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Published: Wednesday May 14, 2014 MYT 3:10:02 PM
Updated: Wednesday May 14, 2014 MYT 3:10:55 PM

Nordic tolerance under strain as anti-immigration parties grow

HUSBY Sweden (Reuters) - In Stockholm's suburb of Husby, the roads still bear charred marks from cars torched in Sweden's worst riots for years.

Last May's violence exposed wounds yet to heal in a Swedish election year, underscoring the Nordic state's struggle to integrate a record number of immigrants and challenging its open door traditions.

Many Swedes remain tolerant of immigrants and asylum seekers. But a growing minority are fearful of crime, concerned about jobs and worried about costs to the welfare state.

Questioning immigration is no longer a taboo, a growing trend in the Nordics where populist anti-immigrant parties are now part of the political landscape.

In Denmark, Sweden and Finland, anti-immigration parties are now among the three most popular in some polls. In Norway, a rightist populist party is in the ruling coalition.

It is in Husby that Sweden's issues came into focus when hundreds of cars were burnt, shops and day schools attacked as police battled hundreds of immigrant youths after a Portuguese man was shot dead by police.

The week-long riots spread across Stockholm, shocking a country that prided itself on equality and welcoming asylum seekers. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called rioters vandals while the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats pressed for a curfew.

Immigration has become a hot topic across Europe as it recovers slowly from years of economic hardship. Fringe parties are likely to score strongly in elections to the EU parliament across much of the bloc next week, many demanding that borders be shut to new migrants or numbers be rationed.

Yet EU rules mean people are free to move from the poorer east to the richer west of the bloc and thousands of people from Africa and Asia continue to risk perilous routes across the Mediterranean.

If Husby is anything to go by, Swedish tensions are as latent as ever.

"Nothing has changed," said Henok Goitom, a 29-year-old professional football player and part time community worker who is the son of an Eritrean immigrant. "It's a ticking bomb."

Goitom sat in a library where the local football club he started helps immigrants study. As women in veils huddled over a computer and Chileans chattered at the entrance, he charted the rise of the Sweden Democrats in polls.

"People did not see the warnings. They are four percent, that's OK. Then they became six percent, and that's a problem," Goitom said. "Now they are 10 percent and I don't know if it's too late."

Some 15 percent of Sweden's population is foreign born, the highest level in the Nordic region. Foreign-born unemployed rates, at 16 percent, compare with 6 percent for native Swedes. In Husby the youth unemployment rate is over 25 percent.

Five years after arriving in Sweden, some 44 percent of immigrant men and 56 percent of women are still unemployed.

AS COMFORTABLE AS POSSIBLE

The immigrant's first port of call is a place like Marsta immigration centre, an hour's drive from Stockholm.

Sweden, which stands out in the European Union for offering permanent residence to Syrians, ranks fourth in the number of asylum seekers and second relative to its population out of 44 industrialised nations, according to U.N. figures.

Numbers of migrants have jumped in the last year to around 10 a day at the centre. When Syrians arrive, they are given a health check and help with free Swedish lessons, food and accommodation. Permanent residence can come within two months.

"We don't ask many questions," said case officer Lina Persson. "The job here is to make things as comfortable as possible."

There is a price. The cost of receiving asylum seekers will jump nearly 50 percent to 7.0 billion Swedish crowns ($1.1 billion) this year - approaching one percent of the national budget of a country struggling to afford rising healthcare and schooling costs.

Nor is it just asylum seekers. Police have battled Roma migrants who set up makeshift camps outside Stockholm. The talk of Stockholm this year has been the rise of beggars from Eastern Europe on the streets.

Two decades ago, the Sweden Democrats were a fringe far right party but they now hold around 8 percent support in polls and are aiming for up to 15 percent in EU elections.

Mainstream parties worry about Denmark's experience when an anti-immigrant party held the balance of power in the former government, pushing policies including tightening border controls that fuelled tension with other European nations.

"Our aim is to strengthen our balance of power so that we can have more influence after the next election," said Bjorn Soder, party secretary for the Sweden Democrats.

TOO MANY IMMIGRANTS?

To the south of Stockholm in another bland suburb of grey apartment buildings, a gathering of Sweden Democrats attracted mainly white men gathered to hear their leader, Jimmie Akesson, a well dressed politician who has pushed the party towards relative respectability.

"Sweden has taken in too many people in too short a time," said Fredrik Eriksson, a 19-year-old party member. "There is big pressure on our welfare."

Over the past year, Sweden has been shaken by a resurgence of violence linked to far-right and neo-Nazi groups far more extreme than the Sweden Democrats.

Parties like the Sweden Democrats floundered after Anders Behring Breivik, a white supremacist, murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011. But now 20 percent of Swedes say they agree with its immigration policies.

It is a similar story across the Nordics.

"The starting point for us in Finland is to avoid the mistakes that Germany and Britain have made with immigration," said Riikka Slunga-Poutsalo, party secretary of the Finns, the country's populist party. "We are critical towards allowing Finnish social security for all immigrants.”

The Finns aim to win a second and possibly a third seat in the EU parliament.

Some polls put the Danish People's Party - which has opposed the building of a mosque in Copenhagen and criticised Muslim radicalisation in Denmark - at over 20 percent.

Husby is hardly derelict. There are schools, bland but functional 1960s housing but little else has changed, residents say.

"I just can't get a job, for some reason," said Haidar Hajdari, a second generation immigrant whose father is a refugee from Iran. He has sent off his CV to the nearby offices of large IT and telecoms companies.

Hajdari wonders if riots will surface again, especially with eyes on these neighbourhoods in an election year.

(Editing by Mike Peacock)

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