|Hanna Shammo from Syria stands outside the Syrian Association in Vaellingby, near Stockholm. (AFP)|
SOEDERTAELJE, Sweden (AFP) ― Sweden, as the only country to give Syrian refugees automatic residence, has struggled to house them and faces warnings of a coming surge in arrivals.
Josef Ariss and his mother Reina fled Aleppo in northern Syria three months ago when their family’s clothing factory was flattened by shelling.
Although relieved to escape the violence, he is far from happy with the situation in Sweden ― living in cramped conditions with relatives, like many of his countrymen.
“We’re staying at my aunt’s house ― eight people in 90 square meters,” the soft-spoken 20-year-old told AFP.
Speaking at a crowded Syrian cultural center in the outskirts of Stockholm as new arrivals streamed out of a Swedish language class, he added: “If you need help from the Migration Board to find a place they throw you in the north where it’s far below freezing. We can’t live there.”
Wearing a warm knitted jumper and a look of tired resignation, his mother Reina, 50, said she had expected something different.
“We came here with big hopes of starting over ― of having our own place to stay,” she said.
Sweden has seen a sharp increase in Syrian refugees ― about 8,000 have arrived since it threw the doors open in September, bringing the total number this year to more than 14,000 ― of a total of 50,000 refugees.
The Migration Board offers everyone temporary accommodation in a growing network of refugee centers scattered around the country.
However, at least a third of newly arrived Syrians go straight to relatives and friends ― mainly in the Stockholm area and Soedertaelje, which have sizeable Syrian communities.
“It’s chaos with housing,” said Elizabet Toutoungi from the Syrian Association, a voluntary cultural organization.
“The Migration Board helps with temporary refugee accommodation ― but many who have gone there haven’t been able to stay because it’s too tough for big families and people with children. It’s like a hostel, and you can be there a long time.”
About 8,000 refugees with residence permits live in reception centers, and currently having to wait an average of six months for permanent accommodation, according to migration authorities.
The queue is expected to double next year with up to 69,000 more refugees, the highest level since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
In Soedertaelje, the situation has already passed crisis proportions, according to Social Democratic mayor Boel Godner.
During the Iraq War, the town ― with a population of 90,000 ― took in more refugees than all of North America, and is home today to 25,000 Middle Eastern Christians, many of whom belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church.
“We’ve had at least 700 new families in the last year and they all live with relatives and friends ― it’s often cramped, with two or three families in an apartment meant for one,” Godner told AFP.
Although she supports Sweden’s liberal refugee policy, she wants to remove refugees’ right to choose where they stay when they arrive.
With a further 2,000 Syrians expected in Soedertaelje next year, she is worried about the long-term consequences for a district with 14 percent unemployment ― nearly double the national average.
“If we had the power to check we would say ‘no, it’s too crowded here,’” she said. “Children have it tough at school ... learning Swedish when everyone around them speaks the same (foreign) language.”
She added that “it’s hard to get jobs, which creates a lot of poverty and frustration.”
Ultimately, she reflected, “Many refugees would be better off if the whole country helped out ― there are districts that have not accepted a single refugee.”