Bosnian-born Beslik arrived in Sweden as part of the Balkan refugee wave in the early 1990s, when all refugee housing was run by the Migration Agency. “I shared a room with 31 other men in a former military barracks,” he recalls. “But that was fine because at least we were safe. And everything was very professionally run. One has to ask whether leaving asylum seeker care to private companies has been such a good idea.”
Sven Otto Littorin, in turn, argues that the problem is too much leniency by the Migration Agency. “The problem is that because the Migration Agency pays everyone the maximum fee, the companies don’t have an incentive to provide good conditions,” he says. Littorin is not completely impartial: together with a serial entrepreneur, he has launched the refugee housing company Serio, which will use modular housing rather than existing property. That way, he argues, asylum seekers will be able to live decently in larger towns and cities. As a way of integrating the asylum seekers and staving off boredom, Serio—which plans to begin operations this quarter—will also offer its residents Swedish classes at no cost. That, of course, raises the question of why other companies can’t do the same.
Helena Puula Niemonen, the international coordinator at the Diocese of Strängnäs outside Stockholm, has worked extensively with asylum seekers in both Migration Agency and private housing. Far from all private accommodation is poor, she says: “Standards vary widely at both private residences and Migration Agency apartments. The issue is the profits. It’s not acceptable that the operator makes a huge profit of the quality of his asylum accommodation is terrible.”
There’s another perspective to the profiteer story, too. Without the private operators, Sweden would not have been able to receive the extraordinary number of asylum seekers now safely if imperfectly housed in the country. Profiteers though they may be, the private operators are helping to solve the refugee crisis. “In countries close to conflict zones it’s primarily people smugglers who make quick money on asylum seekers, and most of us deplore their methods,” says Niemonen. “In Sweden, some property owners are making quick money on people in need, though of course using different means. Many of us dislike that, but at the same time we’re relieved that somebody is opening a door, so the government—that is, us taxpayers—politely pays.”
Elisabeth Braw is Newsweek's Europe correspondent, currently with a strong focus on security issues. She joined Newsweek following a visiting fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. Previously she was a senior reporter at the Metro International newspaper group, focusing on interviews with political and business leaders. Elisabeth has lived in Germany, from where she has an MA in political science and German literature, Italy, Washington (DC), and San Francisco. Based in London, she frequently also reports from Germany, and is currently working on a book about one of the Stasi's most successful operations. Follow her on twitter: @elisabethbraw.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Frankie Fouganthin