Sweden + 1 more

Refugee influx weighs on Swedish towns

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Sweden is struggling to cope with the arrival last year of one asylum-seeker for every 60 Swedes. Unease and support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are growing, as Richard Orange reports from Revingeby.

The day the first refugees arrived at Sweden's first tent refugee camp deep in the countryside of southern Sweden, a note from a neo-Nazi organization dropped into the letterbox of everyone living nearby. "This area has been declared a National Socialist zone," it declared. "This means that the Nordic Resistance Movement is either already established or is in the process of being established."
It was the third such note since plans to house up to 350 refugees in a field across the road were announced in October. "It's so stupid," argued Karin Fröjd, who recently moved from the city of Lund to Revingeby village, with its attractive whitewashed church and old-fashioned fire station. "The way I understand it is that most people in the village are positive."

This is clearly wishful thinking.

Educated, middle-class Swedes like Fröjd, who works for a software company, still by and large support the old open-door asylum policy, which Sweden's government is now toughening up considerably.

But polls suggest that the record 163,000 asylum seekers who arrived in 2015 - one for every 60 Swedes - is creating growing unease among others. Support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats has soared from 12.9 percent at the time of the last election to 19 percent today, according to Sifo, Sweden's leading polling company.

And neither of the two locals picking up their children early from the school across the road from Fröjd's house were supportive of the camp. "It's madness to take people from tent camps in the Middle East and put them in tent camps in Sweden," declared one man, who admitted to voting for the Sweden Democrats, as he picked up his daughter in the winter afternoon darkness. "Many here in the village feel this, but they don't say it, because then everyone would say they are racist. I would say at least two thirds are against it."

A woman picking up her daughter looked worried when asked about the refugees who had arrived that day. "They say it's only men who are going to live there," she said cautiously. "You don't know if they're traumatized. They could be dangerous people."

Boon to far right All that has happened so far in Revingeby is a leafleting campaign. But elsewhere there have been arson attacks on refugee centers.

More than 50 were reported in Sweden last year in what the anti-extremist magazine "Expo" described as the "most intensive wave of attacks against asylum accommodation ever."

In October, a planned asylum center in Hässleholm municipality, just north of Revingeby, was set ablaze.

Patrik Jönsson, who leads the Sweden Democrats in the municipality, argued that the arsonists were "morons who should be put in prison," but he said Sweden's government should take part of the blame. "When the politicians don't listen to the people, it creates a tense society, it makes people anxious and they do very stupid things," he said.

He predicted that the refugees crisis had pushed his party ahead of both the ruling Social Democrats and the center-right Moderate party in the town.

"I am 100 percent sure that we will be the largest party in Hässleholm if nothing extreme happens at the 2018 election," he predicted. "I think we have 35 percent to 40 percent of the votes."

Local people, he said, feared that the cost of handling this year's wave of refugees would inevitably worsen welfare standards.

"We don't have money for schools. We don't have money for old people. The head of the municipality said we had costs from the latest wave of refugees of 300 million kronor [33 million euros], only in Hässleholm," he said.

Struggling to cope

In November, Sweden's central government gave Hässleholm an additional 69.8 million Swedish kronor in funding to help handle the surge, part of a total 8.3 billion kronor disbursed to different municipalities across the country.

But Jenny Carlbom, the refugee coordinator for the municipality, admitted that it was struggling nonetheless.

"People are beginning to burn out because we are overwhelmed with caring for such large numbers of children," she said. "We hadn't anticipated this and neither had the Migration Agency."

Anna Guettler, who is responsible for finding school places for the 570 new young people who have arrived in the municipality this year, said that she had been increasingly forced to rely on unqualified teachers, while school nurses were too busy to check that all pupils are vaccinated.

In just one month from mid October to mid-November, elementary school grew by three classes. That's very dramatic growth," she said.

"There are places where class sizes have risen significantly, that's absolutely happened. There are situations where pupils have had to wait before starting school, which isn't at all a happy situation."

'Resource for the future'

Among those waiting were about 50 new arrivals who spent several months in the queue for Hässleholm ungdomscentrum, the 'youth center' where new arrivals between 16 and 20 years of age are sent to be prepared for secondary school.

The school has in just a few months taken over classrooms in a nearby school, and extended itself into an adjoining building, but Per Nilsson, its headmaster, said he did not expect to have spare places for long.

"There are some who have started university studies, there are some who have never gone to school at all, and then there's everything in between," he said, explaining the challenge of preparing such a disparate group of teenagers for Swedish society.

But he nonetheless believed it was wrong to see those under his charge as a burden.

"Some of them are very smart. We had a guy who came in the summer who I think had had only two years in school. And on his way here, he had taught himself five languages. When he came to us, he'd been in Sweden only seven months and could already speak extremely good Swedish. He wants to be dentist."

"I'm not worried, not about these children anyway," he added. "If we can give them a good schooling, they can become a resource for us. I give them a little help now and when I retire, it will be them helping me."

It's the logic on which Sweden's high tax, generous welfare state is built.

Whether it is compatible with such large influxes of uneducated newcomers will be the big question hanging over Sweden's municipalities for decades to come.