Bert Karlsson, a pop impresario who once led Sweden’s main anti-immigration party, is using the biggest influx of asylum seekers in more than 20 years as a business opportunity.
The 68-year-old has turned a sanatorium that used to take in survivors of World War II concentration camps into a refuge for people fleeing Syria and other war-torn nations. Karlsson plans at least 20 such facilities nationwide, mainly by converting unprofitable small-town hotels, after spotting a business opportunity to profit from the inflow.
Sweden has become a haven for asylum seekers, taking more Syrian refugees than France and the U.K. combined. The influx is putting pressure on the Swedish Migration Board, which has resorted to snow-swept camping sites amid a lack of housing, and has helped fanned xenophobia in the Nordic nation.
Sweden “needs to be able to look after people when they get here, otherwise we shouldn’t take them,” Karlsson said in a Dec. 10 interview while playing table tennis and joking with residents and staff at the Stora Ekeberg center in southwestern Sweden.
Karlsson’s effort to help absorb refugees marks a departure from his past of trying to keep foreigners out. He led the now defunct New Democracy party into parliament in 1991 elections, promising voters a clampdown on immigration.
The founder of Sweden’s Skara Sommarland amusement park, Karlsson is a frequent TV show host and has helped create local celebrities, including the 1991 Eurovision song contest winner Carola. He’s also in publishing, turning out works such as “The Big Book of Dirty Jokes.”
His latest venture, which is backed by Swedish authorities, is an attempt to apply pragmatism to a humanitarian challenge, Karlsson says.
“We’re a company and want to make a profit but we’re not in this to charge shameless prices and abuse the system like many others,” he said. “There’s demand for this service but it is also a service that is needed and we’re in this to provide it in the best possible way.”
Karlsson is reinvesting some of his profits in his hotel for asylum seekers, which has a health center, playgrounds, a gym and even provides dance and theater classes. Residents, who can worship at the center’s Christian church or mosque, are offered bus trips to a dental clinic, to football tournaments or the local swimming pool. When Swedish officials recently offered 50 of the center’s residents their own apartments, only two were willing to move.
The key is volume, said Carl Emil Ahmetbasic, the center’s chief of operations. It charges the migration board 300 kronor ($46) a night per person, about half the rate similar centers charged before Stora Ekeberg opened in 2012, he said.
Housing must be “made dignified, good and cheap,” Karlsson said.
Martin Helander, capacity coordinator at the migration board, said Karlsson’s centers are helping the authorities deal with a shortage of refugee accommodation.
“We have a lack of regular apartments, which are the ones we first and foremost would like to rent, but because there’s such a lack of housing in Sweden we must use these alternatives,” he said in a Dec. 13 interview.
The board lacks apartments for 10,000 people, he said. Refugees are coming into Sweden at a rate of 1,200 a week and about 60,000 are expected in 2014. In 2012, Sweden spent 218 million kronor on external housing, an amount that rose in 2013, Helander said. Payments on external housing are currently capped at 350 kronor per day, comprising a limit of 200 kronor for housing and 150 kronor for meals.
Karlsson’s center has 15 employees, mostly immigrants who know the languages and culture of the residents. In addition to the 20 new centers in the pipeline, a further 15 hotels have contacted him expressing interest in the model.
“They come to me,” Karlsson said. “It’s often not possible these days to run a hotel in the countryside.”
In September, Sweden said it would give permanent residence to all Syrians granted asylum after assessing the severity and potential length of the conflict. The number of asylum seekers jumped 23 percent to 48,941 in the first 11 months of 2013. Syrians accounted for 29 percent.
Sweden’s tolerance for refugees and its metamorphosis into an immigrant nation has been met by growing resistance in some parts of the country. In 2012, about 15 percent of the population was born abroad, according to the statistics office.
The Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party, made it into parliament for the first time in the 2010 national election. Polls show it could win almost 10 percent in the next vote in September.
Last month, militants attacked protesters marching against racism in a suburb in Stockholm, which was rocked earlier in 2013 by almost a week of rioting. The capital’s outer rim stands out in national statistics for its high levels of immigrants and low rates of employment.
Karlsson said that coming to Sweden shouldn’t be a free-ride for refugees, echoing his political past. “We should also make demands on asylum seekers,” he said.
According to Helander at the migration center, Karlsson’s model will help improve the plight of refugees as the influx of asylum seekers continues to grow.
“We now have the worst situation since the Balkan Wars,” he said. “That means we must use these external entrepreneurs and put our trust in them. It’s very good that Bert is active in this.”