Ilmar Reepalu is the Mayor of Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city. He is a man on the move, trying to promote and develop Malmo’s position as a leader in green technology around the world. He can squeeze us in for an interview at 8:30 on a Sunday evening. Uncomplaining, he rides up to Malmo’s City Hall on his bicycle in the dark and rain to talk to us.
We are in Malmo, not to discuss sustainability and fair trade in the city, but rather its massive immigration, which some call a problem, others consider a gift.
One-third of Malmo’s population is foreign-born. Another 10 percent are of a different nationality. The biggest influx these days is from the Muslim world. Many of them are very traditional-- a small group is quite extreme.
Sweden has a population of 9 million — of those, 1.4 million are immigrants. Approximately 100,000 pour in each year. Ilmar Reepalu thinks that’s a good thing.
“Sweden needs lots of immigrants,” he says, “because otherwise we can’t keep up our welfare system. We, as most parts of Europe, have too few people. Within the coming 20 years, we will have a lack of labor force, so we need more people coming to Sweden. We don’t have enough kids from ourselves.”
Sweden has probably the most generous immigration, asylum and welfare policies in the world.
Some natives have had it with this bottomless funding pit. For the first time last year, voters elected the far right anti-immigration Sweden Democrats—giving them a handful of seats in Parliament.
MP Kent Ekeroth disputes the argument that immigration keeps Sweden’s welfare system afloat.
“What kind of immigrants do we take in? It’s people from Somalia who have done nothing but herd sheep their whole life and we expect them to benefit our society? It’s ridiculous.”
The Sweden Democrats advocate cutting back 90 percent on immigration, redirecting the money currently spent on housing and caring for refugees to programs to improve life in their home countries.
“If you bring one immigrant to Sweden, it’s expensive. It costs a lot of money. If you put that money to use in Africa or the Middle East or wherever, you can help hundreds more.” Ekeroth goes even further, “If you put this money over there to help them with food, with medicine, with education or whatever, you can help hundreds, maybe thousands, more. So what’s more humane? To help one person lead a life of luxury here in Sweden or to help 1000 to avoid starvation in Africa?”
The Sweden Democrats’ views have made them targets both of Sweden’s left, and of immigrants. Ekeroth travels with security.
The tensions that have come as a result of the swelling immigration have affected all sides.
Riots have periodically broken out in a largely Muslim neighborhood of Malmo, called Rosengard, sparked by the perception of mistreatment of residents by the police or other authorities. Firefighters at the scenes of some of these riots have been attacked. As a result, they will often refuse to answer calls to put out fires there without police escort.
There has been an Islamophobic backlash. Scandinavia’s largest mosque happens to be in Malmo. It was set on fire in 2004. The culprit was never found. An imam was shot on the premises. The head of the Islamic Center at Malmo’s main mosque, a man named Bejzat Becirov, regularly receives hate mail, adorned with pigs and pictures of Usama Bin Laden.
Becirov, a moderate Muslim from the former Yugoslavia, and hence, a European, from a community where women did not typically wear the veil, thinks the culprits behind these attacks on his mosque may be neo-Nazis, but may also be extremist Muslims who don’t like Becirov’s message of integration.
He thinks immigrants to Sweden should try harder to blend in.
“Since religion doesn’t say anything about how you should dress, maybe it’s a good idea to try to take a look at how everybody else is behaving, and try to present themselves and adapt to that,” he says. “And that would make it easier for them. Perhaps things start there."
Becirov acknowledges that it’s harder for non-Europeans to adapt to a liberal place like Sweden.
“If you look at Muslims coming from the Middle East, I think it takes 15 to 20 years before they are integrated—a generation.”
Becirov believes the number of Malmo Muslims who subscribe to extremist ideology is small, but that their recruiting methods are aggressive. In his words, python-like.
Ekeroth worries about how those extreme elements exercise their authority.
“There’s unofficial Shariah police going around Rosengard, checking how women dress, and there are unofficial Shariah courts in Malmo, being used,” he says.
Despite the controversy, Swedes we interviewed outside Malmo’s main station were supportive of their country’s immigration policies.
One young woman told Fox News, “I think we should take more. I know that not many people would agree with me.”
A young man adds, “I think it’s good. It creates great diversity.”
Another young woman, when asked about the face of Sweden changing dramatically due to massive immigration, said, “I think everything we call culture right now, it’s been so fluid throughout history. I don’t think it can be overruled like that. Everything that comes in, it just adds to the culture, it doesn’t take away.”
Sweden has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States has, the mayor of Malmo points out. That is something many Swedes are proud of. Mayor Reepalu believes that rather than cut back on immigration, Sweden should do more to help those coming to Sweden adapt to their new lives, especially the children.
“The challenge,” he says, “is to have teachers good enough to take this quite tough situation, where you have lots of children coming into the schools, coming directly from conflict zones in different parts of the world, carrying with them lots of trauma of course.
“To take care of that—to help those people get a good start in their lives.”