In Sweden, migrants live in fear of arson attacks
“I came from my room to see what was happening. I saw the fire and ran outside,” says Dawit, a 13-year-old Ethiopian boy living in a Swedish centre for asylum seekers.
His voice is steady and lacking emotion, but the arson attack on his temporary home for unaccompanied children has cast a shadow over his hopes of living in safety one day.
At least 25 centres for asylum seekers in the Scandinavian country have been reduced to ashes or damaged by fires this year, often set in the dark of night while the migrants sleep, unaware of the danger they are in.
Sweden’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has promised “just punishment for the cowards” whose actions tarnish Swedes’ sense of “national pride”.
The attacks have largely taken place in rural areas in the southern third of the country, south of the capital Stockholm, where the far-right Sweden Democrats are well established.
Unthinkable to attack children
Lund is a liberal enclave in a relatively wealthy region in the province of Skane, otherwise known as the Sweden Democrats’ heartland.
On October 26, Dawit was in his room late at night when the fire broke out, smoke billowing into the cozy communal area where the boys normally watch TV after doing their homework.
The flames were quickly brought under control but the brutality of the act stunned the youths.
It was unthinkable to them that someone would attack children seeking a safe haven, especially in a country known for its tolerance and openness.
“Maybe they were a little bit naive,” the centre’s manager Fernando Cruz said.
Arson attacks have surged as the number of migrants grows: Sweden expects up to 190,000 asylum seekers this year and 170,000 next year, making it the European Union country with the most migrant arrivals per capita.
The far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) party has likened the massive influx of migrants to an “invasion”, while other radical groupings that abound on the web are accused of stirring up racial hatred.
SD leader Jimmie Akesson has publicly condemned all calls for violence. While there is no doubt about the criminal nature of the attacks, there is as yet no hard proof of a racial motive in most cases.
Investigators are now trying to determine whether the attacks are the work of an individual or a group or network.
Mona Sahlin, the national coordinator for protecting democracy against violent extremism, is critical of the “inflammatory” rhetoric being spread in the public debate and on social networks.
“I’m certain that it is part of the far-right extremist movement to use the refugee situation to strengthen their arguments… It was the same 20 years ago,” Sahlin told AFP in an interview.