Swedish Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson sat down in Stockholm on Oct. 14 with The Washington Post London Bureau Chief Griff Witte to discuss Sweden’s approach to the refugee crisis. In recent years, Sweden has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than any other country in Europe. But the country’s embrace of refugees has spawned a political backlash, with a far-right party climbing in the polls. Meanwhile, the government’s response is being strained to the breaking point as the pace of new arrivals accelerates.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Washington Post: The share of people that Sweden is taking is tremendous. How is Sweden coping?
Morgan Johansson: Since the war in Syria broke out in 2011, Sweden has taken 100,000 Syrian refugees, which is 1 percent of our population. So if the rest of Europe would have done the same thing — Europe is 500 million people — that would have meant 5 million refugees from Syria to Europe.
When I say we have been able to give 100,000 Syrian refugees protection, I’m quite proud of that number. Coping with quite high numbers, we are used to that. We do not just see the refugees as burdens. These are people who are assets for Sweden. But for the last four weeks or so, we have had a very high increase in the numbers who have come. Just a month ago, we planned for an influx of roughly 2,000 to 3,000 per week. We thought that was high. So when we planned housing, transportation, logistics, we planned for numbers like that. Last week, we had 9,000 in just one week.
WP: What is your sense of how the Swedish public has responded? It seems to me it's been quite polarized.
MJ: That's exactly how it is. The long-term opinion polls show people in Sweden are getting more and more positive towards immigration, if you measure back 20 to 25 years. So actually the more immigrants we got, the more positive people have become about the phenomenon. But that's one side. The other side: We have a political party that has been growing in the opinion polls in the last years. There have always been people who have been against immigration, and this political party, the Sweden Democrats, have been able to exploit that.
WP: A lot of critics of that party say it's a neo-Nazi party, it's a neo-fascist party.
MJ: It is. It's a party with roots in Nazi and fascist organizations of the 1980s.
WP: It must be troubling to you, as a politician in the mainstream, to see a political party that is so extreme doing so well in the polls. Something is going wrong if that's the case.
MJ: What has happened is now we have a party that can canonize the feelings that somehow always have been an undertone in Swedish politics, and that's a new thing. Of course, it's a problem when we see that. On the other hand, it's something that we share with a lot of other countries.
WP: Does that signal to you that you need to change something about what you are doing?
MJ: It signals to me that we have to be better at integration, because I think that's the main problem that people see. If people come to Sweden and they don’t get jobs, and segregation increases and we got social problems, then the Swedish people will get frustrated about that. I think that's an explanation for why the Sweden Democrats has increased.
WP: If the Sweden Democrats continue to gain in the polls, is that going to force Sweden to reconsider its very generous welcome?
MJ: If we are going to change our policies, it does not have to do so much about the opinion polls. But it does have to do with how many now come. Sooner or later, there will be a situation where we will have difficulties in handling that. But that doesn't have anything to do with the polls.
WP: Are we hitting that point?
MJ: Yes. We are having trouble finding housing for all these people. I think it's quite impressive that we are able to do that, giving people a roof over their head and food, from the first day. On the other hand, we also see that these facilities have been under pressure, and we said if this continues we might even have to use tents to house people.
WP: Does it look likely that you will have to use tents?
MJ: Well, if it continues for several weeks more, then we will do that. It's something that we haven't had to do for a very long time. Twenty years ago, during the Balkan War, we had to use tents for a period of time. [Editor’s note: Swedish officials have since confirmed they’ll be using tents.]
WP: If we get to that point where the pace has not slackened — there are still as many coming day after day — will that precipitate a change in policy?
MJ: Well, so far, we are not there. Of course, I cannot rule out that we will get there.
WP: What would a change in policy mean? What would that involve?
MJ: I'm not speculating on that now.
WP: You have to have a Plan B if, as you say, you are reaching the capacity. There has to be a contingency plan in place.
MJ: Well, as I say, so far, we can manage this for a couple of weeks or even months. But in the long run, it's a problem for us.
WP: Do you have any forecast for how this is going to look in the coming months?
MJ: We are now saying there will probably be over 150,000 people this year. It just tells us it's even more important that we share the responsibility within Europe, because Sweden and Germany cannot take this kind of responsibility in the long run.
WP: Are you hopeful there will be more of a shared effort?
MJ: I see positive things happening. [The quota system for distributing refugees] is the first time the European Union can tell a country that now we must take refugees. So, of course, this is a system which we wanted to have in place a long time ago. Now it's something to build on.
WP: Is there a sense that sending a signal to people in the Middle East of "you will be welcome here" has unleashed something that now can't be put back, and that was perhaps a mistake?
MJ: I don't think we have ever sent signals like that. We have always said Sweden is a country where we respect human rights, and we respect the right to apply for asylum. And if you want to come and apply for asylum, we will see if you have the right to stay. If you don't have the right to stay, then we will send you back. Last year, 84,000 applied for asylum in Sweden. But only 38,000 got the permission to stay. The other ones didn't get that and will be sent back.
WP: Is it a similar ratio this year?
MJ: Now the ratio is higher because now we have more Syrians. The question is why are they coming to Sweden. Well, I think it's two reasons. First, many of them have relatives here. Second, Sweden has a quite good reputation in the world. It's a secure, quite rich country with friendly people. If you come from a country where there is war, and you know there is a country where there has been peace for 200 years, that will make you think that would be a good place to go.
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.