How Sweden tries to assimilate its influx of refugees

By Edwin Lane
Business reporter, BBC News, Stockholm.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSweden saw more than 80,000 applications for asylum last year alone

At Stockholm Central Station, hundreds of refugees have been arriving on trains from across Europe every day.

Among them recently was Ali, a young Iraqi in his 20s who says he spent 29 days travelling over sea and land to escape his conflict-ridden homeland in the hope of a better life in northern Europe.

He reels off the countries he has travelled through to get this far: "From Iraq to Turkey, Turkey to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark and finally Sweden".

On the journey he says he was imprisoned, moved on, or ignored.

"I like Sweden," he says. "My treatment is on another level - I'm a human."

Sweden has a reputation for generosity, having welcomed asylum seekers for decades. But in recent years numbers have substantially increased.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSweden has a reputation for welcoming refugees

Last year, this country of fewer than 10 million people, received more than 80,000 applications for asylum - the highest number per head of population in the European Union (EU), and second only to Germany.

The latest influx - driven by the rise in numbers fleeing war in Syria - has raised questions about whether the country's "open-door" policy is sustainable.

Critical voices in Sweden (as in other European countries) question whether governments can afford to host refugees at a time when public finances are stretched.

And there is anxiety in Sweden about the impact of integrating so many migrants into the economy and labour market.

'Good plan'

Morgan Johansson is Sweden's Migration Minister. He told me it was time for other EU members to "play their part" in offering shelter to refugees.

Mr Johansson says that understanding the significant and positive impact refugees can have on an economy is key, particularly for governments in the ageing countries of northern Europe, where more workers are needed to support the growing number of pensioners.

"Take, for example, the Syrians who are now coming to Sweden," he says.

"One third of them have higher education. They are doctors, engineers, nurses, people we know we will need in the Swedish economy. We need them right now, but we will need them even more in the coming years".

Focussing on realising the economic potential of refugees means that getting them jobs is central to Sweden's integration policies, something the government has invested heavily in over recent years.

image captionLamis Qandalaft fled Syria to start a new life in Sweden

The Swedish Public Employment Service (SPES) is the government agency charged with assessing the skills of those granted asylum, arranging additional training or education where required, and matching refugees with potential employers in need of their skills.

Lamis Qandalaft, a 32-year-old banker from Damascus, is one of the success stories of the scheme. Two years ago, she fled to Sweden with her husband after he had been called up to serve in President Bashar al-Assad's army.

This summer, after training and an internship, she finally landed a job at the headquarters of Swedbank in Stockholm.

Although the couple subsequently divorced, Ms Qandalaft says securing the job has been the foundation of her new life in Sweden.

"They have a good plan for us here," she says. "A plan to study the language and do specialist training.

"All my problems went away when I got the job. Now I have it, it's easier for me to find good accommodation, to live a normal life, to have a better life."

'Wrong focus'

However, efforts to integrate all the refugees that have arrived in Sweden over the past two years into the jobs market have only had a limited success.

According to the SPES itself, in the past 24 months only 30% of refugees put through its integration programme have found jobs or accessed education.

image copyrightCAROLINE TIBELL
image captionSweden works hard to assimilate immigrants to the country

Learning Swedish remains a significant barrier for many trying to enter the labour market, and there are questions about how effectively the majority of refugees, who are low-skilled with little formal education, can expect to contribute to the economy - at least in the short term.

Domestically there are rumblings of discontent with government policy. In a recent opinion poll, the Sweden Democrats, an opposition anti-immigration party, came out as the single most popular party, with the backing of more than a quarter of voters.

The party's migration spokesman Markus Wiechel says the government needs to be more selective about who it lets into the country.

"If you need people with a certain education you should focus on letting those people in," he says. "But right now we're just letting everyone in regardless of their education."

Migration Minister Morgan Johansson rejects that argument.

"There is a moral obligation; we can't pick and choose," he says. "Even people with low skills can be educated, and all human beings have the same value - that is the core of the European Union."

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