Swedes Start To Question Refugee Policy

Swedes start to question refugee policy

By Robert Anderson
02 May 2008
(Financial Times)

Nader will not give his real name but he does not hide why he chose Sweden as a refuge after Islamic gunmen threatened to murder him unless he fled Mosul in northern Iraq.

Sweden is the only country that accepts immigrants and gives them permission to bring their families, says the 39-year-old Christian doctor, whose wife paid a ransom of $50,000 to release him from the kidnappers. This is the reason most Iraqis come here.

Sweden has a long history of welcoming refugees and over the past few decades large immigrant communities have emerged from many of the worlds trouble spots. They now make up 12 per cent of the population.

However, there is mounting concern that Sweden is accepting more than its fair share of refugees and that this is proving an impossible burden on towns like Sdertlje, the destination of most of the Iraqi Christian asylum-seekers.

The country is home to 80,000 Iraqis, making them the third-largest foreign-born community. Since 2005 the pace of the influx has quickened as the security situation inside Iraq worsened and families rejoined those who had already won asylum. Most Muslim Iraqis have congregated in Malmo, Gothenberg, and Stockholm, while Christian Iraqis the smaller minority have gone to Sdertlje, near Stockholm.

The problem is that only Sweden is open to refugees from Iraq, it is the only country that has a generous system for family reunions, says Anders Lago, Sdertljes Social Democrat mayor. Its necessary to have a stop, he adds.

As an industrial town of 83,600 people, it has found a home for 6,000 Christian Iraqi immigrants over the past five years. Last year a record 1,200 arrived and another 1,000 are expected this year. Proportionally it accepts more Iraqi immigrants than any other town in Sweden.

Sdertlje has welcomed Christians fleeing repressive regimes or war in the Middle East since the 1960s. The community numbers some 18,000 one fifth of the towns total population.

In many respects the integration of Iraqis in Sdertlje is more successful than elsewhere. Many have set up successful businesses: Mr Lago says 100 restaurants in Stockholm are owned by Sdertlje immigrants. Elsewhere in Sweden, Muslim Iraqis have found it more difficult to integrate. Overall almost a third of Iraqi-born immigrants are unemployed.

However, the town council is struggling to cope with the recent influx and has appealed to the government for help. It has been forced to increase staff on its immigrant integration programme from eight to 69 in the past two years and cut its duration from 24 to 18 months. Tobias Billstrom, migration minister, argues the European Union needs a common interpretation of asylum rules to avoid burdening countries like Sweden with more than their fair share of immigrants.

Moreover, some native Swedes are unhappy about the impact the immigrants are having on their towns. Already 40 per cent of Sdertljes population are first- or second-generation immigrants; in a few years they will become a majority.

There is little interaction between the communities. The 1970s-built housing estates in the Ronna and Housj suburbs of Sdertalje have become virtually immigrant-only areas.

Extreme rightwing parties are capitalising on this, having made inroads in town councils in Sdertlje and particularly southern Sweden. Several opinion polls have indicated that the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats could pass the 4 per cent threshold to enter parliament at the 2010 election.

Courts have started to take a stricter approach to asylum claims, demanding proof that each Iraqi is personally at risk of persecution. This has slowed down the processing of claims and Nader has been waiting eight months to hear if the authorities believe his story that he faced a risk of persecution if he remained there.

Tougher measures are currently off the agenda but both the government and the Social Democrats agree that the immigration issue will soon have to be debated.

The risk of a backlash is greater if we dont have a discussion of the problems, says Mayor Lago. As Sdertalje is today, Sweden will be in 10-15 years.