Europe

Sweden's asylum offer to refugees from Syria

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Media captionChris Morris: "Can Sweden cope with the number of migrants who might come here?"

"We're busy, always busy." It has been a hectic few weeks at the migrant reception centre in Marsta, near Arlanda airport just north of Stockholm.

The number of new arrivals in this nondescript building has risen dramatically since the beginning of last month, when the Swedish authorities announced that Syrians seeking asylum would be granted permanent residency.

No other country in the EU has followed Sweden's lead, even as the worst refugee crisis since World War II unfolds on Europe's doorstep.

So this is now the most sought-after destination in Europe for Syrians fleeing from conflict.

"We're looking for somewhere safe," says Khaled Ibn Khaled, a stateless Palestinian who escaped from Syria last month with his cousins, via Egypt and Sicily en route to the Swedish capital.

Over the last seven weeks, more than 4,500 applicants from Syria have sought asylum in Sweden. A further 7,500, already here on temporary permits, have sought permanent leave to remain.

There is a catch. Officials at the reception centre in Marsta take fingerprints to see whether asylum-seekers have already been registered in other EU countries.

If they have, they could be sent back: EU law dictates that migrants must have their claims processed in the country where they first arrive.

So it is unclear whether Mr Khaled and his cousins will be allowed to stay.

"Sweden is the safest place for us," he says. "We're just asking, don't send us back."

'I can work'

It pays to know the rules of the game.

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Media captionSwedish migration minister Tobias Billstrom: "We would like to see more countries in the EU do the same"

In a small garden at the reception centre, I meet Bilal who arrived from Syria last Sunday.

It had taken him 14 days, at a cost of thousands of pounds, to travel here illegally via Turkey and Greece.

Now he is waiting anxiously for news that his wife and children have been smuggled successfully out of Syria into Lebanon.

"The [Swedish authorities] said that after two months they will give me the residential permit," he says.

"Then I can apply for my family, and after [another] two months, they will be here too. So this is my goal, to make a new life in Sweden."

It is another powerful incentive. Swedish asylum rules allow anyone who gains permanent residency to bring their dependents from Syria to live with them here.

And Bilal is keen to emphasise that he does not intend to be a burden on anyone.

"I'm a pizza maker, a professional pizza maker," he says. "So I can help myself. I can work."

'Ridiculous' policy

There is a long Swedish tradition of helping refugees fleeing conflict, and no European country is doing more to offer sanctuary to victims of the war in Syria.

"When we take the decision, it's a legal matter," observes Mikael Ribbenvik of the Swedish migration board, which approved the change in policy.

"But of course it's very easy to see that if you want children to reunite with their parents, it's a moral question."

Across most of Sweden's political spectrum there is broad support for this liberal approach to asylum policy.

But a far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, with 20 MPs and around 10% support in opinion polls, is highly critical.

"We think it's absolutely ridiculous," argues party spokesman Kent Ekeroth, standing in a light drizzle outside parliament.

"No conflict is permanent but still we give them permanent residence."

The Sweden Democrats, shunned by other political parties, will campaign against generous asylum support for Syrians in European and national elections next year.

"For one immigrant that comes here we could help hundreds, maybe thousands of people, [in and around Syria] with food, with medicine, with everything," Mr Ekeroth says.

"So it's actually an inhumane policy to bring them here to Sweden."

'Best country for Syrians'

But many newly arrived Syrians are slowly putting down local roots.

At a Syrian community centre on the outskirts of Stockholm, Arabic-speakers are learning Swedish - grateful, they say, to be offered help here.

One young man, who now calls himself Johannes, is dreaming of the day he can bring his fiancee out of Syria to safety.

"If we get married in Lebanon or Turkey I think she will [be able to] come here," he says. "Sweden is the best country for Syrians, and everyone knows it."

But bringing families together is a process wracked by uncertainty, and by severe mental stress.

"I'm trying to call every day," Johannes admits, "but the network is down."

Image caption Sweden expects high immigration by refugees and other migrants for a few more years, then a drop - partly due to lower EU birth rates

"I don't know if she is alive or dead, I don't know anything. I'm so afraid for her."

Another man, playing backgammon at the community centre, has a different concern.

Azad was granted permanent residency last week, but his 19-year-old daughter is still stuck in Turkey, and he fears she is now too old to qualify for Sweden's offer of family reunification.

"I have to get her here," he declares. "I'll smuggle her. I'll pay. I will do anything. The waiting is so exhausting."

Image caption Asylum-seekers are fingerprinted

There is little doubt that many more Syrians will try to come to Sweden but the government in Stockholm insists that it has no regrets about the stance that has been taken.

"We would like to see more countries in the EU do the same thing," says Sweden's Migration Minister, Tobias Billstrom.

It is an issue that Sweden may raise at a regular EU summit at the end of this week - making a plea for a more coherent European approach to the Syrian refugee crisis.

"It is not our decision which is the problem," Mr Billstrom argues. "I would say the problem is the differences within the European Union."

It is a huge challenge. Not just how to prevent more tragic deaths on perilous journeys towards Europe, but also how to deal with those who make it here.