Swedish Nationalists Rise as Influx of Syrian Refugees Grows

The Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party that targets deep cuts to immigration, is poised to double its support in elections next month as Swedes prepare for a change of government.

Several polls show the party garnering more than 10 percent of votes, enough to ensure that neither the government of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt nor the Social Democrat-led opposition can win a majority on Sept. 14. Both blocs have refused to collaborate with the Sweden Democrats, even as the electorate tries to drag the group into the mainstream.

Support for the party, which came into being in the 1980s following a merger of political movements including a group called Keep Sweden Swedish, has swelled as the country absorbs a growing number of immigrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East. The development casts a shadow over Sweden’s reputation as an open society that has regularly topped United Nations rankings in accepting asylum seekers.

“We’re becoming more tolerant toward immigration but at the same time there’s very strong, broad opposition against our liberal policies,” said Andrej Kokkonen, a researcher at Gothenburg University. “The Sweden Democrats have capitalized on that.”

Immigration Jump

Sweden expects more than 80,000 asylum seekers this year, after a 70 percent jump in the first six months. Refugees are entering the country at a pace not seen since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, according to the Migration Board in Stockholm.

The government is urging Swedes to take a more compassionate view towards asylum seekers in an effort to turn the xenophobic tide.

“I’m now pleading with the Swedish people to have patience, to open your hearts, to see people in high distress whose lives are being threatened,” Reinfeldt said in a speech on Aug. 16. “Show them that openness, show them tolerance.”

Sweden received the most asylum applications per person in the world from 2009 through 2013, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The share of Swedes born abroad was 15.9 percent last year compared with 11.3 percent in 2000. Immigration rose 12 percent to an all-time high last year.

Party leader Jimmie Aakesson, who has sought to reinvent the Sweden Democrats to make it more palatable to the broader electorate, says he wants to cut asylum immigration by 90 percent. A poll done by television broadcaster SVT in May showed 44 percent of Swedes think their country has accepted too many immigrants, up from 37 percent a year earlier. Only 10 percent want a more open policy toward foreigners.

Stockholm Riots

Support for the Sweden Democrats has risen to 10.9 percent from the 5.7 percent the party got in the election four years ago, according to a poll published Aug. 18 by United Minds and Aftonbladet. The three-party opposition, led by the Social Democrats, was backed by 46.5 percent, compared with 38.8 percent for Reinfeldt’s four-party government, the poll showed.

In European Parliament elections in May, the Sweden Democrats won 9.7 percent of the vote, matching a surge across the region for parties opposed to immigration and skeptical toward the European Union. The U.K. Independence Party and French National Front this year became their countries’ biggest political groups in the European parliament.

Sweden’s growing support for its anti-immigration party follows a series of riots that shocked the nation. In Stockholm suburbs characterized by above-average joblessness, Swedes last year watched youths from immigrant backgrounds torch cars during street battles with police.

Suffocating Opposition

“It’s good that they address certain issues that the other parties don’t really dare to do something about like immigration but I don’t completely support them,” said Martin Welander, 20, a business student at Oerebro University. “The other parties have tried to suffocate all criticism of immigration.”

Erik Wallander, a 30-year-old system developer, describes the policies of the Sweden Democrats as “unpleasant.”

“People who are unemployed and don’t have it so good look for someone that’s easy to blame,” he said. “It’s pretty convenient to point to immigrants.”

Swedish unemployment is the highest in Scandinavia, even as a report today showed joblessness dropped to 7.1 percent last month from 9.2 percent the previous month. The figures aren’t adjusted for seasonal swings. A year earlier, the jobless rate was 7.2 percent. About 16 percent of people born abroad didn’t have a job last year, compared with 6.3 percent for ethnic Swedes. Finance Minister Anders Borg said this month developments in Iraq and Syria mean there’ll be a “significant” increase in costs that will “hit public finances.”

Mass Unemployment

Aakesson said in an interview in May that Sweden’s “mass unemployment is primarily imported.”

Immigration risks destroying the welfare state by creating “parallel societies” of people “that don’t think of themselves as part of Swedish society,” he said.

Aakesson is now trying to replicate the success of other Nordic parties set on tightening immigration. In Norway, the Progress Party joined the government for the first time last year while the Danish People’s Party has been a power-broker for more than a decade, shaping some of Europe’s toughest immigration standards.

Even some of Sweden’s immigrants have started to question the nation’s policies toward outsiders.

Enikoe Blixt, 37, a biomedical analyst in Linkoeping who’s originally from Hungary, said that while the Sweden Democrats are “too xenophobic,” the country needs to be better at absorbing its immigrants.

“There should be more of a requirement to learn the language and greater demands on these people that come here to really integrate into society,” Blixt said. The goal is “to avoid these people from becoming segregated.”

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