Swedes' tolerance tested as refugee crisis bites
After years of welcoming asylum seekers with open arms, Swedes have begun to question the changing nature of their society. Now, as the country moves to the right, Iraqis and Somalis are increasingly facing repatriation
Peter Beaumont in Sodertalje
Sunday March 30 2008
Three children look through a window at a daycare centre in the town of Soedertaelje, south of Stockholm. Photograph: Caroline Tibell/AFP/Getty images
Nina is 27 and Iraqi. She arrived in the Swedish town of Sodertalje, just south of Stockholm, after a three-month journey with her seven-year-old daughter to escape Baghdad.
A Christian from the Dora neighbourhood, Nina paid $18,000 to a people smuggler after militants came to her house to offer her family a choice: pay them a tax, convert to Islam, or die.
Now she lives with two other families in a small apartment in the town of 82,000 where Bjorn Borg was born, that is home to AstraZeneca, the pharmaceuticals giant, and a factory building Scania trucks.
She has applied for the right to stay in Sweden as a refugee. A year ago it would have been straightforward. Not any more – not since Sweden embarked on a national debate over its asylum policy.
It is a policy that has seen Sodertalje alone take more Iraqi refugees than the UK and the US combined. But in Sweden's new political climate, it is no longer certain that Nina (not her real name) will be permitted to remain. A new court process for screening refugees has meant that while last year about 72 per cent of Iraqi asylum seekers – the largest group entering Sweden – were accepted, in the first few months of 2008 that figure was only 27 per cent.
Driving the asylum debate is the nature of places like Sodertalje, Rinkeby, Tensta – all on Stockholm's periphery – and the suburbs of cities like Malmo. All have substantial populations of refugees – Somalis, Iraqis and Assyrians. Most are largely segregated from Sweden's mainstream life.
The rethinking of Sweden's asylum policy is being pushed too by two years of record immigration and refugee arrivals. Last year this country of nine million received 18,599 asylum applications from fleeing Iraqis. And the question being asked is not only whether a country with the reputation for having one of the world's most generous policies towards refugees can continue to be so welcoming. It is also whether Sweden needs urgently to redraw its requirements for their integration. Whether, indeed, those being offered a safe haven should be required to be more 'Swedish' and be dispersed from the core communities where they have settled.
The reframing of Sweden's attitude towards refugees has followed the election of a centre-right government in 2006 and also the reshaping of its politics with the re-emergence of the far right in the shape of the Sweden Democrats. The result has been a toughening of asylum policies and a hardening of the political discourse towards refugees.
Despite severe criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees earlier this month, the Swedish government has drawn up a memorandum of understanding with the government of Iraq to return some 3,000 failed asylum seekers after the government's Migration Board ruled that there was 'no armed internal conflict' in Iraq.
By this standard, nor is there a conflict in Somalia.
The ruling shocked Madeleine Seidlitz, a lawyer and refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty International Sweden. She recalls tough periods but says that the situation for refugees in Sweden is now more difficult than at any time she can remember.
'We rarely see the courts giving the benefit of the doubt. We see judgments that are simply incorrect under international law. And there seems to be no interest in the courts in understanding the nature of the situation in the countries of the refugees they are dealing with.' Not least, she means, Iraq and Somalia.
While Seidlitz believes that Sweden has become 'a harder place', she is puzzled over where the pressure for change is coming from, believing that it is the politicians who are pushing the process rather than necessarily reflecting changing public attitudes.
But the debate is not simply over the issue of who should be allowed to stay – or where failed asylum seekers should to be repatriated to. Another key word has emerged: integration.
The previous 12 years of Social Democratic rule, according to some of their critics on the right, was a period characterised by the flyktingkramarna – 'the refugee huggers' – who showed 'excessive care' towards the refugee population.
The result of those years, the Folkpartiet – part of the ruling coalition – claimed in its campaign for election had been the creation a 'segregated' Sweden. So, earlier this month, the Folkpartiet's Minister for Integration, Nyamko Sabuni, told Swedish radio that her party was considering a mandatory course on Swedish values for would-be new citizens. For its part, the Social Democratic party has been forced to respond to the debate – focusing on Sodertalje.
