Sweden cools its welcome for Iraqi asylum seekers

SWEDEN has given shelter to about 100,000 Iraqis, 40,000 of them since the invasion of their country in 2003 – and that is far more than any other western country, including the United States.

But the Swedish government has gradually tightened its asylum rules, worried that its generous welfare system cannot cope.

The effects became evident this year, when immigration statistics showed only 28 per cent of asylum claims were approved in January and 23 per cent in February – down from 85 per cent in January 2007.

While Sweden has won praise for the welcome it extends to Iraqis, the government sees the surge of newcomers as out of control and has appealed in vain to other European states to share the burden.

“We find it totally unacceptable that some countries do a lot while others do very little,” Tobias Billstrom, the migration minister, said. “When very many people arrive within a very short period, it puts an enormous strain on the system, like schools and health care.”

The turning point in Sweden came last year when the Migration Board, citing decisions by the nation’s highest immigration court, said the situation in Iraq could not be described as an armed conflict. So asylum seekers must now show they have fled specific threats of violence.

In 2007, more than 18,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in Sweden – four times more than in Germany and ten times more than in Britain, according to figures from the European Council of Refugees and Exiles.

But the numbers fell sharply this year, with only 835 asylum seekers heading to Sweden in February – down nearly 40 per cent from the previous month and the lowest since July 2006. In the first three weeks of March, only 376 sought asylum in Sweden.

“Unfortunately we’re not surprised,” said Bjarte Vandvik, secretary-general of the council. “It was going to happen sooner or later. The lack of solidarity in Europe…has had this very unfortunate effect.”

Sodertalje, south of Stockholm, is home to more than 6,000 Iraqis and is nicknamed “little Baghdad”. The newcomers, who are mainly Christians, make up about 7 per cent of the industrial city’s population. The result, officials say, is an acute shortage of housing, schools and jobs.

“There are examples of 15 people living in a two-bedroom apartment,” Anders Lago, the city’s mayor, said.

“Sweden needs immigration – it’s a small country with a low birth rate. But we have to be able to receive people in a humane and dignified way – and we’re not doing that right now, when they have to sleep on mattresses on the floor.”