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In E.U., hope dims for Iraqi refugees

Sweden, Europe's most generous host, is scaling back to ease strains on its welfare system. One town alone has accepted more Iraqis than the US since 2003.

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But most Western countries have refused to offer direct aid to Syria and Jordan, or welcome more than a handful of refugees. The US admitted just over 1,600 Iraqis in fiscal year 2007, far short of its initial 7,000 target, which the State Department attributes to administrative bottlenecks.

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Sweden, a country of 9 million people, which has played no role in the Iraq war, has taken a more liberal approach. Until recently, refugees fleeing Iraq's violent south and central areas were all but assured asylum and a generous resettlement package, including subsidized housing, job training, and a monthly stipend for living expenses.

As a result, Sweden has seen nearly 49,000 Iraqis pour into the country since 2003, and watched the number of Iraqi asylum claims climb by almost 600 percent. Last year, it received nearly as many Iraqi asylum seekers as all other European nations combined.

Mayor's effort to meet refugee needs

But the sudden influx has strained Sweden's generous welfare system and overwhelmed the handful of communities to which the newcomers have gravitated. Among them is Södertälje, a town of about 80,000 people just south of Stockholm. Since 2003, it has welcomed between 5,000 and 6,000 Iraqis refugees – slightly more than the US.

To handle the influx, the local government has hired more than 70 employees, whose sole job is to help refugees integrate. Still, Mayor Anders Lago says, the town is struggling.

Unable to find jobs, many of the newcomers end up on welfare, which has put a squeeze on the town's budget. Housing is in such short supply that up to 20 refugees may share a single apartment, and classrooms are overflowing. "We simply can't hire teachers or build schools fast enough to give all these young people the good start they deserve," Mr. Lago says.

Sweden has repeatedly pressed other European nations to share the load, with little success. On average, European nations grant just 11 percent of Iraqi asylum claims, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, and some countries – among them Greece – accept fewer than 1 percent (see sidebar). This is partly a side effect of the harder line on immigration that the European Union has taken in wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

In the end it was Sweden that retooled its policies. Migration Minister Tobias Billström says the nation had little choice. "Sweden did not start this war," he explains, "and we have done our best to help those who are fleeing. But we are a small country. We're simply not able to help everyone."