Friday, April 19, 2013
STOCKHOLM – Job cuts and influx of refugees are playing into the hands of far-rightists in Sweden and fuelling a backlash against Muslim immigrants in the Scandinavian country.
"You can see that the language and tone is more vulgar now,” Bejzat Becirov, founder of the Islamic Center in the southern city of Malmo, Sweden’s first mosque, told Reuters.
“That gets worse and worse.”
Anti-immigrant sentiments have been on the rise in Sweden in recent months due to an influx of refugees from countries as Syria and Somalia.
Sweden received 43,900 asylum seekers in 2012, a nearly 50 percent jump from 2011 and the second highest on record.
Nearly half were from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia and will get at least temporary residency - out of a total 103,000 immigrants.
But opponents complain that the influx of refugees is putting heavy burdens on the country’s welfare budget.
"The main thing is we have to stop immigration to this city," Eskilstuna city councilor Adam Marttinen, who is a member of the far-right Sweden Democrats, said.
Among 44 industrialized countries, Sweden ranked fourth in the number of asylum seekers and second relative to its population, according to UN figures.
Sweden, where some 15 percent of the population is foreign born, the highest in the Nordic region, has a reputation for treating new arrivals well, from providing housing to free Swedish lessons.
Some asylum seekers are allowed to live with relatives while they await appeals on their fate.
But immigration into the country came to the forefront amid reports about job cuts from iconic companies, from Ericsson to airline SAS.
Municipalities also complain they lack housing for new arrivals.
"Sweden is one of the countries that receives the most immigrants in the EU. That's not sustainable," Immigration Minister Tobias Billstrom said earlier this year.
"Today, people are coming to households where the only income is support from the municipality. Is that reasonable?"
Analysts opine that the debate on the immigration reflects the growing concerns in the Nordic countries about their welfare systems.
"Sweden is seeing the most intense debate on immigration in its political history," Andreas Johansson Heino, a political scientist at Sweden's Timbro think tank, told Reuters.
"What we are seeing is polarization in Sweden."
Estimates show that unemployment among foreign-born residents has reached 16 percent, compared to 6 percent for native Swedes.
Sweden needs high employment levels to pay for its extensive welfare, including some of the most generous parental leaves in Europe.
This concern is helping anti-immigrant parties to gain more support among the public.
Across the Nordic region, anti-immigration parties, which languished after Norwegian far-rightist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in 2011, are gaining support.
In Denmark, the Danish People's Party, a power broker in the last coalition, has gained amid an unpopular left-of-center government.
In Norway, the Progress Party, hit by sex scandals that also eroded its image, is now the third largest party.
In Sweden, Sweden Democrats is gaining more support.
"We want to be a real kingmaker," party leader Jimmie Akesson said.
Around 20 percent of Swedes now believe the Sweden Democrats have the best immigration policy, pollster Novus says.
In Eskilstuna, Marttinen hopes the party will reach 15 percent of votes in this town of around 50,000 people.
The far-right party got 10 percent in the last election in a blue collar town once known as the "city of steel" for its industrial base.
But the anti-immigrant tone is drawing criticism in Sweden, a country known for its history of tolerance.
Aftonbladet, one of the main tabloids, ran a campaign called "We like difference".
Surveys also show the Sweden Democrats may have a ceiling of support at between 10 and 15 percent.
"Sweden is not a racist country. Ninety percent are good people," said the Islamic Centre's Becirov.
"But we must also be honest, it's a difficult time right now."
Muslims make up between 450,000 and 500,000 of Sweden’s nine million people, according to the US State Department report in 2011.