World Bulletin/News Desk
Sweden will not "shut the door" on record numbers of asylum seekers but they pose a growing financial burden, the country's finance minister said, in comments that underscore voters' concerns on immigration ahead of next month's general election.
Open debate about the fiscal costs of immigration is new among liberal Sweden's mainstream political parties, but opinion polls show support for the Sweden Democrats, who want to sharply cut the number of asylum seekers, has risen to 10 percent.
Finance Minister Anders Borg said on Wednesday an expected 80,000 asylum seekers both this year and next would place a growing strain on public finances, with the bill likely rising to some 12.4 billion Swedish crowns ($1.80 billion) by 2018.
"We have a humanitarian responsibility and we should accept that humanitarian responsibility," Borg told reporters. "We will not shut the door on people in need."
Borg's comments came after Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said at the weekend there was no room for increased public spending because of the costs of taking in the asylum seekers.
After that speech, Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Akesson tweeted: "The Prime Minister has confirmed it - the election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose Sept. 14."
To deal with the increase in asylum seekers, the bulk of them from Syria and Eritrea, Sweden's Migration Board has said it needs an additional 48 billion crowns in the 2014-18 period.
The Sweden Democrats have been able to use economic uncertainty in recent years and voters' worries that the country can no longer afford its cradle-to grave welfare state to question Stockholm's open-door immigration policies.
Some analysts say the government's strategy of openly talking about the costs of immigration could play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats, who want to cut immigration by 80-90 percent.
Borg said Sweden had received over 2,000 asylum applications a week during the summer, double the number from earlier in the year, and that the figure could rise further in the autumn.
However, he said strong public finances meant Sweden would not need to raise taxes or cut spending this year or in 2015 to meet the increased burden.
"Our judgement is that we are going to have weaker growth in 2014 and 2015 so we shouldn't tighten fiscal policy," he said.
The centre-right government is trailing badly ahead of the election. The latest opinion poll gives the Social Democrat opposition 50.4 percent of the vote, ahead of the governing Alliance's 35.6 percent.
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