least one parent born abroad. As such, two decades ago, Iceland was still a relatively homogeneous society, and those with foreign backgrounds accounted for only a small segment.
Most recently, in 2023, the proportion of the population with no foreign background and those born abroad with an Icelandic background had declined to 75% of the total population. The proportion of immigrants had increased to 18%, and second-generation immigrants to 2% (from almost zero in 1996). Thus, the total share of the population with some foreign background is now 27% of the Icelandic population – a significant increase from 20 years previously, when it was just 5%.
Figure 3.2: Population of Iceland by origin, 1996–2023 (percentage of total population).
Source: Statistics Iceland (2024)
Norway: Norway records the most detailed data on the immigrant population. It classifies people based on their place of birth (i.e. native- or foreign-born), as well as the places of birth of their parents and grandparents. This results in 30 different categories of foreign-born people based on three generations. However, not all of these categories are significant or useful in a policy-making context. Of the 30 categories, only five consist of more than 100,000 people (Andreassen, Dzamarija & Slaastad 2013).
In 1990, Norway remained rather homogeneous, with 93% of the population native-born with two native parents and four native grandparents, and immigrants accounting for only 7% (Figure 3.3). Of these, 4% were first-generation immigrants without a Norwegian background, while 2% were people born in Norway to foreign-born parents.
Given the high level of immigration in recent decades, in 2024, the percentage of the population who are native-born with two native parents and four native grandparents declined to 72%, while the immigrant population increased to 28%. In 2024, 17% were first-generation immigrants without a Norwegian background, while 6% were people born in Norway to foreign-born parents.
Figure 3.3: Population of Norway by immigration category, percentage of total population (1990–2024)
Source: Statistics Norway (2024)
Sweden: For Sweden, the data presented cover foreign- and native-born residents (Figure 3.4). Native-born residents are then further divided into those with two foreign-born parents, those with one parent born in Sweden and one foreign-born parent, and those with two parents born in Sweden.
A shorter time series is available for Sweden, but even so there has been a remarkable increase in the foreign-origin population. In 2002, 12% of the population were foreign-born, and 3% were second-generation (born in Sweden with two foreign-born parents). Six per cent were born in Sweden, with one parent born in Sweden and one foreign-born parent. Seventy-nine per cent of the population had no foreign background, as they and both of their parents were born in Sweden.
By 2022, the share of foreign-born residents had increased to 20%. The proportion of people born in Sweden with two parents born in Sweden declined to just 65% of the population. The proportion of second-generation immigrants increased to 7% of the total population from 3% in 2002.
Figure 3.4: Population in Sweden with Swedish/foreign background, percentage of total population (2002–2022)
Source: Statistics Sweden (2024)
Finland: In Finland, data is collected on people with a Finnish background and people with a foreign background. These are disaggregated into those born in Finland and those born abroad. This allows for further disaggregation into first-generation immigrants (people with foreign backgrounds born abroad) and second-generation immigrants (people with foreign backgrounds born in Finland).
Finland has had lower levels of immigration than the other Nordic countries and, therefore, has a smaller foreign-origin population. However, there has still been a considerable increase in the number of those of foreign origin in the country since 1990 (Figure 3.5).
In 1990, only 1.3% of the population were born abroad, half of whom were of Finnish origin. In that year, Finland remained an extremely homogeneous country, with 99.2% of the population having a Finnish background and only 0.8% having a foreign background. By 2022, the proportion of foreign-born people had increased to 9% of the population, and the proportion with a foreign background had increased to 9%. Of those with a foreign background, 8% were born abroad (i.e. first-generation immigrants), while 2% were second-generation immigrants born in Finland.
Figure 3.5: Population in Finland by foreign background and place of birth, percentage of total population (1990–2022)
Source: Statistics Finland (2024)
Denmark: Denmark provides data on the population by place of birth, which is then further disaggregated into immigrants and their descendants. The Danish definition of an immigrant is a person born abroad whose parents are both foreign citizens or who were both born abroad. A descendant is defined as a person born in Denmark whose parents are either immigrants or descendants with foreign citizenship. A person of Danish origin – regardless of their place of birth – has at least one parent who is a Danish citizen who was also born in Denmark.
