STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A series of attacks in Sweden on beggars, many Roma, has highlighted a dark side to a country considered a bastion of tolerance but where the far right has been gaining support by claiming society is under threat from waves of immigrants.
An influx of thousands of mainly Roma migrants has shocked affluent Swedes, with beggars now a common sight outside supermarkets, IKEA stores and subways in the capital.
Since most come from Romania and Bulgaria, they are free to travel to Sweden as EU citizens, but their presence has fueled claims by the Sweden Democrats the country is a soft-touch for migrants and is being swamped.
“The first attack was in November or December last year. That was gunshots,” Vasile, a 38-year-old from Romania, who makes a living doing black market jobs in areas like construction around Stockholm, said.
Vasile, who lives in his car with his wife, said he had been attacked several times.
“My wife is very, very scared,” he said.
Sweden takes in more asylum seekers per capita than any other nation in Europe. Around 81,000 sought asylum here in 2014 - second only to Germany.
But while asylum seekers mainly come from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea and get government benefits, many Roma migrants try to earn a living and save money to take home by begging or collecting bottles.
They often stay for a short period and sometimes return to Sweden after visits to their home countries.
The government reckons around 5,000 migrants, some of whom also come from Hungary, are in Sweden begging. Many live on the street or in squalid camps. In recent months, attackers have thrown acid at beggars and burned tents and caravans.
In woodland 15 minutes walk from Hogdalen subway station on the outskirts of Stockholm, around 70 Roma migrants have set up tents and rudimentary shacks of sheets of plastic, corrugated metal and other scrap.
There is no electricity. They only have bonfires to cook on and buckets for washing.
“You have nothing to lose,” said Marius Gaspar, at charity Stockholms Stadsmission, which organizes housing for migrants in the capital city. “It is better to be here as a homeless person than to go back home.”
Average wages in Sweden are around 2,800 euros ($3,160) a month, according to Eurostat. In Romania, where they also face discrimination, the figure is less than a quarter of that.
Europe’s 6 million Roma are the region’s biggest ethnic minority. They have been persecuted for most of their history.
Many migrants in Sweden say they want to work, but lack of education and language skills make it impossible for most, leaving begging as the only alternative.
In August, the Sweden Democrats started a subway advertising campaign in the heart of Stockholm, apologizing to tourists for the “mess” created by beggars. “Our government won’t do what’s needed. But we will and we’re growing at record speed,” the banner advert read.
Protesters later stormed the metro station, tearing down the posters they said were xenophobic.
“They want chaos, they want Sweden to be polarized, to sort people into us and them,” said Sven Hovmoller, the vice-chairman of HEM, a voluntary organization that supports migrants.
There were around 300 reported attacks on Roma in 2014, up 23 percent on the year before, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. Police say the figures underestimate the scale of the problem.
Further underlining the tension in Sweden over immigration, police stepped up security measures around asylum seeker hostels in August after a knife attack in an IKEA store that left two dead. The suspect is an asylum seeker.
The Sweden Democrats reject claims they are pouring fuel on the fire. Spokesman Henrik Vinge said the advertising campaign only said there are criminal gangs that exploit beggars.
“We have not in any context or any way tried to vilify anyone,” Vinge said.
The party, which wants to cut the number of asylum seekers by 90 percent, more than doubled its vote at last year’s election to around 13 percent. One opinion poll in August showed the party is now Sweden’s most popular, backed by 25 percent of voters.
Martin Valfridsson, Sweden’s national coordinator for vulnerable migrants, said the country, which spent around 1.4 percent of its budget on asylum policies last year, remained tolerant but that many Swedes were frustrated by seeing beggars.
The government is looking at making it easier to evict people from illegal settlements and tightening rules on human trafficking. It has also stepped up contacts with Romania, Bulgaria and the EU to deal with the problem.
“The solution must be in their home countries,” Valfridsson said.
In the short term, there is little the government can do. EU rules ensuring free movement mean the country cannot turn migrants away at the border while evictions only move the problem to another location.
Anne Britt Djuve, co author of a report on Romanian migrants in Scandinavia said they were extremely resilient to harassment. “They are desperate for money and they are willing to endure extreme hardship.”
($1 = 8.5676 Swedish crowns)
Additional reporting and writing by Simon Johnson; editing by Alistair Scrutton and Philippa Fletcher