The Sweden Democrats’ anti-migrant stance is proving popular among those who oppose the entry of 190,000 refugees into the country this year
Growing frustration in Sweden with an asylum policy that will allow up to 190,000 refugees into the country this year is driving Europe’s self-declared “humanitarian superpower” into the arms of radical nationalism.
The Sweden Democrats (SD), a nationalist party that emerged from the neo-Nazi movement and has been shunned by Sweden’s mainstream parties because of its far-right immigration policies, is now the country’s third-largest party with 49 representatives in parliament.
An opinion poll conducted after the Paris attacks by polling firm Sifo found the SDwould receive 17.6% of the public vote, marking a 4.6 point rise in support since the 2014 elections. This is one of the more conservative estimates of SD popularity, with several pollsters putting it as the largest single party in Sweden.
Anti-fascist groups have warned that, against a backdrop of Islamic State terror attacks and a refugee crisis, the far-right is rapidly gaining political legitimacy across Europe through the success of parties including the SD, Austria’s Freedom party , the Finns party in Finland, France’s Front National and the UK Independence party.
“They are a force to be reckoned with. As far as I see it, radical nationalism is not just one of the strongest growing political forces but ideologies in Europe,” Daniel Poohl, editor-in-chief of Expo, a pressure group that charts fascist activity in Sweden, told the Guardian.
“I think we have to be aware that the far-right didn’t disappear from Europe, it just had an enormous backlash after 1945. At that time democracy was the ID that destroyed society; today it’s multiculturalism that destroys the nation.”
Sweden has a population of less than 10 million, but it is projected to receive up to 190,000 refugees in 2015 – surpassing the previous record of 100,000 in 2014 and three times the number predicted by the centre-left government. It has taken more refugees per capita than any other European country and was the continent’s first to offer permanent citizenship to refugees from Syria.
The SD has pitched itself as the lone political voice in the Swedish parliament, arguing that the high number of arrivals is unsustainable. With a housing shortage and high unemployment, Swedish needs must be prioritised, it claims. The party has thrived on this platform.
The Swedish government last week took the exceptional step of introducing border checks. Refugees arriving at the Swedish border will still be able to claim asylum, but anyone without paperwork will be prevented from travelling to other Scandinavian countries. But for the SD, this measure still falls short.
“Border controls are a step in the right direction but we want to see border closures,” Markus Wiechel, the party’s spokesman for migration and citizenship, told the Guardian.
“Now more people could actually be seeking asylum in Sweden – I’m sure Norway and Finland will be happy about the decrease in the number of refugees arriving there,” he said.
The SD’s position is that no one who arrives illegally in Sweden should be permitted to stay. The official number of asylum seekers accepted through a system managed by the the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) could reach 4,000 a year. The foreign aid budget providing financial assistance to the UNHCR and refugee host countries neighbouring conflict zones could also be significantly increased if there were fewer refugees within Sweden – an appealing proposition to many Swedes.
“We’ve increased rapidly in the polls because most people believe immigration is way too high and it’s been that way for too long,” Wiechel said.
“We were thought of as an extremist party but since we’ve been in parliament, people have seen we’re not different from other parties, we just want to reduce immigration.”
But the SD’s argument is not just with the government’s immigration policy; it is with multiculturalism, which the party believes is the greatest threat facing Sweden.
According to the definition provided on the party’s website, multiculturalism “is the ideology that a state should be built on widely different values that appear side by side. This means that laws, customs and duties and rights must be compromised in an effort to cater to all different cultures. In practice, it leads to division and segregation where culture clashes occur.”
Groups such as Expo warn the SD is pulling the immigration debate hard to the right.
The SD has gone to great pains to distance itself from its neo-Nazi roots and from most other radical nationalist groups in Sweden, such as Nordisk Ungdom, an ultra right-wing organisation that has posted clips on YouTube showing members apparently firebombing asylum centres.
The SD recently severed ties with its youth group – the SDU – following the election of Jessica Ohlson as chair. The SD leadership claim she is too nationalistic and that several of her supporters have been linked to extremist groups.
According to Wiechel: “They didn’t clearly say they are against racism. They weren’t clear enough.”
Ohlson and her supporters vehemently deny these allegations and claim they are victims of a purge motivated by internal party politics. Certainly, other SD members who have expressed anti-Muslim views have gone unpunished.
Kent Ekeroth is a case in point. He has represented Stockholm county in parliament since 2010 and remains a prominent SD member. In a speech delivered to the party conference in October 2009, he warned against what he said was a threat to Sweden, alleging “Muslim immigrants” were attacking locals.
He said: “Mohammed is the most popular name in many western cities … See society bend to Islam … If this is their thanks, I have only one thing to say: ‘Thank you and goodbye. Go home!’”
In recent years, this amplification of anti-Muslim messages from SD politicians and rightwing media outlets has been accompanied by a rise in anti-immigrant violence across Sweden. In the last few months, there have been dozens of arson attacks on asylum centres.
Anton Lundin Pettersson, whose murder of two people in an attack on the Kronan school in Trollhättan stunned Sweden, selected his victims by ethnicity: 15-year-old student, Ahmed Hassan, was born in Somalia, and 20-year-old teaching assistant, Lavin Eskandar, was born in Sweden to Iraqi parents. A teenage Syrian boy, who was stabbed in the neck by Pettersson but survived, had recently arrived in Sweden with his sisters having lost both parents in the war.
The SD has deplored Pettersson’s attack and all violence targeting asylum seekers. But several of its local chapters have handed out leaflets revealing the locations of refugee housing that the government had intended to remain confidential.
Wiechel said publishing this information was in the interest of residents who may not know there was to be refugee housing in their area. Asked if that might endanger the refugees, he replied: “Well, I would hope the security is good enough.”
Trollhättan, where the attack took place, is a divided town. More than 90% of pupils at Kronan school are the children of refugees and migrants. Haj Ahmed, the imam at Trollhättan’s Sunni mosque, just a few hundred metres from the school, said Swedes rarely enter migrant neighbourhoods.
Ahmed hopes the shared horror at Kronan school may have a surprising silver lining, bringing the communities together: “Swedish people who are from Trollhättan who have never been [to our neighbourhood] have been here now. This is a good thing.”
He does not share the fear of others in the community that there will be more lone wolf attacks like the one at the school. The biggest threat to Sweden’s Muslims, he believes, is a political one, led by the SD: “If you cast your mind back a bit and think about Germany … It’s absolutely the same politics, to say: ‘You Aryans are the best ones; those are the criminals’.
“The SD do absolutely the same thing, it’s the same politics. That’s what I’m frightened of, really, not what’s happened here but what those people want.”