'Sodertalje has more refugees from Iraq than all of North America,' said party leader Mona Sahlin two weeks ago. 'That doesn't work.'
Sahlin suggested that arriving refugees should no longer be given the choice, enshrined in Swedish law, of where they live, instead being assigned to a municipality for the first few years.
Ylva Brune, a journalist turned academic at Kalmar University, who has studied attitudes in the Swedish media towards immigrants, believes that the debate reflects the deep-seated contradictions in Swedish society towards outsiders – refugees in particular. 'It comes up from time to time, and I think it is re-emerging,' she said last week.
'We have always had this conflict in our society between the frontier-guarding attitude and those who favour a more human rights attitude. And of course Sweden's authorities have always been afraid of those coming from outside Europe. '
There is another contradiction. Despite toughening its stance, Sweden increasingly requires high levels of immigration in all sectors of its rebounding economy, in a country also faced with the challenges of an ageing population. Last year one third of all new jobs went to those born outside the country, a proportion expected to half.
But the key issue, according to Tobias Billstrom of the Moderate Party, part of the ruling coalition, is that the government wants to move from a supply-led pool of migrants heading for Sweden – many reaching the country via people smuggling – to a demand-led one, where Sweden decides who should come in and which roles they should fill.
Those likely to be affected by this change are the many asylum seekers arriving in a country that, while it accepts few refugees on Geneva Convention grounds, has nevertheless historically given them permission to remain.
Billstrom defends the new screening process that has reduced the number of refugee acceptances in recent months as 'safe', as he does the decision to repatriate failed asylum seekers to places like Iraq. 'I think you have to screen individual cases,' Billstrom said. 'Not everyone at every time is under threat [in Iraq].' It is not a view endorsed by the UNHCR.
Billstrom also backs a proposal to revise the law that insists on keeping family members together who are coming to join refugees already granted residency. In future, to be placed in the same town the original family members would have to show they have the means to house and support any new arrivals.
If one place is mentioned repeatedly in the debate, it is Sodertalje. A tidy little town of factories and housing blocks set on gently sloping wooded hills, dotted with grey granite outcrops and straddling a river, it has been thrust to the centre of the asylum and integration debate by the facts of its social composition.
Popular since the 1970s with first waves of Assyrian Christian refugees from the Middle East, it established itself as a magnet for each new wave of Middle Eastern refugees. These days, 40 per cent of its population is first or second generation immigrant.
Mayor Anders Lago, who backs the proposed change in the law to allow the government to disperse arriving refugees throughout Sweden, insists that he is not arguing for Sweden to turn its back on its history of accepting refugees. He says he is simply anxious to see no more settled in overcrowded Sodertalje.
He believes others should take up the strain. Next month he will address members of the US Congress to point out that more Iraqis come to his town than have been accepted in the US. 'Of course there are problems here. In the areas of most dense settlement of refugees – like Ronna – we have people living 15 to a flat. There are people living on mattresses on the floor. And of course it causes problems for the children. There are waiting lists for schools, with reports off some children waiting four months for a place.
'One part of the problem is the concentration. It is possible to live and get by in places like Ronna speaking only Arabic, not Swedish. And of course it feeds into the discussion: is it possible for Sweden to be so generous as it has been over the past 20-30 years? I think it is the question of whether the system is working. I think if it is possible to have a flat and work and an education it is OK. But the problem is when the system is not working.'
Despite Billstrom's claims over the opportunities for foreigners in Sweden, the evidence – anecdotal and academic – suggests that many refugees struggle either to find work or work well below their educational achievements.
But even recent refugees like Ginbot Abraha, an Eritrean who arrived five years ago and now works in Sodertalje's introduction centre for new arrivals, admit there is a problem with the concentration of refugees in places such as Sodertalje.
Although he is positive about his own experience, he accepts that the 'trajectory of the argument in Swedish society is that there are more vocal forces hostile to foreigners in general, indicated by the re-emergence of a far right party with seats again in the municipal councils, including two in Sodertalje'.
'They say they come here to exploit the state welfare and can have a very negative effects on society. On the whole though,' he insists, 'it is a misunderstanding of why people come to Sweden and it is an issue that needs a deeper understanding. They are not a burden on resources. They are a resource.'