In 2015, Sweden rolled out the welcome mat for migrants. Credit: Reuters
In 2015, Sweden rolled out the welcome mat for migrants. Credit: Reuters

At the height of the 2015 migrant crisis, when many European countries were trying to shirk their responsibilities, Sweden opened its doors to refugees. But Swedish hospitality, long seen as a model of integration, is starting to crack with a rising anti-immigrant wave.

Barely two years ago, at a “Refugees Welcome” demonstration in Stockholm, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven famously issued a plea for human dignity. "My Europe doesn’t build walls,” Löfven proclaimed at a time when most EU states - including France - were reluctant to accept refugees.

Sweden took up the challenge and set up a genuine reception policy, making it the most welcoming country to migrants, in proportion to the number of inhabitants. 163,000 asylum applications were filed in Sweden in 2015 compared with just over 80,000 in France. Of these, nearly 34,500 were accepted - compared to 19,500 in France.

No migrants on the streets

The number of arrivals was staggering. There were "1,000 people per day" in 2015, according to Swedish Red Cross volunteer Kenneth Brusquini. However, no migrant was forced to sleep on the streets. "Soon, an informal camp was opened to shelter the migrants next to the Malmö railway station [a border town with Denmark]. It was unthinkable to leave them outside," noted Brusquini.

The government quickly set up a quota system so that each Swedish municipality - some willingly, some not quite - participated in the reception of the refugees. The aim was to integrate them as good as possible into society and, most importantly, to ease the congestion at reception centers run by the National Office for Migration, which are intended only for newcomers.

Special attention to minors

Minors were also relatively well off. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, Sweden provided special protection for this vulnerable group, shielding them from transit sites before they were dispersed to specific reception centers. Children are also immediately enrolled in neighborhood schools.

France, in comparison, lagged far behind Sweden in its migrant protection records. While France also ensures the protection of children, many escape under the radar of the social services with a number of unaccompanied minors simply going “missing,” according to child rights groups.

When it comes to basic services for migrants, the situation in France is alarming. While the country has many reception and orientation centers, hundreds of asylum seekers including minors survive in wretched conditions in makeshift tents on the sidewalks in northern Paris, at the French-Italian border and in Calais. There are frequent cases of migrants being harassed by the police, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, with rights groups raising the alarm over the use of light pepper sprays and tear gas by law enforcement officials.

Challenges of integration 

But two years after Prime Minister Löfven rolled out the migrant welcome mat, the Swedish model of integration does not seem to hold up to its promise. Difficulties in learning the language and the lack of professional support are complicating the integration process for , according to Kenan Habul, a journalist with the Swedish daily, "Aftonbladet".

Although many of the new arrivals are professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers, they must take courses to obtain Swedish equivalent degrees. Many of them cannot afford to go back to university. They are therefore obliged to work in illegal, undocumented jobs, which often go hand-in-hand with precarious work conditions and very low wages in a country where the cost of living is particularly high.

Rising anti-migrant violence

The rising numbers of anti-migrant attacks in recent months are also worrying activists. "There have always been attacks of this type, but I feel that we are now seeing an increase," notes Habul.

In 2016, for example, dozens of masked men attacked migrants in central Stockholm. On July 7, three neo-Nazis were sentenced for bomb attacks targeting asylum centres. 

The growing popularity of the extreme right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats is also alarming activists. A YouGov poll published in March found that nearly a quarter  (23.9 percent) of Swedes who took part in the poll said they would vote for the anti-immigrant party.

The growing nationalist, anti-immigrant wave has sparked a tightening of border controls, with the closure of a bridge linking Denmark and Sweden last year. Immigration checks on Copenhagen trains have been reinforced, and migrant remittances to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which are considered dangerous, are also being increasingly monitored. "The government is expelling Afghans and Iraqis while alerting its fellow citizens about the dangers of traveling to these countries,” Habul explains.

"Our Europe welcomes refugees. Our Europe doesn’t build walls," the Swedish prime minister declared in September 2015. Barely two years later, that seems like a very long time ago.


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