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Immigration questioned in 'tolerant' Sweden

Reactions against immigrants have become more prevalent in Sweden, for years seen by victims of conflict as a bastion of tolerance. The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have risen in voter polls to vie for third place a year before a general election that could leave them holding the balance of power. City councillor Adam Marttinen personifies the growing anti-immigration sentiment. Dressed in an immaculate suit, gone is the skinhead image that once pushed the party to the sidelines. Marttinen equated immigrants with a burden on the welfare budget, saying "The main thing is we have to stop immigration to this city.”

The Sweden Democrats have advanced in voter surveys to nearly 10 percent from five percent in the last election.

Immigration is increasingly part of the mainstream debate in a country where some 15 percent of the population is foreign born, the highest in the Nordic region. It is a rise in asylum seekers, drawn by Sweden's robust economy and tradition of helping refugees, that has attracted most controversy and is stirring anxiety among minority groups.

Nearly half of asylum seekers were from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

"You can see that the language and tone is more vulgar now. That gets worse and worse," said Bejzat Becirov, founder of Sweden's first mosque, the Islamic Centre, in the southern city of Malmo, one of the cities with most immigrants.

"Sweden is not a racist country. Ninety percent are good people," said the Islamic Centre's Becirov. "But we must also be honest, it's a difficult time right now."

But the immigration spurt came as many Swedes are feeling insecure due to headlines about job cuts featuring some of their most iconic companies, from Ericsson to airline SAS.

"Sweden is one of the countries that receives the most immigrants in the EU. That's not sustainable," Immigration Minister Tobias Billstrom said earlier this year.

REGIONAL TREND

The minister's statement reflects how Sweden's reputation as one of Europe's most welcoming countries for immigrants may be eroding. Other Nordic countries are experiencing similar patterns.

OECD data show foreign-born unemployed rates, at 16 percent, compare with 6 percent for native Swedes. Sweden needs high employment levels to pay for its extensive welfare.

"Sweden is seeing the most intense debate on immigration in its political history," said Andreas Johansson Heino, a political scientist at Sweden's Timbro think tank.

"What we are seeing is polarisation in Sweden."

Across the Nordic region anti-immigration parties, which languished after Anders Behring Breivik's killing of 77 people in Norway in 2011, are gaining support.

The Danish People's Party, a power broker in the last coalition, has gained. In Norway, the Progress Party, hit by sex scandals that also eroded its image, is now the third largest party.

Leader Jimmie Akesson has improved the image of a Sweden Democrats party long perceived as dominated by the far right. His aim is to reduce immigration by 90 percent.

"We want to be a real kingmaker," he said.

FEVER PITCH

In recent months, immigration issues have reached fever pitch.

Immigration Minister Billstrom sparked furore when he said people protecting illegal immigrants were no longer "blonde and blue-eyed" but fellow migrants exploiting cheap labour. This prompted a dressing down by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.

When a librarian removed a Tintin book from the children's section on the basis it contained racist and imperialist views, it caused a storm on Twitter and in newspapers. The library put it back.

Then Stockholm's police were accused of using racial profiling to arrest paperless immigrants in the metro.

A bus driver in the capital made headlines when he was suspended from work, accused of separating passengers based on their foreign looks.

Around 20 percent of Swedes now believe the Sweden Democrats have the best immigration policy, pollster Novus says.

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