'Humanitarian superpower' Sweden struggles to house refugees as harsh Nordic winter looms

Thomson Reuters
People struggle against wind and drifting snow in Stockholm, Sweden in 2012.

By Johan Ahlander and Violette Goarant

MALMO, Sweden (Reuters) — Plastic bags containing clothes and a few belongings are placed along the walls of a chilly, dimly-lit church in Malmo, Sweden, where 20 refugees from Syria and Afghanistan join around 30 Roma beggars seeking shelter for the night.

Donated sleeping mats and blankets make do for beds as they huddle up close to the radiators or on church benches.

This is the reality for some of those who come to seek a new life in Sweden — a self-styled 'humanitarian superpower' — as the record number of asylum seekers overwhelms the country's capacity to cope.

"Sweden is cold and this is not what I expected but I'm glad to be here anyway," said Tarek, a Syrian in his late twenties who spent nearly $3,000 on a three-week trek to Sweden. His wife and two children remain in Syria for now.

Sweden has taken in about 145,000 asylum seekers so far this year, more than any other European country proportionate to its population. They have been drawn by its generous asylum rules, its wealth and stability and reputation for social justice.

Refugees have mostly been met by kindness, but Sweden has also seen a wave of arson attacks on asylum centers. A sword-wielding man killed two people in a racist killing spree in October at a largely immigrant school in south-west Sweden.

Meanwhile, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have surged in the polls to around 20 percent while the mainstream parties have moved to clamp down on immigration.

After initially throwing open its doors to asylum seekers, the center-left government has introduced border controls and plans for temporary residency permits to stem the flow and force other European countries to share the burden.

From saying "my Europe doesn't build walls" in September, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has made a U-turn. "We have taken in too many for too long. We need a pause for breath," he said in late November.


So far Sweden has managed to house the vast majority of immigrants and conditions are better than those many have left behind. But authorities have been forced into drastic measures such as using tents and churches to house asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, some young refugees have been forced to sleep rough in harsh wintry conditions.

Eva Blomdell, a deacon at the Sankt Johannes church in Malmo that now stays open through the night to provide shelter for the refugees, gives them coffee and hands out translated cards with information about toilets and showers.

"It's not at all what they pictured. For them Sweden has been the promised land and now they get this," she said, pointing to the stone church floor.

The Save the Children charity warned this week of squalid conditions in a large convention center in Malmo, where up to 1,000 asylum seekers are staying while their applications are registered. It said sick children were sleeping directly on the floors and lacked sufficient medical care or even showers.

"The accommodation question is critical," said Mikael Ribbenvik, deputy director at the Migration Agency. "We try all kinds of ways to resolve the situation and yet we had to turn people down last weekend."

This week a winter storm damaged half of the 16 tents the agency had set up in a first, provisional tent camp in southern Sweden, underscoring the challenges posed by the Nordic winter.

The camps have also been delayed by red tape - rigid planning and fire safety rules mean that most planned tents will only be ready in six months.

The weekly number of refugees arriving in Sweden has dropped somewhat since it introduced the first large-scale border controls in more than two decades last month. But Lofven has said more must be done to stem the influx.

Many refugees now fear they won't be allowed to bring their families once they get asylum after the government said last week it would tighten the rules.

"If my family can't come, this trip has been for nothing. Then I would have to go back again. I can't leave them in Syria," Tarek said.

(Editing by Niklas Pollard and Gareth Jones)