Sweden struggles to house asylum seekers as numbers rise

Sören Billing

Roestaanga (Sweden) (AFP) - Sweden is grappling with a record number of asylum seekers, putting into sharp focus the issue of immigration which is at the heart of Sunday's election.

Famously liberal Sweden has earned praise for its policies on asylum seekers, but an influx of applicants at levels not seen since the Balkans war in the 1990s is straining state coffers and causing many to question the government's approach.

Some are housed at Odengaarden asylum centre in southern Sweden, where the picturesque countryside outside is in stark contrast to the residents' dark stories of grief and separation.

Maisoun Mahmood, a 35-year-old Syrian lawyer of Palestinian descent, paid everything she had to smugglers who helped her escape to Scandinavia.

Now she is holed up with 100 other newcomers in cramped quarters, without a clear idea what she will do next.

"Everybody here has a problem," she said. "Sometimes you want to cry."

More asylum seekers were granted residency permits in Sweden than in any other European nation last year, and the Nordic country expects up to 80,000 refugees this year -- numbers not seen since people fled the bloodshed in the Balkans two decades ago for the calm of Sweden.

In July, Sweden's migration authority requested an additional 48 billion kronor ($6.9 billion, 5.2 billion euros) -- on top of its 91 billion kronor budget for the next four years -- to handle an upsurge in refugees from war-torn countries like Syria and Somalia.

With reception centres full, the agency has had to rent private motels, youth hostels and holiday villages to lodge the more than 2,000 people arriving every week from conflict zones around the globe.

- Housing woes -

More than half of them land in the southern port city of Malmoe, where they file an asylum application before being given temporary accommodation elsewhere in the country while it is processed.

Odengaarden, in the village of Roestaanga, is an example of these makeshift arrangements, having been converted from a conference centre only three months ago.

The asylum centre "is good but you can't rest because there are other people in your room," Mahmood said.

Speaking only in Arabic, a Syrian man at the centre said he used to work as a mechanic in his hometown and complained that all he could do during the day was eat and sleep.

It was unclear how, once he was granted residency, he would navigate Swedish society without speaking any English or Swedish.

Sweden is in the throes of an acute housing shortage, extending to remote towns with few jobs to offer, which creates bottlenecks at reception centres like the one in Roestaanga.

Due to the housing crisis, 11,000 refugees are forced to stay at the centres despite having received their residency permits, the Swedish Migration Board said.

- Hot election issue -

Immigration is a key issue in the election as the rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats could weaken the incoming government by depriving it of a parliamentary majority.

Neither the leftist nor the right-wing block is expected to secure an absolute majority and all of the parties have ruled out governing with the help of the Sweden Democrats, which look set to double their support to between 10 to 12 percent.

"Other parties are afraid of being associated with the Sweden Democrats in any way," said Anders Hellstroem, a researcher at Malmoe University.

"The not-insignificant minority attracted to the Sweden Democrats' message don't have any other party to vote for," he said.

Public concern over soaring refugee numbers comes after rioting in Stockholm's immigrant-heavy suburbs last year shattered the world's image of Sweden as a peaceful and egalitarian nation and highlighted the failure to integrate large groups of immigrants into mainstream society.

After three years in the country, fewer than one in five refugees have found a job. After seven years the number rises to about 50 percent, compared with 85 percent for ethnic Swedes.

Critics argue that although the vast majority of Swedes continue to support liberal asylum laws, many are more tolerant on paper than in real life.

Swedish tolerance "in practice only extends to paying high taxes," Robert Hannah, a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal People's Party, wrote in the Svenska Dagbladet daily.

Swedes accept immigrant children going to the same schools as their own kids "as long as there aren't too many of the immigrant children," claimed Hannah, who is of Assyrian heritage.

"The everyday discrimination that exists today is not primarily due to racist Sweden Democrats, but because it seems easier to choose to socialise with, and employ, those who are most like yourself," he wrote.