Bjoern Borg’s Hometown Becomes Magnet for Syria’s Refugees – By Niklas Magnusson
The hometown of Swedish tennis legend Bjoern Borg, a place known locally as “Little Baghdad,” is preparing for the next wave of refugees from Syria.
The town, Soedertaelje, is one of the reasons Sweden is the European Union’s biggest hub for asylum seekers from the war-battered nation after Germany. A magnet for Middle Eastern immigrants for decades, it boasts Syrian cathedrals, and even two soccer teams started by immigrants that played in Sweden’s upper divisions this year.
“Everything that’s a trouble spot in the Middle East quickly has an effect here,” Mayor Boel Godner said in a Nov. 7 interview at city hall. “Our experiences from the Iraq War tells us that the big boom of immigrants comes next year and that will then be followed by the immigration of relatives.”
Sweden has stood out in Scandinavia as a bastion of ethnic tolerance as governments elsewhere collaborate with parties hostile toward immigration. In Norway, the ruling coalition includes the Progress Party, which won September elections after promising to curb the influx of foreigners. Denmark’s strict immigration laws under the previous government have even driven some mixed couples across the border into Sweden to avoid being split up.
With a population of 90,677, Soedertaelje, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Stockholm, received 1,052 foreigners in the first half of 2013 and forecasts it will get as many as 1,800 new inhabitants in 2014. More than 2.5 million have fled their homes in Syria since the start of the civil war in March 2011, according to the Migration Policy Centre. More than 600,000 have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
In the European Union, Sweden is the main destination for Syrians after Germany, which has eight times the population of the Nordic nation. Sweden received 14,280 Syrian asylum pleas since the start of the war through August, compared with 16,885 for Germany and 2,500 for the U.K and 1,335 for France, according to the center.
In September, Sweden announced it would give permanent residence to all Syrians granted asylum after assessing the severity and potential length of the conflict. The civil war has killed more than 100,000 and about 9.3 million people are in need of aid, according to UN officials.
Soedertaelje is still trying to absorb about 9,000 Iraqis following the 2003 Iraq War — that’s more refugees than went to the U.S. Inside Sweden, the distribution of refugees is uneven, putting disproportionate pressure on some towns to adjust, Godner said.
The town has in the past seen riots between locals and the immigrant community. Of its 65-member city council, seven seats are held by anti-immigration parties the Sweden Democrats and Nationaldemokraterna. Support for the Sweden Democrats has also surged nationwide, and the party made it into parliament in the last election in 2010.
“It’s not all of Sweden that receives refugees — it’s a few neighborhoods in Soedertaelje and a few other cities,” Godner, a Social Democrat, said. “I’m not at all criticizing that asylum seekers can come to Sweden — I think it’s absolutely right that they do — but the system within Sweden must be improved.”
Sweden accepted 5,099 Syrian immigrants in the first half of 2013, up from 1,167 in the year-earlier period, making them the second-biggest group after Somalis. The Swedish Migration Board last month raised its forecast for total asylum seekers to 56,000 and predicted as many as 69,000 in 2014.
Soedertaelje has been a haven for Middle Eastern immigrants stretching back to the 1960s, when Assyrians started arriving. The city, home to truckmaker Scania AB and AstraZeneca Plc’s Swedish operations has a vibrant Assyrian and Syriac community with churches, cathedrals and TV channels. The Syrianska soccer team got relegated this year from the top division, while the Assyriska team plays in the second tier.
Borg, born in 1956, grew up there and honed his tennis skills bashing a ball against a garage door before going on to 11 grand slam titles, including five straight Wimbledon wins.
Godner is asking the government to force all municipalities to take responsibility or to raise assistance for the few towns that take the most immigrants. Locals are also warning of the risks.
“We’re actually worried about the development,” said Afram Yakoub, chairman of the Soedertaelje-based Assyrian Federation of Sweden, citing a lack of jobs and increased risks of xenophobia. Unemployment in Soedertaelje was 14.3 percent in October, compared with a national average of 8.5 percent.
Stockholm’s suburbs were rocked earlier this year by almost a week of rioting in areas with high levels of immigration and low employment. Sweden’s youth unemployment rate was 23.6 percent last year — about three times the national average — according to the statistics office.
The influx is forcing people to live in cramped conditions. According to Godner, in extreme cases there are now as many as 30 people sharing two or three bedroom flats. Three-quarters of the 3,528 adults receiving public aid in Soedertaelje were born outside Sweden.
“Housing is overcrowded, as all the people who come here have to live in someone else’s home,” she said. “On a Monday, we can find 20 new pupils on the doorstep to our schools and as many again the next week.”
Chamoun Zitou, 49, who came to Soedertaelje 14 months ago from Aleppo, Syria, said the situation is likely to get worse in the Swedish town, as well as in his home country.
“It will be a big problem as there are not houses for everybody — people are looking and looking but there aren’t enough homes,” Zitou, who has two sisters and a brother in Soedertaelje and whose parents both died in the town after coming to Sweden 25 years ago. “There aren’t jobs for all of us either, so it’s difficult.”
Zitou, an electrical engineer, is studying Swedish and will bring over his wife and two children who are still in Syria.
“The situation in Syria is very bad,” he said. “I decided to stay here.”
date : 14/11/2013