The Irish Times
Swedish people are hardwired to do right thing by migrants but strain shows
In a small town near Stockholm, living among newcomers is the new normal
In the small-town Swedish restaurant, a dark place of simple wooden tables and red upholstered benches, locals help themselves from the buffet.
Christmas decorations twinkle and, on the sound system, Mariah Carey’s vocal acrobatics add extra syllables to Silent Night and Auld Lang Syne.
One moment it’s me and seven whispering locals. Then the door opens and 15 young men from Syria and Afghanistan come in. They study the buffet – fish, meatballs, potatoes, salad – asking each other, and finally the manager, if the food is halal.
Eventually they sit down and, famished, vacuum the food on their plates and return for seconds. The locals don’t have seconds and don’t even look at the new arrivals. The atmosphere is not hostile but the mood has changed.
Welcome to Söderhamn – a small, neat town of almost 12,000 people, two hours north of Stockholm – and welcome to Sweden’s new normal.
While the rest of Europe adopts a mañana approach to the refugee crisis, Sweden has shown remarkable pragmatism to shoulder an extraordinary burden.
Almost 200,000 asylum seekers will have arrived in this Nordic nation by the year-end. The equivalent for Ireland would be 83,000 – greater than the population of Galway. Sweden has shown solidarity with those fleeing war and terror but, with other EU countries refusing to help shoulder the burden, Swedes are now asking the taboo question: for how much longer can we help?
Two weeks ago Stockholm pulled the emergency brake on new arrivals – a huge shock for a people who are raised to have pride in the idea of being a humanitarian superpower. But, among the disappointment and resulting self-doubt, are glimpses of guilty relief.
“People want to help here but they are tired, every day a little more,” says the restaurant manager in Söderhamn. “They are doing their best but want to know what is coming for them and their children.”
The answer is: nobody knows. A frantic Social Democratic-led government has tightened asylum laws and, from next month, will ratchet up further the new controls on Sweden’s borders, including the symbolic Øresund Bridge from Malmö to Copenhagen. But still they come.
In Söderhamn’s Jugendstil town hall, Social Democrat mayor Sven-Erik Lindestam says the government’s new tough line was “too fast and too harsh” but he understands the pressure on Stockholm to act.
His daily challenges revolve around housing and integrating 1,400 asylum seekers, 300 refugees and about 100 unaccompanied minors from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. Lindestam and his officials repeat, mantra-like, that this is not a crisis but a great opportunity for their struggling town.
In the decade since Ericsson laid off 2,000 workers here, jobs have been scarce and young people have moved away. Aiding the refugees and asylum seekers, they say, is both a moral obligation and a shot in the arm for their town and its social services. “It is a challenge now but an opportunity tomorrow, these people can work in healthcare and old-age care,” says Lindestam.
Sweden cannot accept another 200,000 people next year, he says, nor can it force solidarity from others in the EU. Solidarity has been on his mind since a recent trip to Poland and Gdansk’s Solidarity Museum, celebrating the trade union movement that helped end the Cold War.
“Given Poles’ recent experiences under a totalitarian regime, and their own demographic challenges, you’d think they would be more open-minded to helping others, not so short-sighted,” he said. “But I guess everyone is a product of their upbringing. Mine is humanitarian.”
Local councillor Magnus Svensson (on the right in the picture), of the Centre Party, agrees that helping refugees is “the only thing to do”, adding: “We remain hopeful that, by living our values in this way, others will follow.”
Their belief is deeply felt, even if they admit that the dilemma of their proactive response to the refugee challenge is that it has given European neighbours another excuse to sit on their hands.
Hand-sitting doesn’t compute with Anna Idell, an incredible bundle of energy and head of Söderhamn’s Centre for All, a drop-in and resource centre for refugees. With their courses, clothes bank and online blog (centrumforalla.wordpress.com) the centre is a keystone in Söderhamn’s best-practice answer to this challenge.
Idell says a holistic approach is key, linking state institutions with volunteers to maximise local buy-in. “I understand that people think this is someone else’s problem, but it is easy to fix if we work together in Europe. We are all just human beings in the end,” she says.
Across town at a bright and cheery flexible learning centre, Swedish lessons are under way for 300 new arrivals. The rise and rise of refugee numbers has been a mixed blessing here: some 13 locals now have jobs teaching Swedish, but even the clearly generous resources on offer are coming under strain.
“The volume of people puts pressure on us to put people through the system perhaps faster than they can learn Swedish,” says Par Lof, a teacher.
Do they ever think: enough is enough? “No,” says fellow teacher Madeleine Arbid, adding firmly: “It is the right thing to do.” Why is it the right thing to do? Because it is, she says.
Not all feel this way. Before refugees can provide a demographic boost, doing the right thing has strained Sweden’s already creaking social consensus, where high taxes deliver strong social services.
Fears that the system cannot cope with the strain has seen support soar for the far-right Sweden Democrats. Their restrictive refugee demands have boosted support to near 20 per cent – unthinkable even a few years ago.
Back in the Söderhamn restaurant, the buffet has emptied fast, but soft-spoken locals repeat the mantras of their politicians. “They are welcome, we need them,” says Fredrik, a pensioner, as he finishes his fish. “Previous generations taught us to be generous and we will be. Others in Europe should be, too: there is enough to go round.”
As I leave Söderhamn, the long winter light retreating rapidly, I’m torn between admiration and concern. So much good is being done in this small town, and the iron will on display here to succeed is clearly a prerequisite for shouldering a burden like this.
But it’s impossible to shake the vague feeling that Swedish social conditioning is at play, too, a refusal to permit any expression of doubt.
For Sweden, being the best in the EU class is not enough if solidarity from the others is lacking – as it is.
And pulling the emergency brake on refugees has backfired. Sweden hoped doing so would increase pressure on others in Europe to assist. Instead, many capitals have interpreted Stockholm’s actions as proof that, if even the Swedes are overwhelmed by this crisis, it is pointless to even try. That Sweden feels overwhelmed from a lack of solidarity is airbrushed from the narrative.
After a difficult year, Sweden is humiliated, angry and poised on a precipice. Another year of pan-European apathy could push it over the edge.
‘‘ You’d think they would be more open-minded to helping others but I guess people are a product of their upbringing. Mine is humanitarian Sven-Erik Lindestam