The refugee challenge
In 2015, more than 160,000 people sought asylum in Sweden – twice as many as in 2014. Sweden’s self-image as open and tolerant is challenged as asylum applications pile up, housing becomes scarcer and xenophobia more visible.
The official population growth in 2015 was a little over 100,000. The figure includes more than 75,000 immigrants, but excludes most of the asylum seekers since they only become officially part of the population after they’ve been granted asylum. A particular challenge is the fact that 35,000 asylum seekers were ‘unaccompanied minors’, namely children who arrive in Sweden without parents.
In the wake of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Sweden has welcomed more refugees than any other European country in relation to its population – and it has taken its toll on parts of society.
Ylva Johansson, Sweden’s Minister for Employment and coordinator of the government’s work with refugees, comments on the situation: ‘This unprecedented population increase has resulted in a lack of practical resources, from housing to schools to healthcare. And that’s why we can’t continue having such a large number of people coming here year after year – it’s stretching our system.’
(Read the full interview on The Local Voices.)
Since the end of 2015, the Swedish government has – as a temporary measure – tightened border controls, making it harder to enter Sweden without a valid passport or other identification document. Refugees who don’t want to apply for asylum in Sweden are not allowed to cross the Swedish border.
Other measures have also been taken. In June 2016, the Swedish parliament adopted legislative changes for asylum seekers, which – among other things – mean tougher financial requirements in cases of migration to be with close family. Sweden’s policy changes are partly due to the fact that most other EU countries have failed to receive their agreed share of refugees.
Coincidentally, 2015 was also a record year for emigration, with nearly 56,000 people leaving the country. Among the emigrants, the top ten countries of birth were Sweden (one-third), China, India, Iraq, Finland, Denmark, the US, Germany, Poland and Norway.
The asylum process
Most refugees apply for asylum, and it’s the Swedish Migration Agency that handles all asylum applications.* Due to the sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers, the average waiting time for an asylum decision is 8.4 months (at the beginning of 2016), but it’s expected to rise to more than 12 months.
During the waiting time, asylum seekers can work to support themselves, provided that they’ve been exempted from the work permit requirement. Those who don’t have any means to support themselves can apply for a ‘daily allowance’ amounting to SEK 71 (EUR 7.70) per day for a single adult (or SEK 24 per day if food is provided free of charge at their accommodation).
Sweden must offer asylum seekers accommodation, run by either the Swedish Migration Agency or a private actor. Accommodation was getting harder and harder to come by in 2015, in the end leaving the Migration Agency with no other option but to let some people sleep in tents for a few days.
If a person has been granted a residence permit for refugee or refugee-like reasons, Swedish municipalities are required by law to provide accommodation for that person. This change in the law effective from 1 March 2016 is expected free up around 10,000 places in the Migration Agency’s accommodation facilities for asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers, or holders, can also choose to arrange their own accommodation – if they have relatives in the country, for example.
NGO initiatives for refugees include, among others:
- Refugees Welcome – connecting refugees with landlords and flatshares
- The Church of Sweden – some branches of the Swedish national church offer social activities and accept donations for refugees
- Islamic Relief (in Swedish) – charity that, among other things, receives donations of supplies for asylum accommodations
- FARR – umbrella organisation for individuals and groups working to strengthen the right to asylum
- Invitationsdepartementet – a non-profit integration initiative that connects immigrants and Swedes over dinner
Media and public opinion
The ‘refugee crisis’ overshadowed all other international news about Sweden in 2015. Events such as the violent arrest of a 12-year-old Moroccan refugee in Malmö in February or arson attacks on asylum centres and mosques got a lot of media coverage, conveying an image of intolerance and financial restraints, far from the otherwise often utopian image of Sweden. The country may suddenly seem less open, tolerant and generous to an outsider. But in all honesty, apart from the media coverage, most Swedes don’t really notice the ‘refugee crisis’ in their everyday life. Society hasn’t collapsed.
