Stockholm, Sweden – Fourteen men of Polish origin are being questioned in Sweden on suspicion of planning an attack on an asylum centre south of Stockholm.
Police said on Tuesday the detained are suspected of crimes including preparation for aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated arson.
The men were taken into custody on Monday night after police received tip-offs. Knives, iron rods, and axes were found in searches of the suspects’ vehicles.
The arrests come as Sweden’s resurgent far right becomes increasingly vocal and as incitement to attack asylum centres spreads online.
The debate over the country’s traditionally generous immigration policies has become especially heated since a young Swedish woman working at a home for unaccompanied minors was stabbed to death last month.
Swedish websites linked to the far right and posts on a Facebook group used by nationalistic Poles in Sweden have suggested the planned attack in Nynashamn was an act of revenge after a Polish girl was allegedly assaulted by asylum seekers on a commuter train.
Some of the detained Poles are Swedish citizens, while others live and work in Sweden, police said.
Mikael Farnbo, editor of the Expo magazine which monitors the far right, said it came as no big surprise that the suspects have Polish links, since a group of Swedish Poles are known to be far-right activists.
“Swedish and Polish right-wing extremists have for many years had close connections and taken part in each other’s activities and demonstrations,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Islamophobic group Nordic Youth has participated in nationalistic marches and summer camps in Poland, and Polish activists participated in a xenophobic demonstration in Stockholm on January 30.
Police said three of those detained in Nynashamn were apprehended over assault of counter-demonstrators at the January rally, dubbed the “People’s Demonstration”.
Expo has listed 95 incidents while mapping suspected attacks on asylum centres from 2011 until November 2015.
It cited a dramatic increase in 2015 with 50 suspected attacks last year – more than the previous four years combined. Most incidents were reported in autumn, when a record influx of refugees to Sweden peaked.
The country received more than 160,000 asylum seekers last year, the highest number per capita of any European country.
The far-right Sweden Democrats party, which has surged in popularity since it entered parliament in 2006, has officially distanced itself from arson attacks.
But the sincerity of a condemnation by party leader Jimmie Akesson, who said arsonists “attack society”, has been questioned as a local branch of the Sweden Democrats published addresses of refugee facilities shortly after a wave of attacks.
Expo’s Farnbo noted that the peak in attacks on asylum centres, with an average of one incident per day, came after the Sweden Democrats called for parliamentary action against immigration, and levelled out after Akesson’s reluctant condemnation.
At the time, the debate on immigration was heated, with both the government and opposition talking of the threat of a “collapse of the system” – language previously only used by the Sweden Democrats.
Zainab Hussaini is a unit manager at a centre for unaccompanied minors that has had its address listed on a Facebook page where far-right sympathisers discuss potential targets.
Hussaini said “a hateful atmosphere” is prevailing in Swedish society, especially with regard to unaccompanied minors, whom she thinks have wrongly been portrayed as a homogenous group of violent criminals.
Since 35,000 of them sought asylum in Sweden last year, unaccompanied minors have been dominating the polarised debate on immigration.
Any skirmish at an asylum centre is widely reported, as well as increasing costs for security arrangements and strains on the education system.
Hussaini said she was convinced that Sweden had the capacity to take in more refugees without the situation getting out of hand, and is disappointed by recent moves to tighten border controls and immigration regulations.
“We’ve gone from opening our hearts to closing our borders,” she said, adding if she and others were allowed to focus solely on the children, the system would function even better.
“Time and money spent on drafting a risk analysis and arranging for security guards could be spent on much more important things. Disruptions by masked men threatening to beat up our kids is the last thing we need.”
Hussaini was referring to a recent Friday night when about 100 black-clad neo-Nazis and football hooligans roamed central Stockholm, vowing to “clean up the streets” by attacking foreign children living there.
While the extent of the actual violence that night remains unclear, it has instilled fear among many migrants living in the capital.
One woman who came to Sweden from Iraq when she was five told Al Jazeera she no longer feels safe anywhere in Stockholm at night and would never venture out late alone. The 21-year old said she and her friends have even discussed leaving Sweden altogether.
“It’s sad that it comes to this,” the woman said at Sergels Square, where the rampage happened. “I feel Swedish. This is my country. I shouldn’t need to feel unsafe or held down.”
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