Like thousands of others, Adnan Bazaa made the monthlong trek from Syria, believing Sweden would be the end of the line.
He arrived in Stockholm this week hoping that a residence permit, a daily subsistence allowance, housing and a job, would be waiting for him. They were not.
“I came from Syria because my house was razed to the ground by Bashar al-Assad’s forces. They tried to get me to join the army and kill my own people,” said Bazaa, a schoolteacher. “So I had two solutions: give up my salary, and go to Germany or Sweden or Norway.”
Bazaa’s decision on where to go is based on what he has heard from friends and relatives about the Nordic countries’ tradition of strong social welfare systems that provide food, housing and employment to all and their longstanding practice of accepting immigrants.
That system was at work this week when Bazaa arrived in Stockholm, as officers with Sweden’s migration agency made the rounds in the city’s central train station, offering guidance to migrants on how to apply for asylum, find temporary lodging, and receive subsistence allowances while their asylum applications are being processed.
But with more than 1,000 people applying for asylum in Sweden each day over the past weeks, the system is showing signs of stress.
At a conference room inside Sweden’s migration headquarters Norrkoping, 169 kilometers (105 miles) southwest of Stockholm, Mikael Ribbenvik, the agency’s operations manager, looks at monitor screens showing the number of asylum applications coming in every morning.
“It’s an escalating trend,” Ribbenvik said. Normally in the summer, which is the high season for asylum-seekers, the agency receives 2,000 applications per week.
“For the last few days, it’s been around 1,000 asylum-seekers per day,” he told VOA.
The surge in arrivals has meant processing times are longer than ever, and officials estimate the process will soon take between 10 months and a year.
“Many people are shocked when they come here and they say, ‘I can’t wait 10 months and maybe a year for my family to reunify. It’s too long time.’ That creates a lot of frustration,” Ribbenvik said.
He said most migrants come hoping to resettle in large urban areas and have refused to get off buses when they discover the government intends to resettle them in remote, rural parts of the country.
Red Cross volunteers
At Stockholm’s train station, Red Cross volunteers have been working 20-hour days, handing out food and providing first aid to those coming in from the port city of Malmo, the migrants’ main entry point.
Charlotta Didriksdotter, a volunteer, senses the migrants’ frustration. She said most of the people transiting through the station Monday decided to forego applying for asylum in Sweden and chose to move on to neighboring Finland.
Didriksdotter said it is not so much food and medical care they are seeking.
“Mainly they want information on how to travel on to Finland, most of them. Some of them, they want to stay here in Sweden and then we point them to the proper authorities,” she said. “Some need shelter for the night because they want to think about their decision.”
Bazaa took shelter in a large mosque in central Stockholm, not far from the station Monday night.
By Tuesday morning, he had made a decision: “I will go to Finland and not stay in Sweden because in Finland you can get your residence more quickly than in Sweden."
In contrast to Sweden, Finland last year received 3,000 asylum applications and the logic among refugees communicating with each other via smartphones and social media is that Finland is able to make asylum decisions much faster.
Finnish borders, ports
But Finnish officials have offered no guarantees that it will accept those arriving at its borders and ports.
“In Finland maybe it takes four months, in those four months my family can come to Finland and in Sweden it will take four years,” Bazaa said.
Hundreds hope to circumvent Swedish border controls by taking trains to the Finnish border, rather than ferries or airplanes, where they are required to show identification.
Shelters in Stockholm are filling beyond capacity, including the mosque near the train station where Bazaa spent Monday night and where volunteers, including non-Muslim Swedes, were seen dropping off bags of food and bedding for the more than 100 people who have been lodging there each night.
Under the stress, the mosque has begun receiving help from the nearby Katarina Church, one of Stockholm’s largest Lutheran churches.
Volunteers on Monday prepared beds for about 40 migrants in a joint venture that in many places would be unlikely.
“We don’t try to think religiously in this matter. We can provide them a good night’s sleep, and some breakfast and then they’re off. This is all what we think about,” said Allan Zoltan, a church volunteer who recalls how his parents were asked no questions when they came to Sweden as refugees fleeing the 1956 communist crackdown on dissidents in Hungary.
“We don’t measure and we don’t value anything about what’s in the Koran or in the Bible right now. We’re just helping people," Zoltan said.
Cajsa Ejemyr, helping prepare beds in a room in one of the church building’s basement, gets ready for another busy night. Echoing the attitude of many volunteers across western Europe, she said she could not stand back and watch people from war-torn nations suffer at her doorstep.
“The wealth that we have comes with a responsibility,” she said.
Ejemyr, like other volunteers, is careful not to give advice to migrants who are repeatedly asking whether they should stay in Sweden or go to Finland.
“In this matter, we are the mosque’s servants. We just provide our guests with a bed to sleep in," she said.
Already, there are questions on how Sweden, despite its best intentions, will find jobs, teach the language, and otherwise integrate the thousands who keep coming.
Volunteer Didriksdotter ponders that question as she hands out bananas and crackers to migrants approaching the Red Cross station at Stockholm’s Central Station.
“We have a bunch of very nice volunteers. They want to help. Their heart is big, but the need for these people is very big,” she said. “Someone told me yesterday that Europe and Sweden will never be the same, and I think that’s true, actually.”