The enormous increase in the population of foreign origin in Denmark since 1980 is evident. In 1980, only 3% of the population were of foreign origin – 2.6% were immigrants and 0.4% were the children of immigrants (Figure 3.6). At that time, Denmark was still an extremely homogeneous society, with 97% of the population being of Danish origin. The size of the population of foreign origin has steadily increased as a proportion of the Danish population. In 2024, 16% of the population is of foreign origin – 12% are immigrants born abroad, and 4% are descendants of immigrants.
Figure 3.6: Population of Denmark by origin, percentage of total population (1980–2024).
Source: Statistics Denmark (2024).
Map 3.1: Foreign-born by municipality (2022)
Source: Nordic NSIs

Regional patterns of diversity 

In line with the overall increase in foreign-born populations in the Nordic countries, there have been increases in nearly all regions and municipalities. However, the new foreign-born populations are not spread evenly across the Region. This section presents three measures of the geographic distribution of foreign-born populations at regional and municipal levels: percentage of foreign-born (Map 3.1); change in foreign-born populations (Map 3.2); and the largest minority group (Map 3.3).
Foreign-born: Iceland has the highest share of foreign-born residents in the Nordic Region, at 22% (Map 3.1). Mýrdalshreppur, the municipality in the south containing the village of Vik, has the largest foreign-born population, at 58%. It is also the only municipality in the Nordic Region with a majority non-native population. Other municipalities in the south, some of which are quite small, also have significant foreign-born populations. Reykjanesbær, near Keflavik airport, is the largest municipality with a sizeable foreign-born population, at 29%. In Reykjavíkurborg, 20% of the population is foreign-born, about the same as the national average. Many municipalities with tiny populations in the Westfjords and the north also have small shares of foreign-born persons.
In 2022, 17% of the population of Norway were foreign-born. Municipalities with high shares of foreign-born include Oslo (28%), several suburban municipalities near Oslo, and a few in the north – which have small overall populations but large numbers of foreign workers employed in the fishing industry.
In Sweden, 20% of residents are foreign-born, with large differences in distribution by region and municipality. At the regional level, Stockholm has the highest share of foreign-born persons (27%), followed by Skåne, including the city of Malmö (24%). The percentage of foreign-born persons in Västra Götaland, which encompasses Gothenburg, is the same as that of Sweden as a whole. The regions with low shares of foreign-born persons are in the north of the country – Dalarna, Gävleborg, Västernorrland, Jämtland, Västerbotten and Norrbotten – plus the island of Gotland, which has the lowest share (9%).
There are no municipalities in which foreign-born persons are the majority, but there are several with quite high foreign-born populations and which are illustrative of the segregation of the population. Botkyrka (44%) and Södertälje (43%), south of Stockholm, have the highest foreign-born shares, followed by Haparanda on the border with Finland, which functions as one city with neighbouring Tornio. There are several other municipalities in Stockholm county with a concentration of migrants, including Sigtuna, Järfälla, Upplands Väsby, Solna and Sundbyberg. In Stockholm city, more than one-quarter (26%) are foreign-born. In Malmö, the share is more than one-third (36%), while in Gothenburg, 29% are foreign-born. Many of the smaller municipalities outside these large urban areas, in the north and west of the country, have much smaller shares of foreign-born residents (less than 10%).
In 2022, 8% of the population of Finland were born abroad. Municipalities with higher shares of foreign-born residents include suburbs of Helsinki, such as Vantaa (21%) and Espoo (19%). In Helsinki, 16% of the population was born outside of Finland. Of the other large cities, 12% of the population of Turku were born abroad, as were 9% of Tampere. More northern and eastern municipalities have small shares of foreign-born persons, including several with entirely native-born populations.
By 2022, the share of Denmark’s population who were foreign-born had risen to 13%. In several suburban municipalities around Copenhagen, the share of foreign-born residents was 15% or higher. In Copenhagen as a whole, the share was 21%.