Naturally, Swedes have different views on the record influx of people. In December 2015, public opinion had shifted towards more scepticism – 55 per cent of Swedes felt that the country should receive fewer refugees, a sharp increase from only 30 per cent in September 2015.
According to a report from the Swedish Public Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen), Sweden needs a yearly addition of 64,000 immigrants aged 16–64 to compensate for the sinking number of people born in Sweden. Otherwise, there won’t be enough manpower to sustain the renowned Swedish welfare state.
*The Dublin Regulation states that a refugee who comes to Europe must apply for asylum in the first safe country she/he arrives in.
Zelga Gabriel, refugee from Syria
Meet Zelga Gabriel. At 18, she was an interior design student at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Then, the Syrian Civil War broke out. Zelga was eventually forced to terminate her studies and return to her hometown, Hassakeh.
Zelga is Assyrian, the Christian minority indigenous to the Middle East that has suffered attacks from ISIS recently. Eventually, Zelga’s family decided she would be safer in Sweden, where she arrived in August 2015.
Now 22, Zelga lives in a suburb just outside Södertälje, an industrial town south-west of Stockholm where around 37 per cent of residents are foreign-born and where a majority of the roughly 100,000 Assyrians who have emigrated to Sweden since the late 1960s live.
Zelga’s mother, brother and several members of her extended family are also here in Sweden, as is her best friend from back home. But her father and sister are still in Hassakeh. And her heart remains there, Zelga says.
‘If it was just up to me, I would never have left. Syria is my country; my roots are there.
‘Some people say we weren’t forced to flee Syria; that it was our choice to leave. But when you know that you might die at any time, then that is like you’re being forced.’
From Syria to Sweden
Zelga was fortunate to have a relatively easy journey to Sweden: by bus and taxi to Lebanon, and then by plane to Stockholm. It took around a week altogether.
She had applied for a job in Sweden working with unaccompanied migrant children, but when she arrived in Sweden, she decided not to take up the job because it didn’t meet her expectations. She ended up applying for asylum, and got her residence permit after six months.
‘When there’s peace, you think about things like beauty and design. War changes that.’
While Zelga’s relatives had told her a lot about life in Sweden, coming here was still a shock.
‘When I first arrived and saw all the greenery, I was in tears. I felt like this place doesn’t represent me and who I am, even if it’s very beautiful.’
Adapting to life in Sweden
Zelga chose to settle in Södertälje because she had family there and there is a large Assyrian community in the town.
‘We try to stick together,’ she says.
She spends most of her time with relatives and friends with the same background as her – Assyrians from Syria. Zelga hopes to also make friends with Swedes once she starts studying or working.
‘Some of my cousins were born in Sweden. I knew before coming here that it was a good country, that there is more freedom here than in Syria. I also knew about the cold weather, of course.
‘Now I know Sweden is very different from Syria. There isn’t as much connection between families. You don’t meet your cousins that often, and you don’t have time for yourself. You just work.’
Aiming for university
Zelga has begun to learn the language – taking ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ classes – but is still finding it difficult to settle in
‘In the beginning, everything is new and even though your heart is not in it, you have to try to adapt. I try to see my life here as a new chance,’ she says.
She wants to become part of Swedish society and start university as soon as possible. Zelga is considering both psychology and social work, something that she can use to help other Assyrians, either here in Sweden or back home in Syria.
Interior design has lost its appeal as a profession. Zelga says: ‘When there’s peace, you think about things like beauty and design. War changes that.’
Zelga Gabriel was interviewed by Nathalie Rothschild, a journalist based in Stockholm.
Video: Mohammed Atif, refugee from Afghanistan
Quick facts about Mohammed Atif:
- Age: 24 years
- From: Afghanistan
- Came to Sweden: In 2015, with his sister and her two children
- Education: Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Kerala in India
- Work experience: Logistics assistant for Bakhtar Development Network (BDN) in Afghanistan
The video interview with Mohammed Atif was done by Arantxa Hurtado, a Spanish Stockholm-based producer and photographer.
Last updated: 8 September 2016