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Sweden’s welcome to refugees disturbed by violent backlash

February 3, 2016 at 6:35 PM EST
Sweden has a reputation as the world's humanitarian conscience and a safe haven for refugees, but the country has been shaken by a series of protests and violent incidents carried out by right-wing vigilantes. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on Sweden’s changing climate toward asylum seekers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Sweden is struggling to accommodate 165,000 people who’ve applied for asylum there amid the refugee crisis. Now, in a reversal of its open door policy, the government says as many as half could face deportation.

A growing right-wing reaction to the migrant influx has fueled tensions.

From Stockholm, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Sweden fashions itself as the world’s humanitarian conscience and safe harbor for more refugees per capita than any other European nation, but it has been shaken by a series of incidents that have ruptured that image.

MAGNUS RANSTORP, Sweden National Defense College: I would say that Sweden’s social structures are under severe stress.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Magnus Ranstorp is an expert on extremism in Scandinavia.

MAGNUS RANSTORP: It’s a cocktail of various ingredients which makes society extremely polarized. And the government is having a really difficult time dealing with this.

TINA MORAD, Refugees Welcome Stockholm: As a refugee here, I would say it’s pretty hostile.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Tina Morad is a Kurdish political scientist who fled from Northern Iraq as a child, and now advocates on behalf of fellow refugees.

TINA MORAD: We have noticed a lot of activities for the past week at least where you have Nazis and racists crossing the street and demonstrating against the refugees arriving in Sweden.

MALCOLM BRABANT: These are right-wing vigilantes, including football hooligans, apparently attacking immigrants. This precinct is where young Moroccans hang out. Many have acquired a reputation as petty criminals and troublemakers.

The attack happened a few days after a murder at a young asylum seeker’s hostel in Western Sweden. A 22-year-old worker, Alexandra Mezher, originally from Lebanon, was stabbed to death, allegedly by a young Somali, after trying to intervene in a fight. The murder intensified pressure on Prime Minister Stefan Loven, whose popularity has slumped despite U-turns over his open door migration policy.

STEFAN LOVEN, Prime Minister, Sweden (through interpreter): I believe quite a few people here in Sweden now feel a great worry there will be more similar cases, as Sweden accepts so many unaccompanied minors. Many of those who come here to Sweden have had traumatic experiences, and there are no simple answers.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Fredrik Hagberg is a leading member of a far-right activist group called Nordic Youth. He admits to feeling sympathetic towards the vigilantes.

FREDRIK HAGBERG, Nordic Youth: It’s chaos in Sweden. It’s getting worse by the minute. It’s like the gates of hell is open. More and more immigrants than we can take care of is coming every day. The violence is getting more and more. Hatred against Swedes, people are getting bigger and bigger. The women and children are getting harassed every day.

The police can’t be everywhere at once. The people need to do something by themselves if something is going to change.

MALCOLM BRABANT: It sounds like you might be advocating violence?

FREDRIK HAGBERG: No, not at all, not at all. Our movement has always stood against violence, political violence, but I believe in self-defense.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And this is one of his organization’s videos.

Are you Nazis?

FREDRIK HAGBERG: No, not at all.

MALCOLM BRABANT: How can you prove that?

FREDRIK HAGBERG: It’s proved by my actions, or you just walk around. Look at our Web site. We have a program there, manifest.

MAGNUS RANSTORP: I think the greatest threat Sweden is facing is that we have an equal amount of extremism. We have a lot of right-wing extremism and, of course, left-wing extremism. There’s a sort of reciprocal radicalization going on. They are feeding and fueling each other.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is another video which has shed a light on the atmosphere inside some of the homes that accommodate some 3,500 unaccompanied minors taken in by Sweden. It shows the aftermath of an attack on one young boy. This is just one of what the police say have been 5,000 incidents at asylum centers that they have been called to attend.

Anna Nellberg Dennis, deputy chair of Sweden’s police union, says there have been recent problems west of Stockholm in Vasteras.

ANNA NELLBERG DENNIS, Swedish Police Union: We were down on our knees, work-wise and workload-wise, already long before this migration crisis and the terror — increased terrorist threats.

Now, I have about three cases in the area of Vastmanland where the biggest city is Vasteras, where police officers have been forced to push the alarm button because they are surrounded by angry immigrants that are fighting each other. The nice, secure and safe country that we once had is not really that nice anymore.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The area around Stockholm’s central station is a magnet for the Moroccans and other asylum seekers. Several hundred young North Africans are facing imminent deportation after Sweden struck a deal with the government in Morocco.

According to Europe’s Criminal Intelligence Agency, at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared since arriving in the E.U. Many are feared to be in the hands of traffickers, or other predators, according to terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp.

MAGNUS RANSTORP: There is some recruitment by Islamic extremists at train stations.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Today, Sweden’s Interior Minister Anders Ygeman was trying to project an image of calm and control.

ANDERS YGEMAN, Interior Minister, Sweden: I think we have been bad prepared for this situation. Our social system is not made to meet the demands from this group. And we also have a problem with returning them to Morocco if they don’t have the right to be in Sweden.

MALCOLM BRABANT: So how do you think you’re doing?

ANDERS YGEMAN: In the overall picture, we’re doing quite well.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But that’s not what the police union are saying. They say that this is no longer the nice society it used to be.

ANDERS YGEMAN: Well, I think even the police union should look forward and not backwards, but if we want to compare the figures and stats backwards, we could say that we haven’t had this many policemen in 35 years.

MALCOLM BRABANT: They say that you need an extra 4,000, and you’re not going to give them enough.

ANDERS YGEMAN: We have never had this much policemen. We have never had this much money to fund the police as we have now. And we have a lower crime rate.

MALCOLM BRABANT: In the wake of these disturbances, the Swedish government is to launch a task force to crack down on vigilantes who might be thinking about taking the law into their own hands.

And to soften the blow of deporting the young North Africans, the government is promising to set up a special center in Morocco to house them in safety and security.

Tina Morad is disturbed by the sudden change in Swedish policies.

TINA MORAD: We have built up our reputation internationally of being this humanitarian role model. To change it that drastically, I don’t believe that the government has thought through it properly, and I don’t believe that they have any expectations of how this might affect Sweden in the near future.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Iraqi civil servant Adel Ali Qatani has decided to return to Baghdad because of new rules making it more difficult for refugees to bring over their families.

ADEL ALI QATANI, Iraqi Refugee (through interpreter): I see no solution. I can’t wait for three years, because, at the end of the day, I have a problem about reuniting with my son. In three years, he will be an adult. The laws complicate matters.

Although I’m very grateful for all the help I have been given, I feel very frustrated and insecure because of all the uncertainty the government is going through, all these different changes. It’s better to return to my family and endure the hardship with them, rather than leaving them alone there.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The migration debate is dominating the political landscape, and the latest polls show rises for the main center-right opposition party, and in the lead are the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. Their integration spokesman is Markus Wiechel.

MARKUS WIECHEL, Sweden Democrats: Well, society is pretty much falling apart. The government is actually taking money from the foreign aid budgets to fund refugees coming to Sweden.

And I’m not sure I’m going to call them refugees, actually, because they have crossed seven or eight more safe countries on their way to Sweden. They’re economic migrants. And then it’s not defendable to take foreign aid money to spend on the refugees.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The Swedish government is hoping there will soon be a thaw in widespread European resistance towards sharing what it sees as its migrant burden. But, if anything, the climate towards refugees is growing colder.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Stockholm.

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