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Sweden keeps doors, minds open to immigrants

Sweden keeps doors, minds open to immigrants

While Sweden is receiving immigrants in record numbers, few voices are calling for closing the borders.
It's somewhat of an anomaly in today's Europe.
The waves of anti-immigration sentiment that have washed across many European countries seem to have fizzled somewhere over the Baltic Sea.
To be sure, a small far-right party has been making advances and there are growing concerns over failing integration of minorities. But so far, surveys show attitudes toward immigrants remain remarkably positive, and the new center-right government says it has no immediate plans to stem the tide of newcomers.
"I think it is good that Sweden sets itself apart from other countries on this point," Migration Minister Tobias Billstrom said. "A high level (of immigration) is not a problem per se. The problem is to get people to work."
The EU's Eurobarometer survey released last week showed Swedes had the most positive attitudes toward immigrants in the bloc, with 77 percent saying they contribute a lot to society. In Germany only 30 percent agreed. The EU average was 40 percent.
"Compared to many other countries in the EU, Sweden is less xenophobic," said Anders Lange, a Stockholm University researcher who surveys attitudes toward immigration.
He warned, however, that Sweden was seeing the same problems with integration experienced by European countries. Immigrants have a harder time finding good jobs and housing, fueling bitterness and anger.
The national statistics office last week said immigration would reach the highest level ever in 2006, led by Iraqis fleeing the violence in their homeland and Poles looking for work. An estimated 81,000 foreign nationals moved to Sweden this year, up 58 percent from the year before.
The influx, which helped push the population beyond 9.1 million, was mainly due to a temporary law that allowed thousands of asylum-seekers to stay in Sweden even though they had previously been denied residency permits, the agency said.
Immigration authorities said more than 21,000 people had applied for asylum in Sweden by November, compared to some 17,500 last year. The pressure on case workers is mounting.
"It's been a very tough year," Migration Board spokeswoman Marie Andersson said.
Billstrom called for "vigilance" to make sure the system can handle the immigration flow, but added the government has no plans to alter asylum policies that saw the number of Iraqi immigrants more than triple this year.
"The policy we have is based on the need for protection. The government has no reason to change that legislation," he told The Associated Press.
While many European Union countries have clamped down on immigration, Sweden, where about 12 percent of residents are foreign-born, has kept its borders relatively open.
It was one of three EU countries to allow unrestricted access to workers from the 10 new member states that joined in 2004. It plans no restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians when they become EU citizens on Jan. 1.
Sweden's approach contrasts with immigration restrictions seen in many other EU countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands.
Dutch immigration authorities said about 73,000 people had applied for residency permits by the end of November, compared to 99,000 in 2005 and 126,000 in 2004.
In Denmark, the number of asylum-seekers has dwindled since stricter laws were introduced four years ago, from more than 6,000 in 2002 to some 1,500 in the first 10 months of this year, according to the Danish Immigration Service.
Both countries, previously known for being among the most welcoming nations to immigrants, have seen attitudes harden.
Sweden's far-right says the country will be forced to cut immigration sharply.
"This is not a reasonable level because we already have very big difficulties integrating the people who are already here," said Jonas Akerlund of the Sweden Democrats, a party with roots in an extreme-right movement in the 1980s. The party, which doubled its support in September elections, is not represented in Parliament but has more than 200 seats on local councils, mostly in southern Sweden.
"We have for a long time had an immigration that is sharply different from our neighboring countries. It's a bigger task than we can handle," Akerlund said.
However, the party's rise did not worry Abdel Kader, a Muslim immigrant from Morocco, who said immigrants are generally "well-received" in Sweden.
"It's normal that groups like that exist, but I don't think they will grow in Sweden because people feel safe here," he said. "The way you are treated (here) let's you relax so that you can live your life normally."
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Associated Press reporters Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Sweden, and Mike Corder in the Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.


Updated : 2020-12-04 23:11 GMT+08:00