SKARA â€" As Bert Karlsson enters the refugee center's cafeteria, dark-haired boy greets him with a â€œHey!â€ The four-story building called Stora Ekeberg is just one of many refugee centers started by Karlssonâ€™s Jokarjo AB group, which respond to Swedenâ€™s burgeoning need to house refugees.
This center is reaching its capacity of 570 people. â€œHere, we serve 1,800 meals every day,â€ 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 Swedenâ€™s recent history that promised large tax cuts and a more restrictive immigration policy. â€œThey know everything about me, they Googled me,â€ 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 â€" entertainment, music, reality TV â€" â€œthe hosting of refugees is definitely the most profitable,â€ 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 â€" a record year that saw more than 163,000 applications. The former record was in 1992, when 84,000 people came knocking at the countryâ€™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 â€" twice the purchase price.
â€œI was pretty sure that it would work. I had seen the war in Syria, and it was nowhere near coming to an end,â€ Karlsson said while driving an SUV.
As Sweden started receiving more refugees, his company, Jokarjo, bought two other sites. â€œWe 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,â€ 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 â€œIKEA for the reception of refugees,â€ a comment that sparked some criticism.
â€œI 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, itâ€™s only $35,â€ 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. â€œIt was impossible to have a fully-equipped kitchen installed in each center,â€ said Karlsson.
Yet there are doubts about the quality of service provided by the â€œasylum king,â€ 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 â€œdo not pay taxes in Swedenâ€ and recruit former political officials to help them tap into the underage asylum seekers market. For the teenagers who arrive in Sweden alone â€" they were 35,000 such minors in 2015 â€" municipalities do not issue tenders for centers. â€œThey sign extravagant contracts with prices twice as high as they should be,â€ Karlsson said.
Jokarko was allowed to only open one of these centers catering to minors. â€œEven my own village boycotts me,â€ 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,â€ Nordström quips. â€œHe 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.â€
Karlsson seems to agree with this portrait. He is even flattered when heâ€™s compared to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Nordström says that that the entrepreneurâ€™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 â€œHave funâ€ 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 â€œtougher,â€ 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.
â€œThatâ€™s the kind of thing that makes people think youâ€™re a racist,â€ Karlsson said, adding that he doesnâ€™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.
â€œFor the most part, they come from non-EU countries. Iâ€™ve hired them because they are much more hardworking than the lazy Swedish. I do get subsidies for that,â€ Karlsson said. Syrians and Iraqis who pass through his buildings are â€œtough people who do not give up and want to change their lives,â€ he said, adding that Balkan refugees â€œwill make the country stand on its own feet by doing jobs that the Swedish do not want to do anymore.â€
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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