SODERTALJE, Sweden -- What's most remarkable about this small Swedish city is how profoundly it's been shaped by distant civil wars. Because of Sweden’s embrace of political refugees, Sodertalje’s proximity to Stockholm and the tendency of immigrants to congregate, fully half of the people now living in this town are refugees or immigrants from Syria and Iraq.
As a refugee named Issa, who declined to give his surname due to fears of repercussions for his family back in Syria, put it, “The city is mostly Iraqi and Syrian immigrants, but some Swedes live here too.”
Among a population of 65,000, at least 50 percent are originally from outside of Sweden, with the vast majority from Syria or Iraq, according to Sweden’s migration board, known as Migrationservkat.
Issa shares a modest house in Sodertalje, which is about 40 km south of Stockholm, with two other Syrian refugees. They are among an estimated 2.5 million Syrians who have fled their country since fighting began in 2011. Most of those have gone to neighboring countries, including Lebanon, which has been burdened with an influx of 1.1 million refugees. Western countries have taken comparatively few. According to the U.N., Germany has taken 10,000 and has agreed to double that number. France has taken about 500, the U.S. about 100 and the U.K. only 24, according to a Guardian report from June 19.
Globally, Syrians are among an estimated 50 million people who have been displaced by conflicts -- the highest number since World War II, noted a recent report by the United Nations. The current crisis in Iraq is adding to those numbers.
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The arrival of so many refugees is taxing the resources of Sweden, which takes in the largest number of Syrians of any developed country -- about 300 per week. Yet Sodertalje's unusual ethnic mix is not immediately obvious. Around the city’s central square, native Swedes, many with blond hair, walk in and out of stores bordering the square and through a neighboring park, replicating a scene typical of cities across the country. But on the outskirts of Sodertalje, a 20-minute bus ride away, a very different version of the country exists -- one in which the fighting in Aleppo and Tikrit is far more important than the recent news about the Swedish royal family.
Not surprisingly, even in a country generally perceived as progressive and tolerant, the influx has caused some problems.
“In the beginning, immigration to Sodertalje was good, because we needed the workers,” said Marcus Eberhardsson, a 24-year-old native Swede who grew up in Sodertalje before moving north to the city of Umea to study. “But since the industrial base of the city has eroded, jobs have gone and immigration at the level we see here is no longer working for us or the immigrants.”
Sweden has managed to avoid becoming embroiled in major conflicts around the world (though the country sells arms), and its traditional openness has attracted refugees for decades. During World War II, Sweden welcomed immigrants from Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who had fled Russian encroachment and Nazi persecution. Since then, the country has accepted Chileans escaping Pinochet’s violent regime during the 1970s and ’80s, Bosnians and Yugoslavs escaping ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war in the early ’90s and tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan and many former Soviet states. It also welcomed thousands of Americans who were escaping service in the Vietnam war.
Setting the stage for the current demographic shift was the arrival, beginning in the 1970s, of Assyrians, a Christian ethnic group with large populations in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon and Syria, who fled fighting in the Middle East; all told, they make up the bulk of the refugee and immigrant population in Sodertalje.
In addition to this, the ranks of political refugees have swelled with Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. As of June, about 2,000 refugees a week were arriving in Sweden, according to statistics provided by the immigration board. In addition to accepting more Syrian refugees than any other developed country in the world, according to Migrationservkat, Sweden is the only country to offer automatic residency to those fleeing the civil war in Syria.
Sweden’s basic approach to granting asylum has been that refugees would eventually become taxpaying residents, according to Eberhardsson. But industrial decline means that job opportunities have diminished. Loss of many of the city’s car manufacturing plants in the 1990s and early 2000s has made competition for jobs intense, particularly for recent arrivals who aren't fluent in the language.
And, like many transplanted populations, “the immigrants are more likely to embed themselves with the culture and language they know, eroding the likelihood of them integrating into Swedish culture or even bothering to learn the language,” Eberhardsson said.
