In bastion of tolerance Sweden, immigration is questioned

Wed Apr 17, 2013 11:52am EDT
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By Alistair Scrutton and Johan Ahlander

ESKILSTUNA, Sweden (Reuters) - An influx of refugees from countries such as Syria is fuelling a backlash against immigration in Sweden, for years seen by victims of conflict as a bastion of tolerance.

The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have risen in voter polls to vie for third place a year before a general election that could leave them holding the balance of power.

City councilor Adam Marttinen personifies the growing anti-immigration sentiment. Dressed in an immaculate suit, gone is the skinhead image that once pushed the party to the sidelines.

Sitting in a cafe in this industrial town west of Stockholm, where unemployment of 15 percent is almost double the national average, Marttinen said immigrants were a burden on the welfare budget. "The main thing is we have to stop immigration to this city," he said.

Outside, women in head scarves shopped in the shadow of tower blocks.

The majority of Swedes still welcome immigration, but the Sweden Democrats have advanced in voter surveys to nearly 10 percent from five percent in the last election.

Immigration is increasingly part of the mainstream debate in a country where some 15 percent of the population is foreign born, the highest in the Nordic region. It is a rise in asylum seekers, drawn by Sweden's robust economy and tradition of helping refugees, that has attracted most controversy and is stirring anxiety among minority groups.

Sweden received 43,900 asylum seekers in 2012, a nearly 50 percent jump from 2011 and the second highest on record. Nearly half were from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia and will get at least temporary residency - out of a total 103,000 immigrants.   Continued...