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Europe

Sweden hits refugee crisis zero hour

Sweden has reached the breaking point. The country's migration agency has said it can no longer put a roof over the heads of the high number of people requesting asylum each day. Richard Orange reports from Malmö.

Munir Mohammed, a refugee from Baghdad, opens the flap of the white plastic emergency tent, and points to his nine-year-old daughter Noora, sitting shivering in a toddlers' stroller.

"Please tell the Migration Agency we need some warm place," he pleads. "It's cold and my children have problems with breathing. They have problems with their lungs."

Bringing Noora and her eight-year-old brother Yusuf, both disabled, all the way to Sweden from Baghdad can't have been easy for Munir and his wife Lekha. After their wheelchairs were taken away at the Austrian border, he carried them on his back.

But he wasn't expecting that when he finally reached his destination - the headquarters of Sweden's Migration Agency in Malmö - the only protection from the damp November cold would be a barrel-shaped crisis tent.

Sweden has now reached the limit. With refugees pouring into the country at a rate of 10,000 a week, the Migration Agency announced on Thursday that it would no longer offer accommodation for all asylum-seekers.

"We have entered a new phase where the Migration Agency cannot provide everyone a roof over their heads. There aren't enough places," said chief operating officer Michael Ribbenvik.

More refugees than the population of Sweden's 4th city

In a way Munir is lucky. On Sunday night, the Migration Agency took over the venue for the 2013 Eurovision Song contest in Malmö - giving the company running it just 24 hours' notice - and converted it into temporary accommodation. It's here that Munir and his family will probably be taken.

If he had arrived just three days earlier, he would have had to sleep alongside hundreds of others in these same tents, a howling storm outside.

A family of Swedish refugees

Munir Mohammed and his family are among the lucky ones who get to sleep indoors

An extraordinary 190,000 refugees are now expected to arrive in Sweden this year - double what the agency expected at the start of the year, and more people than live in Uppsala, the country's fourth largest city.

If the predictions are correct, Sweden will take 20,000 asylum applications per million people in 2015, double the rate even of Germany.

The strain is beginning to show everywhere from politics - where the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are, according to two of the country's eight main polls, now the party with the most support - to finance, where both the central government and municipalities are struggling to find savings to cover the costs.

At the start of this month Anna Kinberg Batra, the leader of Sweden's center-right Moderate Party, called for Sweden to start applying the EU's Dublin Regulation so strictly that any asylum-seeker who has stepped foot in another country en route would be turned back at the border.

"If we do not act now, we will have a collapse in the system," she warned.

The rhetoric marks a U-turn for her party, whose previous leader Fredrik Reinfeldt in 2014 called on Swedes to "open your hearts to people fleeing under great stress," and whose government in 2013 made the fateful decision to offer permanent residency to any Syrian arriving at its borders.

When the Migration Agency upped its annual prediction for 2015, it called for an extra 70 billion Swedish kroner (7.5 billion euros) in funding over the next two years - equivalent to Sweden's entire annual budget for schools, universities and scientific research.

But finance minister Magdalena Andersson has yet to explain where the money will come from, and when she announced plans to cut development aid by just 260 million to free up funds for refugees, she was attacked by everyone from the WWF to the Swedish Church.

Spread thin

Malmö's biggest problem is the number of unaccompanied minors arriving - which in Sweden are the responsibility of the first municipality they come to.

Swedish border patrol officers

Sweden introduced temporary border controls to try to contain the flow of migrants

Other refugees are bused elsewhere, with the agency's desperate search for rooms pushing it to send refugees nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) north to Riksgränsen, a ski resort 200 kilometers inside the Arctic Circle.

"Malmö is now a transit town for refugees; after they are registered, all of them are taken away by buses," says Marie Olsson, who heads the primary care department for the regional health authority in central Malmö. "We don't have places for them to live in Malmö. It's full everywhere."

Olsson last month opened an emergency refugee clinic, staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses.

"The fear I have is that the people who want to work voluntarily are tired," she said. "It's always the same people, and they work eight hours on their regular job, and then they work for free in the refugee center."

Municipalities across the country are now trying to lure back thousands of retired teachers to teach Swedish to the new arrivals.

On Wednesday, the Migration Agency was hopeful that the border controls were starting to bring numbers down, with about 600 coming a day, down from 1,200, or even up to 1,700, previously.

Blankets meant for the use of asylum-seekers

Blankets won't help much with no roof over one's head

But Tobias Aakerman, the agency's head of press for southern Sweden said he was worried that the drop might be followed by a surge.

"The ferries started to take ID, so people stopped taking ferries from Germany," he said. "There might be a movement of people going from the harbor in Germany through Denmark. It's too early to say."

The reactions of the refugees themselves range from anger to understanding.

"Do you think it's okay for people to sleep here?" complains Bilal, who slept in one of the emergency tents at the weekend. "Now it's even cold inside people's houses, so what do you think it's like to sleep in a tent?"

Mohammed Munir thinks Sweden is doing its best.

"God help them! Because they have more people than they can handle. It's not normal," he says. "God help Sweden!"

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