Sweden has welcomed immigrants with open arms for decades but now it is grappling with how to integrate them into society, especially in the southern town of Malmoe amid a massive influx of refugees.
Once a thriving industrial town with full employment, Malmoe has seen many of its plants shut down since the 1990s. That, combined with a never-ending stream of foreigners arriving, has led to rising juvenile delinquency and rampant unemployment.
Of the town’s 280,000 inhabitants, a third are foreigners and 60,000 are Muslims.
“We are an open city. We see these immigrants as a resource for our society,” Malmoe’s Social Democratic mayor Ilmar Reepalu told AFP.
“The problem is that we have welcomed too many immigrants at the same time,” he said, pointing out that last year Malmoe took in more Iraqi asylum-seekers than Germany, Spain, France and Italy combined.
Reepalu said 5,000 refugees a year seek asylum in Malmoe, Sweden’s third largest city behind Stockholm and Gothenburg, though it is really only able to take in 1,500.
The result is many overcrowded apartments as refugees flock to immigrant-heavy areas and an employment rate that has dropped to around 50 percent.
Swedish Integration Minister Nyamko Sabuni—a Muslim who came to Sweden when she was 12 and the first African to become a member of government in the country—insists that the only way for immigrants to integrate into society is to learn the language and get a job.
“It is crucial that immigrants get in contact with the labour market as soon as possible after receiving their residence permit. This has to be combined with language courses,” she told AFP.
While immigrants to Sweden in the late 1950s and 1960s came as much-needed labourers, the trend has in recent decades shifted toward political refugees, according to Yves Zenou, an economics professor at Stockholm University specialised in integration problems.
“Immigrants to Sweden have become political refugees. First there were people from South America, then Iran, Afghanistan and now Iraq,” he said.
“They come seeking asylum and not work,” he said.
He recalled the Scandinavian country’s generous humanitarian policies which provide immigrants with everything they need once they arrive.
“The famous welfare state takes care of everything on a social level. But that’s the limitation of the system—the country cannot provide any solution when it comes to jobs, which is the key to integration,” he said.
And the situation risks getting worse.
New arrivals tend to settle where they already have friends and family members, leading Swedes to desert some areas, such as Malmoe’s southeastern neighbourhood of Rosengaard.
“When a lot of people from one ethnic group concentrate together, you always see the same phenomenon everywhere: they become marginalised, with high unemployment and crime rates,” Zenou said.
“That’s the case in the United States, France and Britain and now in Sweden, although at different levels,” he stressed.
If nothing is done, he said, the situation in Sweden could explode within 10 or 20 years, as it already has in other parts of Europe.
Immigrants in Sweden follow a well-established pattern, he explained. Children grow up seeing their parents unemployed and socially excluded and inherit their frustration.
Compared to slums and projects in France or the US, Rosengaard looks like a nice community. But it stands out in a Swedish context.
On a recent visit, veiled women walk behind the men, casting quick glances at their husbands before refusing to speak to AFP’s reporter. At the local mall, more Arabic is heard than Swedish and 28 of the 30 shopkeepers are immigrants.
The neighbourhood is clean, with plenty of greenery providing a nice backdrop for the modern brick buildings. But sprouting from every balcony or rooftop is a satellite dish, broadcasting programs for faraway countries.
For the time being, crime levels in Rosengaard are manageable, Malmoe police spokesman Lars Foerstell said.
“We do have a problem with youth criminality, with young people who commit different kinds of crimes,” citing minor robberies, assaults, gang fights or rocks thrown at police cars.
“But it doesn’t happen everyday.”
However, the neighbourhood is stigmatized and even the slightest of incidents is reported in the press.
“The media often make it sound very much worse than it is,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bejzat Becirov, the head of Malmoe’s Islamic Centre and mosque, Scandinavia’s first when it opened in 1984, continues to spread his message of tolerance and integration, as he has for 45 years.
“We have accepted a part of this country, we have accepted its rules and we want to be a part of it,” he said, echoing Sabuni’s insistence that integration comes through the language.
Discrimination is not a serious problem, he said.
Rather, “the biggest enemy of integration is the satellite dishes which broadcast TV programmes from countries where some children were even not born.”