Behind Sweden’s warm welcome for refugees, a backlash is brewing
STOCKHOLM — The refugees dined by soft candlelight, allowing their cold, road-weary bodies to sink into plush velvet couches as they feasted on a spread of olives, dates and cinnamon buns.
Omar Hassan took one look at the cozy scene — the product of hours of effort by volunteers hoping to make the new arrivals feel welcome on their first night in Sweden — and knew he was home.
“The people of Sweden are very good,” said the grateful 34-year-old, fresh off a 4,000-mile journey from his native Iraq. “I want to make my life here.”
But behind the warm embrace, a very different reaction to refugees is brewing in Sweden. In this Scandinavian country famous for its progressive politics and unfailingly polite citizenry, a party with roots in the neo-fascist fringe has surged toward the top of recent opinion polls with a defiantly hostile message to refugees: Those on their way to Sweden should stay out. Many of those already here should go home.
The growing popularity of the far-right Sweden Democrats mirrors a backlash being felt across Europe as the continent reckons with a refugee crisis that has broken all modern records and shows no sign of abating. The impact can be seen in country after country, with far-right parties hammering away at authorities deemed too permissive in allowing those fleeing war and persecution to find a home in Europe.
Anger over the refugee influx is increasingly fueling violence, as it appeared to do over the weekend when two Swedish schools that were being converted into shelters for asylum seekers burned down in what police said were suspected arson attacks. In the German city of Cologne, a leading mayoral candidate and ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel was stabbed in the neck by a man who authorities said had “anti-foreigner motives.”
Meanwhile, the backlash is already having an effect at the polls. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party achieved its highest-ever vote share in municipal elections this month, while in Switzerland on Sunday, the ultraconservative Swiss People’s Party won a clear victory after campaigning against “asylum chaos.” In Poland, a nationalist party whose leader has warned that refugees will bring “parasites” and “cholera” to Europe is expected to triumph over the ruling centrists in a vote coming up on Sunday. Merkel’s approval ratings have dropped as Germany has accepted a historic number of refugees. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has only been strengthened as his government has rolled out mile after mile of barbed wire to keep them out.
“In terms of popularity, the real winners of this crisis are almost exclusively on the right,” the Eurasia political consulting group recently concluded in a research note.
Perhaps nowhere is the phenomenon more striking than in Sweden. The country has taken in more refugees per capita than any other in Europe in recent years, and there has long been cross-party pride in Sweden’s widely lauded humanitarian response.
But now the Sweden Democrats have shattered that consensus — and are reaping the political gains.
“We need to send the signal that people wanting to come here are not welcome,” said Markus Wiechel, the party’s 27-year-old point person in parliament on migration.
Saying that, Wiechel acknowledged, would have made him a social outcast only a few years ago. Today, he said, the Sweden Democrats are treated “as saviors” for their dire warnings that refugees will destroy the country’s finances and poison Swedish culture with poverty, crime and an alien religion.
“Everything has changed,” said Wiechel, his blond hair slicked back and his eyes burning with intensity. “We’re more acceptable than ever.”
The polls bear that out: Surveys published late this summer showed the party emerging to become the most popular in Sweden. More recent figures place the Sweden Democrats slightly lower, but still pulling in well over the record 13 percent that it won in last year’s parliamentary elections.
The party’s growth has put pressure on the center-left government to take a harder line on refugees. In an interview, justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson insisted that the government would not succumb to the demands of the far right, defending the country’s open-door policies as both a humanitarian necessity and a benefit to a country that needs skilled workers.
“We do not just see the refugees as burdens. These are people who are assets for Sweden,” he said.
Yet he also acknowledged that the country is reaching the limits of what it can handle, and may have no choice but to tighten its policies in the face of an influx this year that is expected to bring more than 150,000 asylum seekers to a country with a population of less than 10 million. The total is nearly double that of last year and far surpasses the country’s previous record of some 84,000 asylum-seekers, which was set in 1992 amid the Balkan wars.
The pace of new arrivals has accelerated dramatically in the past month, rising as high as 10,000 a week and forcing the government to take desperate measures to fulfill its promise to provide asylum seekers with housing beginning on the first night after they apply for protection.
A family that may have been given an apartment in trendy Stockholm had they arrived a year ago could today end up bused to a remote village north of the Arctic Circle or housed in a converted prison cell.
With even those options dwindling, the prime minister recently authorized the country’s migration agency to begin housing asylum seekers in tent cities, just as Scandinavian temperatures begin to plummet.
“When we were at 3,500 arrivals a week, our plans were stretching thin,” said Mikael Ribbenvik, director of operations for the Migration Board, the government body in charge of caring for asylum seekers. “But we’re well beyond planning now.”
Ribbenvik, a civil servant who appears frequently on Swedish television to explain asylum policy, said he has personally felt the country’s anti-refugee backlash. It comes to him in the form of death threats written in the style of old-fashioned ransom notes, with each venomous word clipped from the newspaper.
“Society is changing. It’s changing in a profound way, and some people are having trouble in handling that,” he said.
The Sweden Democrats have benefited from those apprehensions — and have also fed them.
The party has sought to distance itself from its white-supremacist roots, which date to the 1980s. Instead, it has emphasized the strain that refugees place on Sweden’s generous social welfare system while calling for the government to increase foreign aid as a substitute for accepting asylum seekers.
But the party continues to struggle with allegations of racism and Islamophobic prejudice. It recently severed ties with its youth wing because of the group’s flirtations with neo-fascism. One of the leaders of the party’s new and comparatively more moderate youth wing, 22-year-old Dennis Dioukarev, said in an interview that mosques should be banned in Sweden and that Islam is incompatible with Swedish culture.
“Freedom of religion does not mean that you are allowed to have mosques and a very aggressive form of Islam where you shout out your prayers,” said Dioukarev, who is the youngest member of the Swedish parliament. “When people say that one culture can live side by side with another, it’s a lie.”
Yet just a mile away from Dioukarev’s parliamentary office, a challenge to that view was underway. At Stockholm’s Central Mosque and the adjacent Katarina Church, volunteers were busy preparing to welcome the latest batch of refugees.
For weeks now, mosque and church leaders have been coordinating efforts to provide new arrivals with a place to eat, shower and sleep. At the mosque, they spend the night on the fine green carpet of the airy prayer hall. The church choir has donated its rehearsal space, which on one recent night was neatly laid out with dozens of mattresses. Both the church and the mosque have been inundated with donations and volunteers.
Before they teamed up, church Vicar Olle Carlsson said he had been warned that the mosque was “a place for terrorists. But this is helping us see each other. We work hand in hand.”
Omar Mustafa, president of the Islamic Association of Sweden, said he regards the partnership as emblematic of what he hopes will be a revival of Swedish humanitarianism — effectively a backlash against the backlash.
“We have a polarization in Swedish society. The racist people are becoming more racist. And the rest are becoming more clear in their opposition to racism,” said Mustafa, whose family fled to Sweden from their native Lebanon when he was a baby. “What we’re seeing now is that the 80 percent of people who don’t support the Sweden Democrats aren’t being quiet any more. They’re taking action.”