A former retirement home slated to house refugees in Sweden was burned Thursday in what police suspect was an arson attack, local media reported. It was the latest in a string of fires at buildings destined to house some of the refugees streaming into Europe from the Middle East and Africa.
The fire in the southern town of Oderljunga followed one at a former boys’ school set to house about 170 refugees in a nearby town over the weekend, according to Swedish newspaper The Local. Three other centers were engulfed by fire in the southern Sweden last week.
Sweden, with a population of 9.5 million, hosts the most refugees per capita of any European country: 142,000 refugees and about 57,000 asylum seekers, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
Those numbers don't sit well with many Swedes, said Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, assistant director of the international program at the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. While Sweden has shown "overwhelming support for immigration and sense of humanitarian responsibility, that doesn't negate the undercurrent of worry and anxiety within society," she said.
"We can't forget that individual people in local communities are still vulnerable to the immense challenges associated with these large-scale and unanticipated arrivals," she said. "And I think the worry is that if those undercurrents cannot express themselves in some way, they might double over into violence."
Xenophobic attacks have spread across Europe after policymakers failed to agree on a comprehensive migration policy in September, overburdening Balkan countries closest to EU border countries. A record 12,000 people requested shelter in Slovenia on Wednesday after crossing the border from Croatia.
In Germany, where up to 1.5 million refugees are expected to apply for asylum by year’s end, authorities are investigating a spate of arson attacks against shelters. Police reported more than three times as many arson attacks this year compared to 2014. Most have occurred in the eastern part of the country, where unemployment is higher than in the affluent west.
The rise in xenophobic attacks coincides with a revival of anti-immigrant group PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. On Monday in Dresden, 20,000 PEGIDA supporters protested German leaders' handling of the refugee crisis. It represented the highest PEGIDA turnout in several months.
Roughly 710,000 refugees have entered Europe this year, according to the EU border agency Frontex. More than 3,000 have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea or jumping on trains in the French port city of Calais, a gateway to the United Kingdom and home to two refugee camps housing about 3,000 people in squalid conditions.