As Syria's war continues with no end in sight, a Nordic country located more than 3,000 kilometres from Damascus has taken a lead role in offering Syrian refugees a chance to resettle.
On September 2, the Swedish Migration Board announced that Syrian asylum seekers would be granted permanent residence, a status that allows refugees to live and work under the same conditions as every other Swedish resident and also permits family reunifications.
Even before the decision to offer permanent residence, Sweden - population 9.5 million - was accepting more Syrian refugees than any other Western country, aside from Germany. According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, in 2012 the Swedes received 7,814 asylum requests from Syrians - more than France, UK, US, Australia and Canada combined.
From a humanitarian aspect it is the right thing to do, but also we believe it is a very good thing for Sweden to do in its own interest.
Since the Migration Board's announcement, the number of Syrians applying for asylum in Sweden has significantly grown. The monthly average of applications tripled in September and October compared with the first eight months of the year. As of mid-November, 9,433 Syrians were granted asylum in 2013, and 752 applications for family reunifications have been approved, based on the Migration Board's data.
Sweden is one of only a few countries worldwide that is taking significant steps to ease the refugee burden felt by Syria's neighbours. Ninety-five per cent of the more than 2.2 million people who have left Syria and applied for asylum with UNHCR have stayed in the region, putting an unprecedented strain on infrastructure and services in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
The head of UNHCR's regional representation for Northern Europe, Pia Prytz Phiri, told Al Jazeera that the Swedes' decision to grant refugees permanent residence permits should serve as a model for other countries.
"It is very positive because with a permanent residency you can actually immediately start the integration," Phiri said. "From a humanitarian aspect it is the right thing to do, but also we believe it is a very good thing for Sweden to do in its own interest, because with the refugees integrating quickly then they are also quickly able to contribute."
Sweden has a history of being refugee-friendly. It took in thousands of asylum seekers from Chile in the 1970s, from Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, from Somalia and the Balkans in the 1990s, and from Iraq once again in the 2000s. But in recent years the political climate has become less tolerant toward newcomers, including refugees. In the 2010 elections, the Sweden Democrats party, which ran on an anti-Muslim agenda, won 20 seats in parliamentary elections.
The rise of the far right, and the tensions in immigrant communities - which erupted during four days of riots in May - have so far not halted Sweden's open-arms refugee policy. The number of Syrians joining Swedish society in the past year is unprecedentedly high. The total number of residence permits granted to Syrians in 2013 is likely to surpass the previous yearly record, set by Iraqi refugees in 2009.
The Swedes took the unusual step of offering permanent residence after an evaluation determined that violence in Syria is not ending anytime soon, and also as a result of lessons learned handling previous waves of asylum seekers.
"If you get a temporary permit, you don't see your future in the country," said Mikael Ribbenvik, deputy director-general of the Swedish Migration Board, explaining the reasoning behind the policy change. "But if you get a permanent [residency] permit than you know this is where you are going to be, this is where your future is, and then you have a completely different approach to it."
While refugees are often treated like unwanted guests in other European countries and can only helplessly wait for better times, in Sweden those who apply for asylum are immediately allowed to work, and are entitled to a daily allowance sufficient to pay for clothes, medical care and leisure activities. They can rent housing if they can afford it, and if not, the Migration Board provides accommodation.
The problem is that, with an average 1,200 Syrians applying for asylum every week, and with about 600 monthly applications from other nationalities, the stock of available apartments is all but maxed out. For now, most of the Syrians are being lodged in hotels, resorts, and other improvised locations. Ribbenvik says hosting the refugees at these temporary facilities is far from ideal, but "you can't put people on the street".
Once the asylum application is approved, refugees are offered free Swedish language and culture courses. They are also encouraged to participate in classes teaching one how to integrate in the labour market, which is the main goal of Sweden's approach.
Low unemployment, important in any country, is essential in a welfare state, where the entire population is entitled to free healthcare and university education, as well benefits and pensions. Maintaining such a system requires that a significant majority of the people have a job and regularly pay the high taxes needed to keep the country afloat.
Sweden's unemployment rate is currently 8.5 percent. The country has not seen a double-digit jobless rate in the past 15 years. Yet that is likely to change as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees, judging by existing data.
Statistics show that 84 percent of people aged 25-64 who were born in Sweden are employed, compared with only 57 percent of foreign-born residents of the same age group. The percentage of the employed drops well below 50 percent when you exclude immigrants from Denmark and other culturally similar countries, and count only those born outside of Europe.
"We have a very modern, knowledge economy," says Tino Sanandaji, an economist at the Stockholm-based Research Institute of Industrial Economics. "There just aren't many jobs anymore for the very low-skilled."
Sanandaji is a Kurd from Iran. His family came to Sweden as asylum seekers in 1989. His parents never managed to get a job. He learned Swedish at a young age, and went on to get a degree in the Stockholm School of Economics. Today, his research focuses on the public economy and he is also interested in immigration at the policy level. He is not optimistic about the Syrian refugees' prospects of integrating in the Swedish labour market.
"I think there is a high rate of them that are going to end up unemployed," Sanandaji said. "Of course, it is better to be unemployed in Sweden than to be shot at in Syria."
Despite the challenges, Sweden is, once again, demonstrating it is a global leader in integration of refugees. As the exodus out of Syria continues - and with the UNHCR begging the international community to take on more of the asylum burden - Syrians can only hope that other countries follow Stockholm's example.
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