In 2023, 88.6% of Greenland’s population were born in Greenland, 7.3% in Denmark, and 4.1% elsewhere. Of the five regions in Greenland, Sermersooq, which includes the capital Nuuk, had the lowest share of native-born residents (82%), the highest share of Danish-born (11%) and the highest share born elsewhere (6%). In all of the other municipalities, 92% or more of the population were born in Greenland. In 2022, 15% of the population of the Faroe Islands were foreign-born. In Åland, 20% of the population were foreign-born in 2022. In the capital city of Mariehamn, 23% were born outside of Finland.
Change in foreign-born populations: The recent growth in foreign-born populations differs among the Nordic countries, regions and municipalities. Map 3.2 shows the percentage-point change in foreign-born populations by region and municipality between 2000 and 2022. During this period, much of both the absolute and percentage-point increases in the foreign-born populations took place in suburbs around the capital cities and other large urban centres. However, with few exceptions, every municipality across the Nordic Region saw increases in foreign-born populations.
In Iceland, the foreign-born population increased from 5% to 20%. The largest percentage-point increases in the foreign-born populations were in municipalities in the southwest, which had small populations and small foreign-born shares. Of the larger municipalities, Reykjanesbaer and the Capital Region had the largest absolute and percentage point increases.
The foreign-born population in Norway grew from 7% to 17%. The municipalities with significant increases in foreign-born populations include several suburban areas near Oslo, as well as scattered municipalities elsewhere that had small foreign-born shares in 2000. The percentage of foreign-born residents in Oslo increased from 16% to 28% between 2000 and 2022. No municipalities experienced a decline in foreign-born population during this period.
The share of foreign-born residents in Sweden increased from 11% to 20%. The largest percentage-point increases in the foreign-born populations occurred in suburban municipalities near Stockholm and in southern Sweden, as well as other large urban centres. Of the three large urban centres, Malmö had the largest percentage-point increase of foreign-born residents, from 23% to 36%. Gothenburg increased from 19% to 29%, while Stockholm had a smaller increase, from 19% to 27%. Smaller increases were seen in the northern and peripheral municipalities.
In Finland, the foreign-born share increased from 3% to 8%. The increases were concentrated in suburban municipalities near Helsinki, many of which had larger foreign-born populations. The share of foreign-born residents in Helsinki increased from 7% to 16%. Approximately two-thirds of municipalities outside of the larger urban areas saw either declines or small percentage-point increases in the share of foreign-born residents.
In Denmark, the foreign-born share increased from 7% to 13%. Like the other Nordic countries, the largest percentage-point increases in the foreign-born populations were in suburban municipalities near the capital. The percentage of foreign-born residents in Copenhagen increased from 16% to 21%.
Map 3.2: Change in the foreign-born population by municipality (2022)
Source: Nordic NSIs
Largest minority group: Using country of birth as an identity marker reveals an interesting geographic pattern of minority populations at the municipal level. Map 3.3 shows the country of birth of the largest minority group in each municipality. Even with the increase in migration, native-born populations remain the largest group in each municipality (i.e. Swedish-born people are the largest group in every municipality in Sweden). They also constitute the majority in each municipality, with the exception of one small municipality with a majority-minority population.
For visual simplicity, countries of birth are grouped. The four large Nordic countries are shown separately. The EU15 countries and EU accession countries constitute separate groups. The countries of the former Soviet Union (minus the Baltic states) are another group.
The map shows the largest minority group in 2022, the latest year for which data was available for all of the Nordic countries. The war in Ukraine began in February 2022, so the data does not include those who left Ukraine and arrived in the Nordic countries as asylum seekers.
Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Syria together constitute a group of countries from which many of the migrants to the Nordic countries came as refugees over the past decade.
People born in Finland are the largest minority group in many regions near the Finnish border in northern Sweden, as well as a group of municipalities around Stockholm. In several border municipalities in Sweden, people born in Norway are the largest minority group. Swedish-born persons are the largest minority group in most municipalities in northern and western Finland (by percentage). People born in one of the EU15 countries form the largest minority group in southern Denmark, near the border with Germany, as well as a few other scattered municipalities in southern Sweden and Norway.
