SKARA — As Bert Karlsson enters the refugee center's cafeteria, dark-haired boy greets him with a "Hey!" The four-story building called Stora Ekeberg is just one of many refugee centers started by Karlsson's Jokarjo AB group, which respond to Sweden's burgeoning need to house refugees.
This center is reaching its capacity of 570 people. "Here, we serve 1,800 meals every day," Karlsson said proudly before checking with the caretaker if everything is going well.
By now, most of the Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis and others who live in the center, some 220 miles from Stockholm, are aware that Karlsson is one of the founders of the New Democracy party, one of the first anti-establishment parties in Sweden's recent history that promised large tax cuts and a more restrictive immigration policy. "They know everything about me, they Googled me," Karlsson said.
In the early 1990s, many refugees were fleeing the war in the former Yugoslavia. A quarter century later, a new humanitarian crisis benefits the same man.
Among all the businesses the 71-year-old Swedish got into — entertainment, music, reality TV — "the hosting of refugees is definitely the most profitable," said Karlsson. His company owns 60 centers and has an annual turnover of more than $110 million, with a profit of $11 million.
About 9,000 asylum seekers live in his centers across the country. They represent 5% of the registered refugees who came to Sweden in 2015 — a record year that saw more than 163,000 applications. The former record was in 1992, when 84,000 people came knocking at the country's door during the Balkan war. At that time, Sweden was already known for its accommodating asylum policy.
$35 per day per refugee
For Sweden, a country of less than 10 million, this flow of refugees is one of the most challenging in the European Union. The towns that were supposed to take care of them had to tap into their own coffers. Everywhere, the local hosting capacities were exhausted and the national Migration Board had to issue tender calls to the private market, so that the refugees do not end up in gymnasia or in tents. It has been a boon for certain companies, especially Jokarjo.
Karlsson bought the Stora Ekeberg center in 2012. Located five miles from his hometown Skara, where Karlsson started his career as an insatiable entrepreneur, the center was in a state of neglect. He spent more than $1 million renovating it — twice the purchase price.
"I was pretty sure that it would work. I had seen the war in Syria, and it was nowhere near coming to an end," Karlsson said while driving an SUV.
As Sweden started receiving more refugees, his company, Jokarjo, bought two other sites. "We spend more money than our competitors. Many people have been scammed, there are some gangsters working in this field. But things are getting better as the requirements have grown longer," he said.
Karlsson works with his two grown children who now own the company.
In January 2014, Karlsson told an interviewer that he wanted to create an "IKEA for the reception of refugees," a comment that sparked some criticism.
"I meant good quality for low prices. Before I entered the market, others demanded a daily $70 payment per refugee. The demand was such that the offer could be fixed at any price. With me, it's only $35," he said, in a manner that suggested that Swedish taxpayers owe him some gratitude.
Since Jokarjo is a large company with dozens of centers, it has been able to lower prices of bulk orders. Everything from furniture to microwaves are negotiated. A company that makes, packs and freezes meals made with food bought cheaply in bulk delivers to most of the centers. "It was impossible to have a fully-equipped kitchen installed in each center," said Karlsson.
Yet there are doubts about the quality of service provided by the "asylum king," as he was called in a Swedish newspaper. There was once a hunger strike with residents complaining about the portions of frozen food they had to pick up from a container outside. In another center, people denounced the poor water quality and the lack of space. Hygiene inspection services have reported deficiencies in regulation from time to time.
As for competitors, critics blame Jokarjo for abusing its dominant position. Karlsson denies the anonymous accusations that pop up in the media. He denounces rival firms which he said "do not pay taxes in Sweden" and recruit former political officials to help them tap into the underage asylum seekers market. For the teenagers who arrive in Sweden alone — they were 35,000 such minors in 2015 — municipalities do not issue tenders for centers. "They sign extravagant contracts with prices twice as high as they should be," Karlsson said.
Jokarko was allowed to only open one of these centers catering to minors. "Even my own village boycotts me," he said.
Accusations of racism
Skara Mayor Fredrik Nordström says that Karlsson does not like it that the municipality runs his center for underage refugees. "He loves competition provided that it does not hurt his business," Nordström quips. "He needs conflict because it stimulates him as he needs to be at the center of everything. And he also likes to criticize the overall system."
Karlsson seems to agree with this portrait. He is even flattered when he's compared to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Nordström says that that the entrepreneur's political commitment has been fueled by his will to take on the establishment. In 1991, Karlsson co-founded the New Democracy party that has a "Have fun" slogan. A few months later, the party won 6.7% of the vote and 25 parliamentary seats. But in 2000, Karlsson shuttered his party.
With the arrival of large numbers of Balkan refugees, the party grew "tougher," he said. It began to advocate that all newcomers should get tested for HIV/AIDS, that they should learn Swedish as soon as they arrive, and that loans should replace allowances. The party advocated for the abolition of the permanent residence permit.
"That's the kind of thing that makes people think you're a racist," Karlsson said, adding that he doesn't believe that he is racist. He points out that he votes for the Christian Democratic Party and not for the far-right Sweden Democrats, who have steadily gained in elections. He also says that his centers have established prayers halls for Muslims, and that half of his 500 employees are of foreign origin.
"For the most part, they come from non-EU countries. I've hired them because they are much more hardworking than the lazy Swedish. I do get subsidies for that," Karlsson said. Syrians and Iraqis who pass through his buildings are "tough people who do not give up and want to change their lives," he said, adding that Balkan refugees "will make the country stand on its own feet by doing jobs that the Swedish do not want to do anymore."