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Frozen? Or Frozen Out?

Refugees in Sweden

by RITT GOLDSTEIN

As I write this, the wind is strong enough to sound like a freight train, accompanying snow falling for two days now, and while it was about -17F yesterday morning, it’s a comparatively balmy 14F at the moment.  But, winter in Sweden isn’t a good time to go around sockless and in flip-flops, and for a group of refugees in Blekinge, that’s what was occurring just a few days ago.

By law, asylum seekers are supposed to be provided with funds to buy winter clothing, but sometimes things are not what they’re supposed to be.

“The administrative procedure is taking more time than needs…in the meantime they don’t have any winter clothes”, said Michael Williams, refugee councilor for the Church of Sweden’s Västerås diocese and a well-known refugee advocate.  And while the plight of these unfortunates has made the national news here, given that one recent headline read “Record lows as winter freeze grips Sweden”, how could this happen?

“It’s not acceptable that people could be left out without proper clothing”, observed Linda Norberg, press secretary to Tobias Billström, Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy.  And with many refugees today fleeing the ongoing nightmare that was Syria, few come prepared for the frozen landscape of winter Sweden.

At the moment, Swedish refugee authorities estimate over a thousand asylum seekers weekly are entering the country.

Elaborating upon the current influx, Norberg added that it’s “very important to understand that the main focus right now is to provide them with a roof over their head and a warm shelter, and of course the winter clothing is a part of that.”  But, while Sweden’s new arrivals are being cared for in a number of locales throughout the country, it seems just the Blekinge group has found itself at winter’s mercy.  Notably, Blekinge is a stronghold of the far-Right Sweden Democrats (SD), a decidedly anti-immigrant party that — despite a number of recent, well-publicized scandals involving racism — has been surging in opinion polls.

In attempting to get a better handle upon events, this journalist contacted the Swedish Migration Board (MB), the national authority with responsibility for incoming refugees, including that for the shelter, food and the clothing they receive.

Is Blekinge ‘especially burdened’, I asked Fredrik Bengtsson, the Board’s press chief.  “No, no, they are not…I can’t answer why it happened in Blekinge – I don’t know why. It’s nothing special with Blekinge – it’s a tough situation all over the country today”, was his reply.  But, despite the apparent lack of any unusual factors about the Blekinge center beyond its location in an SD stronghold, assorted queries to both the Government and political parties highlighted that none of those contacted viewed possible SD ‘influence’ as a potential cause of the Blekinge group’s problems.

As to what the reality behind the hardship forced upon Blekinge’s new arrivals is (and these poor souls have been in the country three to four weeks), the philosophical maxim termed Occam’s Razor dictates that, all things being equal, the simplest answer is often correct, with the only extraordinary factor I discovered about the Blekinge center being its proximity to SD supporters. I’ll also add that in 2005, the then government published a report on ‘structural discrimination’ in Sweden, Det blågula glashuset (The blue/yellow glass house), specifically citing why incidents of a type which raise alarm in other societies — incidents that act as what was termed an ‘eye opener’ — failed to do so here.

To quote the report: “Sweden does not lack such events, but they have not functioned as ‘eye openers’ in the same way. I believe that the most important reason for this is a widespread denial.”

Having said the above, my opinion is obvious – a county where many dislike refugees will not treat them as well as one lacking such enmity. A person need not be a rocket scientist to appreciate the logic.  And, denial is human – should one reflect upon the politics of Global Warming, denial does seem our planet’s greatest renewable resource.

On the upside, it was 3 December when I spoke with the Migration Board’s Mr. Bengtsson, with him then assuring me that the Blekinge unfortunates will “have their money (to buy winter clothing) today or tomorrow”.  Unfortunately, a severe winter storm hit Sweden the next day, the 4th.  A headline by The Local (Sweden’s major English-language website) upon the storm’s impact in Sweden’s capitol, Stockholm, reading, “Transport standstill as storm lashes Stockholm”, the article adding that violent “blizzards in Stockholm have caused serious disruptions to flights, trains, roads, and electricity, with meteorologists expecting more of the same.”

It’s my understanding that the temperature in Blekinge on the morning of the fourth was somewhere in the teens (Fahrenheit) – not very comfortable for no socks and flip-flops; frostbite does occur in this country.  And, the refugees needed to not only receive their money, but then transport themselves to an area where inexpensive clothing could be purchased, where they might find ‘second-hand’ clothing.

Contrary to what I personally have heard voiced by many Swedes, a refugee’s life here is indeed ‘difficult’, sometimes extraordinarily so. The very modest allowance which such asylum seekers receive from the government has not been changed in eighteen years, ‘frozen’ at 1994’s level, though, prices have indeed risen.  Readily acknowledging such issues, Bengtsson observed: “We have public opinion in Sweden quite often that says, ‘the refugees, they get so much money’.  ‘They come to Sweden and they have this beautiful life’, and that’s not true – they are struggling all the time here.”

The allowance which asylum seekers receive is quite low: 61 kroner per day per adult in a family (71 kroner per day for a single adult), and between 24 and 50 kroner per child for the first two children, half for any additional children, according to the MB’s Bengtsson.  To put those numbers in perspective, according to the website ‘Numbeo.com’ — which provides a list of average Swedish food prices — the daily “money necessary for food per person” is “70.62 kr”, meaning that a married couple is indeed pressed financially, especially if they have hungry children.  Beyond the food though, the daily allowance is also supposed to provide clothing.

According to refugee councilor and advocate Williams, “that’s an impossible task for a growing family”.  And, Bengtsson agrees, separately noting that the daily allowance “doesn’t match — of course it doesn’t — it’s too low money to satisfy the need of clothing, and so on.”

There are many ways for a refugee to feel the pain of a ‘frozen’ Sweden.

Williams had earlier noted that the Västerås Diocese is leading a drive to see an increase in the allotment to an appropriate level.  And, the Church of Sweden does have a history of activism on behalf of refugees – while the country is quite secular, the Church’s moral authority remains substantive.  However, the nation’s present politics does appear to present extremely substantive hurdles, the rising popularity of the far-Right Sweden Democrats, their anti-immigration stance, highlighting the issue.

Further highlighting the politics here, when this journalist contacted the parliamentary press offices of seven of the Parliament’s eight parties (all but the SD), not one had done a press release on the plight of the Blekinge asylum seekers, the implications of it.

To my eyes, for many of the same reasons groups have been scapegoated throughout history, Sweden’s refugees and immigrants are facing difficult times today.  Despite this, there yet remain Swedes of the mold one often thinks of, Norberg relating to this journalist how, in the county of Värmland, “the local community, the farmers and so on, they cooperated with the Board of Migration to faster provide asylum seekers with the proper clothing”; but, Värmland isn’t an SD stronghold.

Times change, and this journalist has personally endured what I see as the worst kinds of discrimination, including that I can only term as life-threatening.  Further highlighting the reality of events, the chairwoman of the Center Against Racism here, Mariam Osman Sherifay, recently published an article in The Local, an article titled “Sweden Democrat thugs only voice what many Swedes think”.

In my opinion, Sweden is at a difficult crossroads, with history offering numerous examples of where an expanding far-Right can eventually lead, the terrible price states have paid for going there.  I dearly hope Blekinge’s unfortunates now have their winter clothing, but as terrible as lacking such necessities is — and, in this weather, it is terrible — the fact that they seem to have been knowingly left without them…is not what that says still worse?

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden. His work has appeared fairly widely, including in America’s Christian Science Monitor, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, Spain’s El Mundo, Austria’s Wiener Zeitung, Hong Kong’s Asia Times, and a number of other global media outlets.