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From Aleppo To Malmo: War-Weary Refugees Find A Home In Sweden

  • Elisabeth Braw

MALMO, Sweden -- Nine months ago, Omar's parents decided that they could no longer stay in Turkey, where they had fled from Syria. Using a smuggler, Omar's dad made his way to the southern Swedish city of Malmo, where the family has friends.

He's not alone. This month, the Swedish Migration Agency's Malmo office is registering close to 900 new asylum seekers per day, a figure not seen since the Balkan wars 25 years ago. Malmo is not only a logical point of entry for the many asylum seekers who head for Sweden. It's also a destination.

"I only have one aunt left in Syria," says the 18-year-old Omar, who was later able to join his father along with his mother and sister. "Almost everyone else is in Malmo."

Indeed, many migrants specifically choose to come here.

"It's a big city and you can speak Arabic and English here," says Mohammad al-Balout, a young Syrian journalist who arrived last year after fleeing from Libya through Italy, then farther north, and now lives here permanently, having been granted asylum. (Sweden grants asylum to all Syrian citizens bar selected individuals such as war criminals.)

Ahmed, a Syrian teenager who arrived in Malmo 2 1/2 years ago, having made the journey via Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Austria, then on to Sweden, says his family had decided he should head for Malmo "because there are many Arabs here."

The Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) collects the new arrivals from Malmo's harbor and its train station, as well as the harbor in Trelleborg, a city to the south with ferry traffic to and from Germany. A steady stream of shuttle buses delivers the migrants to the Migration Agency's office, though from the train station the official buses are supplanted by cars and buses driven by volunteers.

The good Samaritans' activities at the train station, which also include providing food and beds to new arrivals, have caused some irritation among the authorities.

"The Migration Agency says they can receive everybody, but they can't," says Ali Jehad, an Iraqi who came to Sweden as a child via Saudi Arabia and now coordinates volunteer efforts at the train station. "We have enough food and beds for 600 people, but the authorities don't want our help."

Authorities acknowledge that they are wary of some forms of cooperation, but they say it is for good reason.

"We appreciate that volunteers want to help," says Betim Jahiri, deputy head of the Migration Agency's Malmo office, "but who's responsible when an undocumented migrant gets into a private person's car? As far as the law is concerned, such people are in the country illegally."

Regardless of how they are traveling, the result of the shuttle traffic is a crowded Migration Agency reception area and a long queue outside.

"We're setting new records every day," Jahiri says. "Malmo is a connection point for migrants."​

WATCH: In Malmo, Former Refugees Lead Relief Effort For New Migrants (produced by RFE/RL's Margot Buff)

Seventy immigration officials staff the Malmo center to register the new arrivals, fingerprint them, take their photo, conduct a short interview, and give them a debit card for daily needs.

Copenhagen's twin city on the Swedish side of the Kattegatt strait, Malmo has a long history as a blue-collar city dominated by its shipyard. But over the past generation, migration has changed the city. Last year, 43 percent of the city's 318,000 residents were immigrants or first-generation Swedes, with Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina among the most common countries of origin. These days, they're joined by more Iraqis as well as many Syrians.

The Migration Agency is so busy that it's now hiring 50 more staff to process asylum registrations, and Jahiri says that his office is bracing itself for new records.

After their asylum claims have been registered, asylum seekers are assigned to Migration Agency housing in towns across Sweden. Many, however, have friends and relatives they can stay with and opt to do that. As a result, many asylum seekers stay in Malmo while their claims are being processed.

"Last week, we had eight additional people in our [three-bedroom] apartment," says Mohammed, an 18-year-old Iraqi who arrived with his family in Malmo three years ago, joining relatives already living here.

When their applications have been approved, many refugees logically stay put.

Malmo's politicians are doing their best to accommodate the rising number of residents, even creating, then expanding, a so-called Start School attended by migrant children until their Swedish is good enough for them to attend regular schools.

"Swedes respect everybody, even animals," says Raafat Amini, a Syrian who made it to Malmo 1 1/2 years ago and was able to bring his wife and four young children from Turkey earlier this year. "Here, refugees have the same rights as Swedes." His wife, Tahani Almousli, praises the fact that in Malmo's schools, her children are learning not just theoretical subjects but also skills such as swimming -- a point that seems a bit random were it not for the fact that Amini survived a capsizing dinghy by swimming to shore.

But a law intended to treat migrants humanely by allowing them to settle anywhere they choose is having unintended and difficult consequences.

The neighborhood of Rosengard, long home to a mix of working-class residents and immigrants, now has almost exclusively immigrant residents.

"The problem is that it's hard to get integrated in Malmo," says Balout. "Especially in Rosengard, people bring their own traditions, speak their own language. Malmo is a good place to live and work, but the thing is, you don't learn Swedish."

Soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the son of a Croatian mother and a Bosnian father who was born and raised in Rosengard, speaks with a foreign-infused accent and vocabulary now known as Rosengard Swedish.

"Immigration is an incredibly positive thing for Malmo. The city's diversity makes us an attractive city to live and work in," says Andreas Schoenstroem, Malmo's deputy mayor in charge of integration, secondary education, and adult education. Rosengard's concentration of immigrants is an economic matter, not an ethnic one, he adds: "In parts of Rosengard, housing is cheaper, and that's why people move there when they want to establish themselves here. When they get work, they often move to other neighborhoods."

Recently, Balout sent his teenage brother, who escaped to Sweden with him, to live in a small town. That way, Balout argues, his brother will have a chance of becoming part of Swedish society. Balout himself has quickly learned Swedish and made the conscious decision to live by himself in a majority-Swedish neighborhood.

Safeta Bajraktarevic arrived in Malmo during the previous record refugee wave: She and her family escaped from Sarajevo in 1992. Speaking in effortless Swedish, Bajraktarevic labels the government's policy of allowing refugees to choose their place of residence "madness."

"The result is that all the immigrants end up living in the same place," Bajraktarevic says.

WATCH: What Is The Schengen Area?

That's the Swedish decision-makers' bind: Allowing new arrivals to settle in cities and neighborhoods where people from their home countries live may be beneficial in the short term but counterproductive in the long term.

Bajraktarevic, who trained as a lawyer in Bosnia, has found integration into Swedish society "super easy," she says. "You just have to go to school, go to work. Otherwise, you'll never meet any Swedes."

But many Swedes are uneasy about the rapid increase in immigration. Last year, 81,301 people applied for asylum in Sweden, up from 17,530 in 2004. This month, the Sweden Democrats, who want to reduce immigration, scored a record 20.8 percent of voter support in a nationwide poll.

And getting work is not as easy as just applying. Academic research shows that applicants with immigrant-sounding names are invited for job interviews less often than Swedish applicants with the same qualifications.

"Now I'm unemployed again," says Bajraktarevic, who nonetheless is about to leave for a holiday on Crete. "As long as my name is Safeta Bajraktarevic, I'll have a hard time finding work. We immigrants don't have as many contacts as Swedes, so we need a little shove."