Such is the Syrian influence that the city has two professional soccer teams that play at the highest level in Swedish football, Assyriska FF and Syrianska, as well as an international TV station, Suroyo TV, which broadcasts in Syriac (an Aramaic language commonly spoken in Syria), Turkish, Arabic, English and Swedish. Many of the jobs taken on by the immigrant population tend to be simple, low-paid positions such as bus drivers, cleaners or garbage man, but even those are hard to come by in the city.
The lack of assimilation has driven a wedge between native Swedes and the immigrants living in Sodertalje, and the influx of nonworking immigrants has meanwhile stretched social services and increased pressures on schools, housing and health care. Sodertalje Mayor Boel Godner lamented to the BBC in an interview last year that one Sodertalje school had to take in 400 extra refugee students during one month alone, many of whom required special education to help them catch up to their age group level. Free language classes for refugees have a backlog of around six months, further hampering their progress.
Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag said most Swedes are happy to continue receiving refugees, but that municipalities have to approve government-sponsored settlement opportunities offered to them, and some have refused -- putting a heavier burden on municipalities that have remained welcoming.
The popularity of far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats has risen sharply in the last eight years, in part due to the parties’ hard-line stance on immigration. The Sweden Democrats now hold 20 seats in the Swedish Parliament and won 5.7 percent of the overall vote in 2010 -- evidence of increasing anti-immigration sentiment in the country. The ruling party, the Moderates, has refused to change its policy on immigration.
“Sweden has a rich history with regard to immigration going back to the Fifties and Sixties,” said Integration Minister Ullenhag in a phone interview with the International Business Times. “It is true, the Sweden Democrats have gained popularity in Sweden, but they are still just a minority party and we will not change our immigration policy just to take back those lost voters. We will not send asylum seekers back to a war zone just because some people don’t want them here.”
But rather than simply offer a temporary place to live while asylum seekers wait to go home, Sweden makes it easy for newcomers to stay if they choose.
“We prefer to give refugees permanent residency immediately because it gives them a better feeling of home and can help them settle quicker,” Ullenhag said. “The way we look at it is, if you give someone temporary residency you send a signal to society that we want to you to go home after a while. That feeling of living with your luggage in the hallway, waiting to go home, is no way to live. From an integration perspective, in the long run, this is a far more effective way to treat people.”
While government policies are welcoming, pockets of Swedish society remain closed. It is comparatively rare to see native Swedes mixing with refugees or immigrants. Madelaine Seiditz, a spokesperson for Amnesty International in Stockholm, said refugees' early experiences in Sweden make it harder for them to truly assimilate.
“When they arrive in the country, many of the asylum seekers spend time in camps before they are sent to a municipality in Sweden, but many of the municipalities are refusing to accept refugees and the government can’t force them to do it, so many refugees find themselves in very isolated parts of Sweden where there are no jobs and integration is hard,” Seiditz said. “If the situation is not resolved soon, this could develop into a [employment and accommodation] crisis.”
New government rules that allow new residents to live wherever they wanted once their residency was awarded have, ironically, created integration problems. The rule change led to greater migration to places like Sodertalje, where there's less need to learn Swedish because there's already a large Syrian/Arabic-speaking community in place.
One of the visible manifestations is St. Aphrem Syriac Orthodox Church, one of five Syrian Christian churches in Sodertalje. The churches act as meeting points for the Assyrian community and welcome almost any refugee who is looking for help. The community has self-segregated, with Christians staying in Sodertalje and Muslims apparently migrating to towns further west.
The Orthodox community in Sodertalje is strong, and while that helps incoming refugees get settled, it also becomes another barrier to integration. Swedish is not spoken in the churches, which are the main cultural hubs of the community. One older churchgoer, Hanna Tahan, who arrived from Turkey in the 70s, says he learned Swedish when he first arrived, but since the 80s he rarely has had to use the language because the local community, centered around the church, doesn’t require it.
The Assyrian Christians generally lived apart from their Muslim counterparts back home, and have brought their cultural tensions with them. Many point out that there is no mosque in Sodertalje. “If they built a mosque there would be trouble here,” said Deniz Can, who immigrated decades ago.
