Private asylums in Sweden benefit from refugee crisis

Malmo, Sweden –  Several Swedish private companies have come under fire for making large profits from the country’s struggle to manage the fallout of the refugee crisis.

Companies such as Aleris, Jokarjo and Hoppetgruppen are perceived by many – including some of their own employees – of taking advantage of the lack of asylum accommodation in Sweden. 

The presence of a large number of unaccompanied minors is a major factor in the current situation.

Sweden has more unaccompanied minors than any other EU country. The ceiling on state payment to accommodate children is far higher than that for adults, attracting private investment into a potentially lucrative area. 

Hoppetgruppen, in particular, has come under fire after it was found to be operating an asylum accommodation for unaccompanied minors, despite not being authorised to do so by the Swedish government. Seven young people were placed in the room before the mistake was discovered. 

Klara, the manager of an authorised Hoppetgruppen asylum accommodation who declined to give her last name, feels that much of the criticism is unwarranted.

The home she manages houses teenage boys between 14 and 18 years old, with new rooms contracted in case any new arrivals appear.

Hoppetgruppen has previously worked in housing for Swedish teenagers needing daily support for a wide range of issues, such as psychological difficulties and drug abuse. “We provide the boys with housing and basic medical care, take them to school, provide activities and care for them,” she said. 

“Our facility is very good, and there are few problems. The staff are happy, I made sure to hire genuine people. Some of them are refugees themselves. It has been a winning concept.”

‘Tremendous Money’

Refugees sleep outside the entrance of the Swedish Migration Agency’s arrival centre for asylum seekers in Malmo. Property prices have shot up in Sweden  [Stig-Ake Jonsson/TT News/Reuters] 

With 162,877 people applying for asylum in Sweden in 2015, and an increasing number of people attempting to reach Europe this year, rights groups say private companies such as Hoppetgruppen are exploiting the situation, and do not have the best interests of refugees at heart.

Companies have been accused of overcharging the state for their services. Aleris, a company owned by Sweden’s Wallenberg family, has reportedly charged as much as Skr 84,000 ($9,434) a month to place a refugee child with a family. 

Aleris declined repeated requests for comment to Al Jazeera. 

READ MORE: Report on child refugees highlights ‘unacceptable’ risk

Daniel Sestrajcic, chairman of the Malmo branch of Sweden’s Vansterpartiet party and an MP for Malmo, says that the presence of privately run asylum accommodation is a systematic failure of Sweden’s welfare society as a whole. 

“It takes money away from where it is needed,” he told Al Jazeera. “It also attracts inexperienced companies, such as Aleris, to make tremendous money. The private asylum homes suffer from understaffing and poor quality of food, and the companies charge the state for this. It’s bad for the refugees and bad for the workers.”

The issue of understaffing in private asylum accommodation gained attention in January after Alexandra Mezher was fatally stabbed by an unaccompanied minor at a Gothenburg facility run by Nordic Living. She had been working alone at the time of her death, despite government regulations that asylum accommodation workers must always work in pairs. 

Private companies

Private companies have been actively encouraged by the Swedish state to become involved in the provision of asylum accommodation. The standards and requirements for asylum accommodation have been changed by Migrationsverket (Migration Board) because of the refugee crisis. 

WATCH: Refugees in Sweden wait in limbo for political asylum

At the height of the crisis, supply of homes was significantly lower than demand, and as a result the ongoing procurement is being continued indefinitely. Suppliers who have any kind of accommodation that can sleep 15 people may submit a tender. According to the Migrationsverket website, even caravans and dormitories will be considered for tender. 

In previous tenders, Migrationsverket always signed a contract with the suppliers who offered the lowest price. Since demand in the current situation exceeds supply, competition has been eliminated; the same fee is paid to all suppliers whose tenders are accepted. 

Sestrajcic believes that this is an ideologically motivated move to increase private sector involvement in the welfare system.

“The government could have organised a taskforce to buy buildings if it was really necessary, or made contracts with the existing building owners instead. But, bureaucratic rules stop this from happening. A building has to contain more than 60 beds for the Stad [local council] to buy it.

“We need to think more broadly and differently. There are plenty of underused spaces in Sweden, such as empty schools that could have been used to build up capacity and a lot of money could have been saved…This is just an ideology. It says that making a profit from social services is OK.”

In October 2015, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven criticised company bosses, asking them whether it “feels good when you look in the mirror” to be making huge profits out of the refugee crisis. 

Annie Hagman, a nurse for a health centre serving two privately run asylum accommodation facilities, agrees that the homes are run more like a business than a service. 

“Although privately run accommodation receives frequent control inspections from Migrationsverket, the owners are just trying to do the bare minimum to pass the inspection,” she said. “Understaffing in particular is a big problem. At the adult accommodation there is no support staff at all.”

“There is a lack of translators. Children coming to the medical centre ask me why they are not going to school. There is a lack of information and support for the refugees. The manager said that a translator is not necessary, that it is not their job to provide that, the refugees just live there.”

Source: Al Jazeera