Spate of arson attacks against asylum centers raises fears in migrant-friendly Sweden

The teenage refugees had a new home in the newly built asylum center in southern Sweden. Hours before moving in, flames broke out in the wooden barracks.

No one was hurt. But it was among a spate of fires at asylum facilities raising concerns that the Scandinavian country's generous policy toward migrants is under a serious backlash.

"Happily no one has died. These people have fled war, hunger, terror, poverty and found shelter here, where they are met with fire," said Mona Lindgren, a retired shopkeeper in this sleepy town just north of Malmo, Sweden's third largest city. "That's not acceptable."

Last week's fire at the barracks, intended as temporary housing for unaccompanied children, was quickly extinguished, but the building became uninhabitable. Early Thursday, a former retirement home, also meant for refugees, was partly damaged by fire; no one was inside at the time. Two days earlier 14 refugees were evacuated in the middle of the night from a burning building near Munkedal, in southwestern Sweden.

Most of the recent blazes were in buildings for asylum-seekers in southern Sweden — the main entry point for migrants arriving in the Scandinavian nation of 10 million. Sweden is expecting up to 190,000 asylum-seekers this year, second only to Germany in western Europe.

As fear of violence spreads, one municipality in northern Sweden has proposed not revealing the location of refugee centers. The national immigration agency opposes that idea as unrealistic.

Police believe that all 17 fires reported in the past seven months at asylum centers have been arson, and Sweden's intelligence service says it's closely following the situation.

"There is an obvious pattern when you have four fires at asylum housing facilities in one week," said Stefan Hector, a police commissioner at Sweden's National Operations Department.

No one has claimed responsibility for the suspected attacks but in the dark corners of the Internet, right-wing groups applaud every time a place is torched.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has called the fires "very serious," saying they defy the very essence of being Swedish: "It isn't the Sweden we are proud of," he said.

Lofven has declared Sweden's help to refugees as "the greatest humanitarian effort in Swedish history," but now concedes the situation is becoming difficult.

After visiting a refugee center on Wednesday in the small southern coastal town of Trelleborg, which has struggled with the influx, he said the country is approaching the limit of its capacity. "The flow cannot continue unabated," he said.

On Thursday, immigration officials doubled next year's cost estimate to deal with the arrivals to more than 60 billion kronor ($7.3 billion).

Lawmakers are frantically revising budgets to cover increased costs, with some political observers speculating that Lofven's Social Democratic-led minority government will be forced to make cutbacks and raise taxes.

On Thursday, the leader of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, demanded more responsible immigration policies and said Lofven should resign and call new elections.

Meanwhile, municipalities are scrambling to find housing for the newcomers.

One southern community, Revingehed, is putting up the country's first tent camp for refugees. It is expected to be ready in a couple of weeks, and authorities are searching for more sites for similar camps.

Sweden has a history of welcoming migrants, and 16 percent of its nationals were born abroad. It had a huge influx in the 1980s and '90s from Iraq, Iran and the former Yugoslavia.

Since 2000, it has been a key destination and European recipient country for asylum-seekers, with the latest flow mainly from Syria, but many also from Afghanistan and Eritrea.

Most enter via Malmo, where one-third of the population of 320,000 is foreign-born. This year more than 4,400 unaccompanied children have arrived through the city so far — up from 1,570 in 2014. Nationwide, officials expect up to 40,000 unaccompanied children to arrive in the country by year-end.

As the influx continues, so do anti-immigrant attitudes. Protests against immigrants are on the rise, countered by pro-refugee rallies and volunteers helping newcomers settle in. Last month, immigrants were met at Malmo's main train station with free food, clothes, money and advice.

Germany, which expects up to 1 million migrants this year, also has registered an increase in anti-refugee animosity.

According to the German Interior Ministry, more than 576 crimes against refugee shelters have been recorded so far this year, up from just under 200 in 2014, most of them believed to be motivated by far-right views. Most cases have involved vandalism and propaganda — including the display of swastikas. Germany has counted 46 cases of suspected anti-migrant arson.

In Burlov, among the residential houses with neat front gardens, the local Lutheran priest, Magnus Heberlein, expresses his concerns outside the burned front of the asylum center.

"It's an attack on our whole society," Heberlein said, "not just these barracks for children."


Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.