With Italy’s unemployment rate at 13 percent, many new arrivals would rather settle in the wealthier welfare states of Northern Europe, where there are better job opportunities and more established refugee communities.
For tens of thousands of migrants who survive the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean, the journey often continues as they slip through cracks in Italy’s border controls and head north.
With Italy’s unemployment at 13 percent, many new arrivals would rather settle in the wealthier welfare states of Northern Europe, where there are better job opportunities and more established refugee communities.
Helped by a blind eye from Italian authorities and visa-free travel inside Europe, migrants can make it to Scandinavia relatively easily before they apply for asylum, even though European Union (EU) rules state they should do so in the first EU country they enter.
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Of the 435,000 people who applied for asylum last year in the 28-nation EU, nearly half did so in Germany and Sweden.
“The distribution is very uneven,” said Mikael Ribbenvik, deputy director of the Swedish Migration Agency.
The agency noted in its annual report for 2014 that some EU countries, including Italy, don’t enforce rules requiring refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter.
Instead, Italy lets thousands of migrants slip into the north without fingerprinting them, leaving no record of their time in the country.
Still, Ribbenvik acknowledged that Italy also faces a huge challenge as a country on the front lines of Europe’s migration flows, rescuing thousands of desperate people trying to enter Europe by sea.
“If all of them had sought asylum, Italy would have had 170,000 applications last year. That’s just as unreasonable as Sweden taking such a big proportion,” Ribbenvik said.
An Associated Press analysis of EU and Italian data last year suggested that as many as a quarter of the migrants who should have been fingerprinted in the first half of 2014 were not.
Syrians in particular are falling off the radar. Many spend a few days in Italy before they head north. At Milan’s main train station, they are met by railway police, aid workers and city officials who offer food, a bed and — if they want it — advice on asylum.
Asylum policies differ across the EU despite efforts to streamline them. Sweden alone received more than 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014, including 30,000 from Syria.
That makes the Scandinavian country, with a population of 10 million, by far the biggest recipient in the EU relative to its size.
The migration agency’s budget was boosted by 50 percent to $520 million this year to handle the flow. Immigration officials say the biggest challenge comes once migrants receive their residence permits but struggle to find jobs and housing and end up on the sidelines of society.
Many new arrivals move in with relatives or friends in crowded apartments in immigrant suburbs of the major cities. As a result, the country is becoming increasingly segregated, and for some Swedes the welcome is wearing thin.
A far-right party that wants sharp cuts in immigration got 13 percent of the vote in September’s parliamentary election.
In Germany, thousands of people have attended weekly anti-Islam rallies, raising concerns that anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise in a country still haunted by its Nazi past.
Sweden’s latest projection indicates up to 105,000 asylum seekers are expected this year.
Dani Amouri, 22, a Lebanese cafe manager in Stockholm, said migrants are drawn by the country’s liberal asylum rules and its reputation for being fair and egalitarian.
But Amouri, who came to Sweden in 2011 and hopes to get permanent residency this year, said he worried that Sweden’s welfare system would buckle under the pressure of immigration unless other countries pitch in.
“All countries should take a responsibility, not just Sweden,” Amouri said. “Because if everyone comes to Sweden, it’s going to be too much.”