Stark contrasts in Europe's welcome to border-hopping migrants
MALMO, Sweden – The bleary-eyed travelers arriving in Malmo's glass-and-steel train station agreed on one thing: Sweden was a better place to go than Denmark, which has cut welfare benefits for refugees.
But many said Finland was even better.
"Why Finland? I tell you, because they give us the documents faster," said Ghanem, a 23-year-old Iraqi, who like many making the journey declined to give his full name. They are worried about being identified by authorities and prevented from going to their preferred destinations. "Sweden, Germany, they will take one year, two years."
Though the 28-nation European Union has common rules for how to receive asylum-seekers, the benefits provided once they arrive vary widely from one country to the next.
Greece, the European entry point for more than 200,000 migrants this year, has been so overwhelmed that it can't even provide basic services like housing and food. Italy's reception conditions are also straining under a constant stream of sea arrivals from North Africa, while Hungary's hostility toward migrants jolts them to get out of the country as soon as they can.
Most are aiming to reach wealthier countries in northern Europe, particularly Germany and Sweden, which stand out for their efforts to offer a generous welcome. However, German authorities say the expectations of people arriving are sometimes unrealistic.
"Germany isn't just the country of milk and honey, where everything you would want flies into your mouth like a fried pigeon," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Shaefer said last week.
EU rules require member states to ensure "a dignified standard of living" for asylum-seekers. That includes housing, food, clothing, a daily allowance, and access to public health care, education and the job market while their claim is processed, which can take up to a year or more.
Many countries don't live up to those standards — the EU's executive commission has 32 infringement cases open against member states. Those who do apply them in different ways.
In France, asylum-seekers can work if they haven't received a decision after nine months. In Germany they can work after three months and in Sweden from day one, but only if they are deemed likely to receive asylum. Britain, which is exempt from the EU asylum rules, doesn't normally allow asylum-seekers to work at all.
The quality of migrant housing also varies. Spain provides asylum-seekers shelter at refugee centers, but spending cuts and an increase in migrants means some of them are sleeping in the streets, said Cristina Manzanedo of Spanish human rights group Pueblos Unidos.
Italy and France also keep asylum-seekers in large-scale refugee centers, while Sweden places them in apartments, hostels or camp ground cabins across the country.
"There is an aspect of integration to it," explains Tolle Furegard, housing director of the Swedish Migration Agency. "We don't want to lump together a lot of new arrivals in a building where there isn't a single Swede."
He acknowledged that this ambition is getting increasingly hard to fulfill: The agency has taken over entire apartment blocks as it scrambles to find rooms for new arrivals.
More than 80,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden last year — the highest per capita in the EU — and officials expect a similar number this year. Only Germany is seeing higher total arrivals, with 200,000 in 2014 and up to five times as many expected this year.
Most EU countries allow asylum-seekers access to their public education and health systems. In Germany they receive free health care, special help with pregnancy and childbirth, and other medical services depending upon need.
The cash handouts for asylum-seekers are typically small and vary from zero in Greece to up to 718 euros a month for a family of six in France. Some countries offer more if there are special needs.
While rumors about Europe's generous welfare systems abound, experts say there are more important draws for the newcomers, like joining friends and family already in Europe and expectations about whether and how fast their asylum applications will be approved.
For example, only one in four Eritreans received asylum in France in 2014, while in Sweden essentially all of them did. For Iraqis, the approval rate was 14 percent in Greece and 94 percent in France, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a non-government group. Syrians, considered the most vulnerable group, had an average 95 percent approval rate in the EU.
Many countries fast track applications from people who aren't likely to get asylum because they're not deemed to be in need of protection, including Albanians and Kosovars. Asylum is typically offered to those fleeing war and persecution, not running away from poverty.
Often people have a destination in mind when they start their journey and try hard to get around EU rules that require them to be fingerprinted and apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter.
Last week, hundreds refused to be fingerprinted in Denmark and continued their journey to Sweden. Danish police initially tried to stop them but pulled back as their numbers swelled.
Even though the two neighboring welfare nations may seem very much alike, to refugees they're not, said Annika Holm Nielsen, a 24-year-old Dane who smuggled more than a dozen people to Sweden on her sailboat when Danish police were still trying to hold them back.
"If you are a refugee in Denmark, you are treated as a problem," she said.
The center-right Danish government is trying to discourage migrants and refugees from coming to Denmark. Last week, the government placed ads in Lebanese papers saying that benefits for refugees had been cut by up to 50 percent and that it takes least five years to get permanent residence in Denmark.
Sweden has chosen another path, trying to defend its reputation of being a humanitarian superpower and a safe haven for refugees fleeing war and persecution.
The Swedish Migration Agency sometimes uses the hashtag #refugeeswelcome on its official Twitter account. As a private initiative, a group of Swedish police officers posted a video that's been viewed half a million times on Facebook in which they assure migrants and refugees they will be treated with respect and dignity.
"If you have fled your own country with your family to find safety, you must know that we, the Swedish police, will do our utmost to ensure everyone in this country feels safe," one officer says before wishing the migrants "a warm welcome to Sweden."
Just how long the welcome will remain is unclear. Germany has temporarily re-introduced border controls to stem the flow of migrants coming in from Austria. The Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration party that just a decade ago was considered too extreme to ever have an impact in Swedish politics, won 13 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary election. It is now polling around 20 percent.
However, that wasn't on Hassan Noor's mind as he arrived in Malmo after a four-month-long journey from Turkey. Passing through Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Denmark, the 20-year-old Somali had evaded authorities all the way to Sweden to avoid being fingerprinted. For the first time, he said, he could relax.
"Now I don't have any fear," Noor said, cheerfully accepting a chocolate cookie sprinkled with powdered sugar from a red-vested volunteer. "I am the happiest man in the world today."
Associated Press journalists David Keyton in Malmo, David Rising in Berlin, Elena Becatoros in Athens, Alan Clendenning in Madrid, Danica Kirka in London and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.