Following several EU expansions starting in 2004, many people from the EU accession countries have entered the Nordic countries as economic migrants. Persons from EU accession countries now constitute the largest minority group in nearly all municipalities in Iceland, many municipalities in southwest Norway, several in northern Norway, many in southern Sweden, just across the Öresund strait from Denmark, and numerous municipalities in southern Finland. In Iceland, 10% of the population is from one of the EU accession countries. The largest group are from Poland at 6% of the population of Iceland. This is a remarkable increase in the non-native population, given that as recently as 1998, only 4% of the population of Iceland were foreign-born.
Map 3.3: Largest minority by country of birth (2022)
Source: Nordic NSIs
In Finland, 94,121 persons were classified as being born in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Of these, 63,885 or two-thirds listed the FSU as their place of birth without specifying the successor state; 20,499 said they were born in Russia, and 5,367 were from Ukraine. The second-largest group of FSU-born persons were those from Estonia, 47,198 – however, these are classified in the EU accession group. Persons born in the former Soviet Union are the largest minority group in most municipalities in southeast Finland.
In 2015, Sweden was one the largest recipients of people arriving as refugees. In total, there were 162,000 asylum applications, equivalent to 1.6% of the population (Nordic Council of Ministers 2024). The effects of this influx are still present, as persons born in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Syria are the largest minority group in many municipalities in the south of Sweden. Persons born in other countries make up the largest minority group in many municipalities in northern Sweden and southern Norway.
As mentioned above, there has been a decline in the percentage of foreign-born citizens in Greenland. At present, the population is 89% native-born, with 7% born in Denmark, 4% born elsewhere, and persons born in Asia making up 2% of the population.
In the Faroe Islands, 84% of the population is native-born, and 8% were born in Denmark. People born in the Philippines are the third-largest group. They are primarily migrant workers, specifically participants in the marriage market for Faroese men (Ísfeld 2019). This is due to gender disparity in the Faroe Islands, with 108 men for every 100 women (Statistics Faroe Islands 2024). People from the EU accession countries only make up 1.2% of the population, the majority of whom were born in Poland and Romania.
The share of Åland’s population born in Sweden has increased from 5% of the population in 2000 to 10%. Like the other Nordic regions, Åland has also seen increases in the number of people from EU accession counties. There are currently 400 people born in Latvia and 450 born in Romania residing in Åland (Statistics and Research Åland (ÅSUB) 2024).

Concluding remarks

This chapter focuses on selected aspects of the ‘diversity explosion’ in the Nordic Region during the past few decades (Frey 2018). It provides an overview of the geographic aspects of the increased diversity. Further analysis can be done at different geographic levels, e.g. focusing on neighbourhoods or using more detailed data other than simply place of birth.
People don’t just migrate to the Nordic countries; they move to specific places within these countries. Where they move and how they settle is important to their integration. Increases in immigration at the national level also mean that increases are taking place at regional and municipal levels. Many smaller and peripheral municipalities, which until relatively recently were quite homogenous, have seen influxes of migrants from abroad. Most have welcomed these newcomers as they help to counter population decline, ageing demographics and labour market shortages. The nature of the interactions between these newcomers and their host communities determines whether their integration is successful or unsuccessful.
While most migrants successfully integrate into the Nordic countries to which they relocate, many do not. This is especially the case when they segregate from the population of the host countries. Spatial segregation is often associated with other aspects of segregation, in terms of schools, workplaces and social activities. It is crucial to have information and knowledge of the geographic patterns of immigration in order to develop effective policies related to segregation.
Managing migration is a complex challenge, and it is crucial to consider the geographical aspects. While each of the Nordic countries has its own specific migration history, they have all experienced similar trends in recent decades in the form of large increases and diffusions of migrants. Comparative analyses of patterns of geographic settlements across the Nordic countries can, therefore, inform the development of effective migration and integration policies.


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