Stjarnhov, Sweden – At the supermarket in this Swedish hamlet, the queue grew long as one of two cashiers was held up guiding a Syrian family through a SIM card purchase. The locals lived up to the Swedes’ reputation of stoicism; no one grumbled.
Stjarnhov is known for just two things: a mysterious cow abduction a few years ago and its shuttered boys’ boarding school, known as Ondskan – or “The Evil”. That was the name of a former pupil’s best-selling book detailing its culture of hazing. A film was made. The name stuck.
Now the school is filling a less sinister function. In the summer, 176 beds stood at the ready as Sweden began to process record numbers of asylum applications – more than 2,500 a week when the first new arrivals moved into The Evil – real name Solbacka – back in August.
|Sweden overwhelmed by record refugee arrivals|
As parts of Europe duck and cower in the face of the refugee onslaught, Sweden has become a byword for safety – especially in Syria, whose citizens were granted blanket asylum two years ago.
In Stjarnhov, people have been happy to help – a local farmer showed up and cleared the thicket from the football pitch – but many Swedes have questioned whether refugees’ desperation has been turned into a money spinner.
In 1994, lawmakers made it possible for private landlords to enter the asylum-seeker housing market. Back then it was flats, now increasingly, it is places such as The Evil being put to use.
When bidding for a contract, Par Johansson, one of three entrepreneurs who brought the shuttered Solbacka back to life, asked for 350 kronor a day ($42) – that’s the maximum amount the Migration Board pays per person, covering room and board.
In extension, it needs to cover operating costs and salaries. The entrepreneurs worried they should have asked for a bit less, but won the tender nonetheless.
Spokeswoman Johanna Mahlen said the Migration Board would probably end up using all adequate housing offered in the near-term. Such is demand.
The Migration Board announced on Thursday as many as 190,000 refugees escaping war-torn countries such Iraq and Syria will arrive in 2015 – double the figure previously given.
In recent weeks, a ski station was prepared to welcome new arrivals. Down south, the main entry point for refugees, there are plans to build a tent city – the municipality this week promised to fast-track building permits with the Nordic winter fast approaching.
However, not everyone is happy. A string of arson attacks has instilled fear among refugees and a degree of shame among most Swedes. Five refugee homes have been torched so far in October, including one Wednesday night, with another attempted arson on Monday.
One municipality said it would not disclose the location of a new temporary home for refugees, although its spokesperson admitted it wouldn’t take long for local residents to figure it out.
On Tuesday, the prime minister spoke out against the attacks. “People who are fleeing for their lives to Sweden should know that they can feel safe here,” Stefan Lofven said. “This is not the Sweden we know, not the Sweden that I am proud of.”
The anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party has seized the ongoing crisis as an opportunity to again emphasise the cost of caring for those fleeing conflict or poverty.
While civil society has rallied to help new arrivals, there are worries about space – Sweden’s housing crisis is acute – and long-term questions about costs.
Looking just at accommodation, last year Sweden’s Migration Board spent 2.3bn kronor ($28.8m) on housing – a tenfold increase in five years. As a percentage of the agency’s total annual costs, housing has increased to more than 10 percent from 2.5 percent in 2009.
When entrepreneurs such as Bert Karlsson, a former record label boss, went into the derisively nicknamed “refugee industry”, the irony was not lost on many Swedes. Back in the 1990s, Karlsson got into parliament on an anti-immigration platform.
By 2014, he was billing the Migration Board $1.6m a month and planned to treble the number of homes his company ran. He has become an odd poster child of wanting to help while making money too, which is his new slogan of sorts.
In Stjarnhov, Johansson said his company hoped to make a profit, but it was not the main motive. “We’re thinking more about people’s health than about maximising profit per square metre,” he said.
Set between two lakes, the refugee property offers canoeing, swimming and football. There’s a running path through the woods where lingonberries are now ripe for picking.
Yet winter is coming, and tucking refugees away in the forest has many Swedes questioning its logic. With few rural job opportunities, how far can integration really go?
Johansson remained optimistic. Upon hearing that a nearby town was home to one of the nation’s best volleyball clubs, he expressed delight.
“We have two Eritrean girls who are dying to play volleyball,” he said.