Hanna Varli, a Turkish immigrant who came to Sweden on a holiday visa in 1975, who worked as a steel metal worker and attends the church, said life for refugees and immigrants in general is much harder in Sweden today.
“I have seen a lot of homeless immigrants,” Varli said through a translator. “Rent is expensive, food is expensive and jobs in smaller towns are harder to come by. This all goes against the immigrant, and towns and cities are taking more people than ever before, so where will they live? Where will they work?”
Johan Lindgren, a social worker in Sodertalje (and Eberhardsson’s father), said he has seen as many as 20 refugees sharing a room in Sodertalje. While Sweden's asylum policy is generous, it isn't 100 percent; fearing to be the ones who aren't accepted, some refugees go underground.
“There are many people living in Sodertalje without papers,” said former Iraqi refugee and now Swedish citizen Zeid Alaess, who spoke with International Business Times at another Syrian Orthodox church in Sodertalje. “They are scared of being sent home because so many have been sent home already.”
Alaess, who was undocumented for about five years before marrying a Swede, left the country and reapplied for asylum as if he had never been in Sweden before.
Issa, 26, said he was smuggled into Sweden after Syrian intelligence agents arrived at his family’s home saying he would be pressed into military service. In response, his family put him on the first flight to Istanbul, where he lived with his sisters for a year while plotting his way into Sweden. Issa chose Sweden because he knew it was home to a large Syrian population -- around 30,000, double what it was in 2009 -- that included some of his family relations.
Issa’s own journey to Sweden is a case study in both how refugees are dispersed around the globe and how they change life in the countries where they end up. His arrival in Sweden was facilitated by two cousins with Swedish passports, one of whom looks like him. Another cousin, travelling on her own Swedish passport, brought Issa’s look-alike cousin’s Swedish passport to him in Istanbul, and there they found a smuggler who forged a Turkish entrance and exit stamp in his cousin’s passport. Issa then traveled to Lebanon on his own Syrian passport, but before the plane touched down in Beirut, switched to his cousin’s Swedish passport with the forged exit stamp inside.
“We then booked a flight on Qatari airlines from Lebanon to Stockholm,” he said. “I used the Swedish passport to board the flight. Otherwise, they would have not let me on.” Before touching down in the Swedish capital, Issa gave the Swedish passport back to the cousin he was travelling with for safekeeping and used his Syrian passport at Swedish customs, where he asked for asylum. Immigration authorities asked him how he managed to board the flight in Lebanon. “I just told them that the smuggler sorted it all out and I didn’t know how he did it. They let me in.”
Issa was lucky that he had a lookalike cousin. Others have had to make far more perilous journeys into the country, including some who have been smuggled in the storage area of buses for days attached to oxygen masks.
Issa spent his first few months in a Swedish refugee camp before the authorities found him accommodation in Sodertalje, and considers himself among the lucky ones in that regard, too. “Many families were sent north to places that had space to accommodate them, but it’s hard to find work in places like that and it’s very cold. How does this help people feel at home here?”
At his job in a local Lidl supermarket, Issa said he speaks mostly in Arabic and Syriac, and needs to rely on his Swedish -- which he says is average at best -- only occasionally. But he said he’s aware of the pitfalls of not fully integrating into Swedish society. “I am committed to being here for at least 10 years and I don’t want to be stacking shelves forever,” he said through a translator. Right now his priority is to repay his family for the fees they paid the smuggler.
As for life in an unfamiliar country, he said, “I’m thankful for the Swedish people and the government here for welcoming me into their country, but I don’t feel like I’m part of life here or the culture. It’s very closed off for people like me.”
While Varli, now a Swedish national, says that he supports immigration into the country, he acknowledges that many Syrians don’t want to come to Sweden but have to because of the war.
“However,” he said, “If this continues with Muslim and Christian immigration, where will the war be in 50 years? It will be in Sweden.”