Sweden wants the rest of EU to share refugee burden

Last September, Sweden became the only European Union country to offer permanent residence to Syrians fleeing their devastated homeland. 

Now, strained by its own generosity, it is losing patience with what is calls a lack of solidarity from its European brethren.

“Nine member states in the EU today receive 90% of all asylum applications annually but those nine states are starting to, well, become fed up,” Tobias Billström, Sweden’s immigration minister, said in an interview. He’s asking the European Commission to punish countries for failing to pull their weight in receiving asylum seekers in accordance with the bloc’s laws.

Syrian refugee in Sweden

Mr. Billström’s comments came on the eve of a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels Tuesday to discuss border management and burden-sharing across the union. European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström is currently investigating migration-related violations in 12 EU member states, up from just one in 2010, and is threatening to take the offenders to court “if we do not see any improvements.”

While Italy and Greece are the main gateways to the EU for migrants, people fleeing oppression seldom seek asylum there, using them as transit areas on their way to richer and friendlier northern destinations.

Since Sweden’s announcement, immigration has spiked and is now at its highest levels since the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. This year, the country’s migration experts expect 59,000 people to seek asylum there, with 23,000 of them seen coming from Syria.

Meanwhile, Italian and Greek authorities estimate more than 20,000 Syrians crossed their borders into the EU last year. Of those, a mere 1,100 applied for asylum there, according to European Commission data.

For Sweden, the growing influx of asylum seekers strains authorities tasked with providing education, child care and other support. One major challenge is securing housing for asylum seekers as Sweden faces a housing shortage.

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Increased demand has driven up costs, with the country’s Migration Board now estimating it will pay about 1.9 billion Swedish kronor ($295 million) to house asylum seekers this year, a 250% jump from 2012’s tab. Part of the increase is due to the fact that authorities seek pricier lodging at hotels and conference facilities as regular apartments fill up.

Last fall, for instance, the Migration Board reached out to the owners of the historic Bergby Gård hotel and conference center, north of Stockholm.

Göran Larsson, Bergby Gård’s new owner, didn’t expect his first major group of guests to be people fleeing war and oppression in countries like Syria and Eritrea. “Usually, the center is almost closed during the winter,” he said.

At an average cost of around $48 per person per day, temporary accommodation there is three times as expensive as housing in apartments.

In Brussels this week, the brewing clash between north and south is expected be tense. Mediterranean nations claim they are left to tackle massive migrant inflows alone. Northern states, meanwhile, accuse them of deliberately allowing refugees to travel to richer capitals to seek asylum because they don’t want to deal with their applications.

According to EU law, refugees must be registered and apply for protection at the country of arrival. Both sides accuse the European Commission of failing to mediate effectively.

Mr. Billström said he doesn’t buy the explanation from Italy and Greece that the financial crisis is preventing them from processing and accepting more refugees.

“A lot is said about economic difficulty, etcetera, etcetera,” he said. “Let’s not forget that a country like Italy is a [Group of 20 richest in the world] country.”

Italy and Greece have long maintained they do their best under strained finances, and it is unfair to expect them to shoulder EU migratory inflow simply due to geography.

Italy and Greece are among top receivers of EU funding for migration policy, getting a combined €230 million from the EU budget last year. Sweden, meanwhile, was given €31 million.

Germany, the EU’s de facto leader and biggest economy, has taken on the most Syrian refugees since the beginning of the crisis, with Sweden a close second.

One of those refugees in Sweden is 28-year old Khassan Rachit, who lives in a small cottage at Bergby Gård waiting for a residency permit so his wife and two children in Syria can join him legally.

“What I like about Sweden’s approach is that you get support during the first years,” said Mr. Rachit, who worked as a sales manager at an insurance company in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

After a long planning period, he paid a smuggler €16,000 to get to Sweden.

“If I didn’t have a family I would stay in Syria. But I have children. They need to go to school, they need to have medicines and vaccines…They need to have a normal life.”