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Last Updated: Friday, 21 March 2008, 10:48 GMT
Sweden feels strain of refugees
By Rob Cameron
BBC News, Soedertaelje

Teacher Gabriella Barsoum with Iraqi students at Ronna school, Sweden
Iraqi refugee children attend special preparatory classes
No European country has welcomed as many Iraqi refugees as Sweden.

In 2007 alone, 18,599 Iraqis applied for asylum - far more than anywhere else in the EU.

But the influx is placing Sweden's towns and cities under severe strain, and has prompted a national debate on immigration.

Matthew (not his real name) clasps his hands neatly in front of him and explains why he left Iraq to start a new life.

"If you stay, you die," he says. "If you leave, you live."

The 26-year-old doctor pauses for a moment, looking down at his hands.

You feel you can live in safety, you feel more human
Matthew, Iraqi refugee
He contemplates his former life in Baghdad and the stark choices it left him.

"They ask you - 'why are you a Christian? Why do you live here? It's not a Christian country'.

"A couple of guys with guns came and tried to kill us. After that moment I can't live there any longer. It's a matter of life or death."

In September 2007 Matthew chose life, and left Iraq for good.

Safe haven

He is now studying to practice medicine in Sweden.

He lives in Soedertaelje, a small industrial town some 35km (22 miles) south-west of Stockholm.

Matthew came to Soedertaelje because so many like him have come before him.

Iraqi refugee children with teacher in Sweden
Teacher Gabriella attended the same school as a child

An estimated 40% of Soedertaelje's 80,000 inhabitants are first or second-generation immigrants.

Most are Assyrians - a Christian minority fleeing persecution in the Middle East.

"I can now live without fear," he says.

"When you hear that Sweden has fought its last war 400 years ago, there's no expecting any war.

"So you feel you can live in safety. You feel more human."

Workers welcomed

Soedertaelje is the birthplace of tennis legend Bjorn Borg.

It is also the headquarters of both the Scania truck manufacturer and the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company.

Those companies were hungry for workers, and over the decades Soedertaelje welcomed waves of immigrants. First came Finns. Then Assyrian immigrants, from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Sweden map
Today, Soedertaelje is home to one of Europe's largest Assyrian exile communities. There are two Assyrian football teams and even an Assyrian satellite TV station - Suroyo TV.

Since the 2003 war, however, the trickle of Assyrian refugees from Iraq has become a flood. An estimated 5,000 have settled here since the war began.

Soedertaelje's mayor, Anders Lago, estimates that about 30 asylum seekers arrive from Iraq each week.

Many of their children end up in special preparatory classes at the Ronna School, a mixed primary and secondary school in a heavily Assyrian area of Soedertaelje.

Former pupil

The classes are run by Gabriella Barsoum, a 27-year-old Assyrian Christian whose parents were from Syria and Turkey.

Gabriella, who was born in Soedertaelje, attended the Ronna School as a girl.

"What is important here is some students don't want to think back about hard times and I must respect that," she says.

"Not all students want to tell us what they have been through."

For those who do, Gabriella is ready to listen.

Witnessing how immigrants are welcomed to a small town like Soedertaelje, it is not hard to see why so many Iraqi asylum seekers have chosen Sweden.

It is also important to understand the strain it puts on the society if you take in a large number of people in a very short time
Tobias Billstroem
Migration Minister

But the liberal Swedish asylum system that allows immigrants to choose where to live has created a problem.

There are now so many immigrants in Soedertaelje that up to 15 are sharing one apartment.

With little Swedish, jobs are hard to come by, and the strain on Soedertaelje's educational and social services is evident.

Soedertaelje is not alone. Other towns and cities in Sweden are reporting similar problems of overcrowding.

That has prompted a national debate about immigration, one that has produced some surprising results in a country traditionally so immigrant-friendly.

A poll conducted last year by the Swedish Integration Board suggested one in four Swedes were prepared to vote for a party that would restrict the rights of immigrants.

Door closing

Three Iraqi immigrant children look out of window of day care centre in Sweden, Jan 2008
Most of the schoolchildren's families fled violence in Iraq
Sweden's Minister for Migration and Asylum, Tobias Billstroem, says his country remains open to immigrants, but he too sounds a note of alarm.

"It is the firm belief of the Swedish government and the Swedish people that Sweden should stand up for those who are persecuted or pursued in their home countries," he says.

"However, it is also important to understand the strain it puts on the society if you take in a large number of people in a very short time."

To ease that strain, the centre-right government is to introduce a number of measures, including a proposal that would only allow immigrants to bring in their families once they have proved they can feed and house them.

Mr Billstroem says that does not mean Sweden is shutting the door to Iraqi asylum seekers.

The statistics, however, would seem to tell a different story.

In 2007, Sweden's Migration Board approved 72% of all Iraqi asylum requests.

The Migration Board, however, has since ruled there is no longer an armed conflict in Iraq.

In January and February of this year, the majority of Iraqi requests for asylum were turned down.

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