Refugees in Sweden fear for families lost at sea

UPDATED: As around 700 refugees remain missing after this weekend's shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea, devastated relatives in Sweden have told of their anxious wait to find out if their loved ones are dead or alive.

Refugees in Sweden fear for families lost at sea
Italian coastguard officers on Monday. Photo: Lino Azzopardi/TT

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“My nephew is missing in Libya. I haven't heard anything and I don't even know whether or not he has gone to sea,” one man in Sweden of Eritrean origin told Swedish news wire TT.

It is common for refugees travel to Europe in small, unsafe vessels, experts say, often aided by human traffickers who demand large sums of money to take them from Libya to Italy. Many travel onwards to other countries including Sweden, which takes in more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU nation.

The largest proportion of migrants to Italy in 2015 have so far come from Eritrea, ahead of Somalia. The fourth largest group of refugees are Syrians. So far this year, around 5,800 migrants from these three countries have travelled to Italy across the sea.

“Of them, maybe half go to Germany and the other half to Sweden,” Christer Zettergren, adviser to the Swedish Migration Board's general director Anders Danielsson, told TT.

The Local Italy: 700 feared dead in Mediterranean shipwreck

Refugees normally choose countries where they already have relatives, such as Sweden. But the attraction also carries great risks of drowning at sea – and desperately anxious families.

“This is part of everyday life for us Eritreans. There are hundreds of families waiting for information,” said the man TT spoke to.

According to Italian officials, 21,385 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea this year. 1,600 of them are estimated to have drowned, including in this weekend's tragic accident. The Eritrean man in Sweden said to TT that he was told of the catastrophe in a phone call the night to Sunday.

“I couldn't sleep the rest of the night, nor the following day. [We haven't heard] anything. We're just waiting,” he said.

"Many die on their way to Libya too, or in Libya. (…) Young people have no future in Eritrea. They know the risks, but they're desperate," he added.

His comments echo those made to The Local in a long interview with several asylum seekers at the centre in Märsta north of Stockholm in March. A 28-year-old man from Eritrea then told of his long journey to Italy by boat, during which he watched many of his friends die along the way.

READ MORE: "It was a long journey and some of my friends died"

Sweden is seeing its asylum requests rise to record levels, with about 90,000 applications anticipated by the end of 2015. Numbers have been steadily rising since the Nordic nation became the first European country in 2013 to grant automatic residency to Syrian refugees, but it has also accepted thousands of others from nations including Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans as well as a growing influx from Somalia.

The government says it wants to continue providing security for refugees, but has called on other EU member states to share the burden. Currently only Germany processes more asylum applications.