As Sweden rejects asylum seekers, its illegal economy swells

Swedes are noticing new signs of an underground economy of those who choose to stay on without documentation – and grappling with how to handle the problem in a country long welcoming to refugees.

Claus Fisker/Reuters
Migrants, mainly from Syria, prepared to board a train headed for Sweden, at Padborg station in southern Denmark in this file photo from Sept. 10, 2015. Many refugees moved across Denmark from Germany to reach Sweden, which has had one of Europe's most open policies toward asylum seekers.

Flamur has a roof over his head. He has a job. To get to it, he walks on tidy sidewalks, takes modern buses that have comfy seats – maybe even WiFi – and arrive on time. He breathes the same fresh air as his fellow residents of the southern Swedish city of Malmö, and when the weather improves, he will join hundreds of others relaxing in the city’s well-kept parks.

But Flamur, a rejected asylum applicant, lives and works here illegally. He belongs to Sweden’s growing underground economy, which is expected to multiply as tens of thousands of recently arrived migrants are denied asylum. Like many others, he lives a precarious, undocumented existence that leaves him open to exploitation.

“People can cheat you as much as they like, and there’s nothing you can do,” says a Lutheran pastor in Malmö who assists Flamur and other undocumented immigrants, who are known here as "paperless." The pastor asked that his name not be used as it would identify his church and may cause the police to look for undocumented immigrants there. “We often meet paperless migrants who have been promised an apartment, and when they move in the landlord completely changes the conditions. Or suddenly your job is gone. The promises you’ve received one week don’t apply the next week.”

Indeed, when Flamur recently got his rental apartment, within days the landlord jacked up the rent, forcing Flamur to look for an apartment all over again.

All countries have an underground economy: plenty of politicians have lost their jobs over paying their housecleaners under the table. But the issue is taking on new urgency in Sweden, which has a long history of welcoming refugees, its asylum-seeker numbers rising whenever a conflict erupts in the world. Last year, it received more asylum applications per capita than any other European country, and it is poised to begin expelling up to 80,000 of the record 163,000 asylum seekers who arrived. As large numbers of rejected applicants vanish from asylum residences for a life as undocumented immigrants rather than returning to their home countries, the underground economy is set to boom.

That has the government wanting to get serious about deporting all those who are rejected. "If you haven't been given asylum, you're not a refugee, and then you should go back to your home country," said Migration Minister Morgan Johansson in October, adding that companies suspected of employing paperless workers would be more heavily scrutinized.

Judging from the number of paperless assisted by Flamur's pastor alone, the government has had limited success. Indeed, individual Swedes and charitable groups such as churches often discreetly help the paperless migrants, with one group even providing a referral service for those wishing to house an undocumented immigrant. Direct spending has advocates as well: Two years ago, Malmö started offering financial support to paperless migrants with children, an experiment that could inspire others if it brings some order to the underground illegal migrant world.

Last year, according to figures provided by the Migration Agency, more than one-third of rejected asylum seekers simply vanished; FARR, a Swedish immigrant assistance organization, believes that most of them have remained in the country illegally. The rejected candidates join other undocumented people, like those granted asylum in other EU countries as well as legal residents who have overstayed their visas. According to FCFP (Fackligt Center För Papperslösa, the trade union center for undocumented migrants), they already make up a total 30,000-50,000 people.

“Lots of people who have been given asylum in Italy and Spain come here to live and work illegally,” notes Sten-Erik Johansson, a retired official with the property workers’ union, Fastighets. “Word gets around that conditions are better here.”

Selling flowers in the square

Just as Americans driving past construction sites will assume many of the day laborers are undocumented immigrants, these days Swedes are noticing new signs of the underground economy. “Today people openly sell flowers in [the Stockholm square of] Hötorget,” observes Mr. Johansson. “Six, seven years ago, that was not the case at all.”

A flower seller can, of course, be a legal worker whose employer pays taxes and benefits. But a lone seller on a square is unlikely to be legally employed, and today many companies in the service sector – according to FCFP, typically the hospitality, janitorial, and construction industries – employ undocumented migrants. That is affecting not just the paperless workers, who can find themselves both without a job and without wages for work they’ve completed, but legal workers whose jobs cease to exist as unscrupulous employers hire cheaper workers who lack documentation.

“[Government-run] job centers are happy when employers offer jobs, but they don’t have the resources to investigate them,” says Johansson. “We were told of a case where the employer told new paperless workers, ‘it’s good that you’re working here, but you won’t get paid.’”

Facebook has emerged as a recruitment platform for the paperless, and compatriots in Sweden often hire them as well, though their shared nationality by no means guarantees better work conditions – rather, the opposite. And low-cost services in some sectors have Swedes wondering how legal they are: is the falafel or the haircut cheap because the labor is performed by illegal workers or because the shop’s owner is a skilled entrepreneur?

“Of course you wonder about it,” reports Morten Nielsen Kehler, an office manager in the southern Swedish town of Höör. “I’ve been to a barber who only charged 100 kronas. There can't have been too much legal money in there.”

And, adds Mr. Kehler, who also volunteers helping Roma immigrants: “The Roma are in a similar situation as the paperless, even though they have a legal right to be here. Because it’s hard for them to find work, they often join the underground economy.”

Tens of thousands of Roma have arrived in Sweden since Romania and Bulgaria – where most of them come from – gained visa-free access to other EU states two years ago. Wronged paperless workers don’t take legal action as doing so would lead to their secret being discovered, which would mean deportation.

The Lutheran pastor assisting Flamur finds himself conflicted.

“Yes, you can argue that the paperless have consciously made the choice to stay here illegally,” he reflects. “But at the end of the day, they’re human beings.”

One growing group that is neither legal nor has made the choice to be in Sweden are the children of the paperless. According to a recent survey of several large Swedish hospitals conducted by Swedish national radio, last year twice as many children were born in Sweden to undocumented migrants as the year before. And unlike the United States, Sweden does not automatically grant citizenship to such children.

“In that sense, we’re tougher than the United States,” notes the pastor, who asked that his name not be used as it could identify his congregation. Since their parents are undocumented, these babies are not even registered as stateless, though they do receive healthcare and education until they turn 18. But, he adds, “we’re getting a class of people who are born completely outside society.”

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