US Ambassador to Sweden, Michael M Wood co-chaired the event, the Södertälje Opportunity Fair ‘USA 2009’ with Södertälje Mayor, Anders Lago.
Speaking to a packed audience of foreign immigrants, schoolchildren and journalists, Wood explained the drive behind the fair:
“When I visited Södertälje back in April, I was impressed by the economic situation and the amount of refugees the town has taken in.
“I was subsequently challenged by Lago to provide 1,000 new green cards. Obviously I couldn’t achieve that, but I got his point.”
As a joint effort between the US Embassy and the Södertälje council, the Opportunities Fair aims to provide information and advice to young locals, especially Iraqi immigrants, on options for studying and working in America.
Since the military invasion in 2003, Sweden has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined and Södertälje has seen itself at the forefront of this influx.
Located on the outskirts of Stockholm and with a population of just over 80,000, Södertälje has taken in more Iraqis per capita than any other Swedish municipality.
Dubbed ‘Little Baghdad’, the town’s infrastructure is under serious strain: “It is impossible for us to create 1,000 new jobs every year only for the refugees in Södertälje,” Lago told The Local.
Over recent months Lago has publicly raised concerns over the unrelenting flow of immigrants into the town, highlighting the need to find long-term resolutions to the issue.
Talking the The Local, Lago suggested that relocating Iraqi immigrants away from Södertälje may be the only solution:
“It could also be an idea for some of them to go to the United States or another country. We also have connections with other municipalities within Sweden – for immigrants to settle down elsewhere in the country.”
“This fair today is an opportunity for young people in Södertälje, both from Iraq and other Swedes, to go to the States. It’s to give them inspiration and information on how to do that,” said Lago.
Ambassador Wood admitted that “it’s true that we were very slow in the US to ramp up the acceptance of Iraqi refugees.”
“But in the last year the US has taken in 12,000 Iraqi refugees, in the next 12 months we aim to accept 17,000. So you can see that the trend line is headed up.”
In 2007, Sweden admitted approximately 15,200 immigrants from Iraq. Though it has a population more than 30 times smaller than that of the United States, Sweden has taken in a greater number of Iraqi refugees, despite taking no part in the US-led invasion.
When asked if the US planned to replicate Swedish immigration policy, Ambassador Wood replied that, although “Sweden’s immigration policy is admired all over the world”, the United States would not be taking similar measures.
“The situation in the US is obviously much more complex; the volume of people coming to the US is much higher, the concerns about terrorism require additional steps.”
But could the fair not be viewed as merely a PR exercise aimed at rebuilding the US public image amid criticisms of its restrictive admittance regulations?
“I hope not. The proof will be when we determine how many of the people here today end up going to the United States either to work or to go to school,” replied Wood.
“Three or six months from now, if we can check back and determine that 100 or 150 of the people here ended up with success, then I would say that the Opportunity Fair was much more than just a sweetener.”