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Refugees Find A Closing Of Sweden's Open-Door Immigration Policy


Across Europe, ethnic tensions have been on the rise. And this morning, we're zooming in on one country, Sweden. For decades, it had a virtual open-door policy for asylum-seekers and refugees. But now, an anti-immigration party is gaining influence. Mosques have been firebombed, and anti-Semitism seems to be growing. NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke with people at the center of these tensions in the southern city of Malmo.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Robert Acker looks like a Swede and talks like an American.

ROBERT ACKER: I currently work with kids and play basketball professionally here in Sweden.

SHAPIRO: He played in the states, too. But he was not born in either of those countries.

ACKER: Yeah, my family immigrated in '96 from Bosnia, from the war.

SHAPIRO: He was 6 years old. In the '90s, that was the face of immigration to Sweden, refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Today, people are escaping to Sweden by the thousands from Iraq and Syria. Ackers says it's not like when he was a kid.

ACKER: I got along with the Swedes early on. But now, I believe, it's a totally different thing.

SHAPIRO: He thinks recent Muslim immigrants are not integrating as well as earlier generations of arrivals. And now a political party that wants to cut immigration to Sweden by 90 percent is booming. We're standing in a neighborhood that is a center of support for that party. Acker says the Sweden Democrats seem to want to get rid of all immigrants, integrated or not.

ACKER: I mean, they want us out. They just want Swedes here. But they just don't say it.

SHAPIRO: Like many far-right parties in Europe, the Sweden Democrats have moved from the political fringe to the mainstream faster than anybody expected.

FILIP WENNERLUND: We can't take care of all the people in the whole world who have the needs in their life.

SHAPIRO: Filip Wennerlund is a security guard who lives in the area. He was fine with Christian immigrants. But he believes it's just not working with the Muslims, even though Sweden has had a Muslim population for decades.

WENNERLUND: Often, they don't want to come here and change. They want here to change us. And we don't want to be changed, so that is a conflict.

SHAPIRO: And the conflict has turned violent.

OMAR MUSTAFA: Every time I wake up, I'm very afraid to check my telephone to see that something happened during the night.

SHAPIRO: Omar Mustafa is president of the Islamic Association of Sweden. At his office in Stockholm, he told me that Sweden has a history of racism.

MUSTAFA: But this year and this time especially, it's the most scary time actually. People are really afraid. And people are actually talking about moving from Sweden.

SHAPIRO: Three mosques were firebombed in a month. The Sweden Democrats insist that there is no connection between these attacks and the party's anti-immigration rhetoric. Party spokesman Nima Gholam Ali Pour told me, maybe Muslims bombed the mosques.

NIMA GHOLAM ALI POUR: Were there personal problems in the mosque? Or was it someone from another mosque? There is conflicts in between mosque members, so...

SHAPIRO: But some mosques have had swastikas painted on the side of them. That doesn't - I mean...

POUR: Of course, that's racist...

SHAPIRO: OK (laughter).

POUR: All right, that's racist.

SHAPIRO: But the story is more complicated than just white, racist Christians attacking Muslim immigrants. Jews in Sweden say they are being attacked, too. And here's where it gets really tricky. In many cases, the people attacking Jews are Muslim immigrants.

ARON VERSTANDIG: Almost exclusively, they all - they have some sort of a background in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: Aron Verstandig is a leader in Stockholm's Jewish community. He says many people try to paint these ethnic tensions as good versus evil. They want clear victims and perpetrators in separate boxes. But in fact, he says, the roles overlap and switch.

VERSTANDIG: You have these immigrants who are very poor, and they are the victims of a lot of violence, a lot of hatred from Sweden Democrats and other right-wing parties. And they are victims in one way, but they are also - some of them or a minority of them - are perpetrators in another way. It's - you don't have people who are just good and just bad. It's a very complex situation.

SHAPIRO: Omar Mustafa of the Islamic Association of Sweden agrees. He says it's part of humanity that there are always extremists.

MUSTAFA: We have it in Islam. There is in Christianity. There is in the Swedish community. There is everywhere. So it's a good opportunity for us - the rest of society - to really take back the agenda. And we have to say to them, we don't buy it.

SHAPIRO: He says when fringe groups try to speak on behalf of everyone, the moderate majority needs to speak up and say, we have a different story to tell. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.