Second Thoughts In The Land Of Largess

For Broosk Saleh, the small room with its plain pine bunk beds, row of white wardrobes and brightly colored curtains is the beginning of a dream: going to university, entering a profession, raising a family. Those were things the 17-year-old Kurd couldn't think of doing last year, when war was exploding around him, separating him from most of his family and forcing him to decide between fighting or leaving.

Saleh chose to leave Iraq. "I have had enough of suffering," he says. He and his 23-year-old brother, Shirzad, went to Sweden. Carlslund, a regional processing center for refugees in the town of Upplands Vasby, a suburb of Stockholm, was the first stop. A cluster of low-slung brick buildings set in the woods, Carlslund seems to promise the peace the brothers seek.

But for Saleh and others like him, Sweden may no longer be the promised land. In 1991, the country admitted 20,000 asylum seekers. Last year, a staggering 80,000 came. The numbers, swelled by the exodus of former Yugoslavians, are overwhelming Sweden's refugee-processing system. At Carlslund, each initial investigation, which should take two weeks, now takes eight. After that, decisions on asylum can take four months. And those whose applications are rejected may appeal. In all, the process can take as long as 18 months. Meanwhile, asylum-seekers are fed, clothed, housed, and given medical care by the state.

The costs of refugee programs--now up to about $35 to $57 per person per day--are forcing Swedes to question their liberal impulses. Even in good economic times, the system would have staggered under so many people. But the Swedish economy has been slowing since 1990, and unemployment has reached an unprecedented 7%. Increasingly, the country's world-renowned social-welfare system is having trouble providing even for its own.

CHANGING ATTITUDES. To some, Sweden's refugees and immigrants have always been svartskallar, or "black heads," a slur that originated years ago, when guest workers from southern and central Europe began arriving. But the majority of Swedes accepted the strangers.

Judging from a recent opinion poll, however, those attitudes are changing. According to the the poll, 66% of the respondents disapproved of Swedish immigration policies, saying they cost too much and encouraged "the wrong people" to come. It is also becoming apparent that there is widespread prejudice against refugees. Immigration Minister Birgit Friggebo, for instance, has said publicly that certain groups, such as Kosovo Albanians, are more likely to steal.

At the Vasby Centrum mall, which has replaced the old downtown center in this town of 36,000, one man muses over lunch at a cheerful little cafeteria owned by a Greek family. "We have always had foreigners here," he says. "It's not that we don't want them. But not so many." Lena Svensson, borrowing a book at the nearby library, may sum up the general attitude: "I don't care about them--as long as they don't bother me."

Since 1984, Upplands Vasby has had an agreement with the Swedish Immigration Board to accept 75 refugees each year after they have work and residence permits. The town receives about $20,000 for each adult and about $12,000 for each child. The money goes for various social-welfare payments while immigrants study Swedish and adjust to the community. After that, in theory, people find jobs.

These days, they don't. As a result, says Suzanna Gylling, Upplands Vasby's refugee coordinator, "when the money stops coming from the state, we still have to pay." The town has told immigration officials it will accept no new refugees this year, but, Gylling points out, they still come, often following friends and relatives.

'A CHANCE.' The lack of jobs for them is putting increasing pressure on refugee camps. Nationwide, 45% of non-Nordic immigrants are unemployed. "If it was a few years back, they would have been able to get jobs even without the language," says Refik Sener, Carlslund's information director, who emigrated to Sweden from Turkey 20 years ago.

Broosk Saleh isn't worried. In Sweden less than a month, he thinks he'll find a job: "I will do anything--because here, I have a chance." After four months, Godfrey, a Ugandan who won't give his full name, is more pessimistic. He fled with his three small children and now wonders if his skills, such as a knowledge of history, will be of use in Sweden.

The centers are also feeling the strain of severe overcrowding. Carlslund, once a center for the mentally handicapped, is equipped to house 500 people. Only 450 are there now, but an additional 1,050 refugees have been farmed out to the community, with the Swedish Immigration Board paying landlords and hotel owners to house the overflow. Refugees with empty pockets roaming the Vasby Centrum mall are now a common--and unwelcome--sight. Says a housewares merchant: "I don't like them to come in here. It discourages real customers."

BRAWLS. At another processing center, some 1,400 people have been waiting an average of six months to move into more permanent quarters. The waiting time is supposed to be four weeks, and as the weeks turn into months in the crowded dorms, violence erupts among different ethnic groups. At Carlslund, for instance, several soccer matches have turned into brawls. In June, Somalis and Albanians began throwing stones at each other, causing several injuries. And there have been minor clashes among nationals from different countries in the cafeteria and common areas.

While nothing approaching Germany's deadly antiforeigner backlash has happened here, violence by Swedes against refugees is rising. Twice, Molotov cocktails have been lobbed into the Carlslund camp. Stones have been thrown through windows. At least once a month, refugees who have been walking near the camp or waiting for buses say they have been beaten. Such incidents are reported to the police, but beyond that, says Sener, there's little that the camp officials can do. "The police have the resources to cope with this," he says. "We don't."

About 500 people from Upplands Vasby and neighboring communities visited Carlslund last year, part of a program by relief organizations to let local people know about the camp and help integrate the refugees. But such programs may be preaching to the converted, Sener admits. Meanwhile, the unconverted periodically circulate anonymous flyers, accusing refugees of stealing and taking jobs from Swedes.

It doesn't take long for newly arrived refugees to pick up the bad vibrations. Godfrey came here because "as far as Europe is concerned, Sweden is much freer than other places," he says. "But now, it worries me a lot, the attitude about refugees. I would like to go home, if there's any possibility of security." For most refugees, returning home isn't an option. "We don't like to leave our countries," says Shirzad. "But what should you do if you have no place else to go?"