STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - With numbers of asylum seekers in Europe reaching a two-decade high, Sweden’s immigration minister said many member states were sitting on the sidelines and warned the EU needed to share out the burden of immigrants, especially from Syria.
Among 44 industrialised nations, Sweden ranked fourth in the number of asylum seekers and second relative to its population, according to U.N. figures.
Sweden stands out in the European Union for offering permanent residence to Syrian asylum seekers. It estimates the cost of receiving asylum seekers will jump to 7.0 billion Swedish crowns ($1.09 billion) this year, up from 5.1 billion crowns in 2013.
There are concerns the policy is straining Sweden’s generous welfare system as spending on housing and education rises.
A populist anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, has risen in polls to become the third most popular party ahead of a national election in September.
“We will be facing a situation where more and more member states like France, like Germany, like Sweden, all the nine that
do the 90 percent of the job annually will sooner or later say, hey, we are not going to buy this,” Swedish Immigration Minister Tobias Billstrom told Reuters.
“We don’t think it is right and proper that so few of the 28 member states are making such a huge effort when a lot of you are just sitting by the ring side. That is not sustainable.”
Billstrom’s comments came after the European Union said nearly half a million people sought asylum in Europe last year, the most in two decades, with the largest number coming from Syria, fleeing civil war.
In total, 434,160 people sought refuge in the EU’s 28 member states in 2013, according to Eurostat, the EU statistics office. That was a rise of nearly 30 percent from the 335,000 requests in 2012. Eurostat said the total was the largest since 1993.
Some 50,000 applicants from Syria accounted for the largest number, nearly 12 percent of the total. Eurostat said Germany, France, Sweden, Britain and Italy received 70 percent of the applications.
In Sweden, Billstrom said the government expected between 59,000 and 67,000 asylum seekers this year - still under the peak of 1992 when the minister said Sweden received around 83,000 asylum seekers, mainly from former Yugoslavia.
“We are not talking about huge numbers yet,” Billstrom said, referring to current numbers of asylums seekers in Sweden.
“Syria will be with us for a very long period of time,” Billstrom added. “It is all a question if you have the political will in individual member state governments.”
Editing by Alison Williams