Swedish immigration hits record in 2012, boosted by Syrians

Immigration to Sweden hit record levels in 2012, boosted by the arrival of almost 5,000 Syrians, official statistics published on Wednesday showed.

A total of 82,597 foreigners immigrated to the Scandinavian country, "the highest level ever", Statistics Sweden said.

The number is a nine percent increase from 2011.

Immigrants accounted for 70 percent of the population increase in 2012, with the population surpassing 9.5 million for the first time. This included 20,000 or so Swedes who returned home from abroad.

Syrians were the largest group of immigrants, with 4,730 nationals, three times more than in 2011. They were closely followed by 4,673 Afghans and 4,541 Somalis.

In 2011, the biggest groups of immigrants came from Iraq, Poland and Afghanistan.

Statistics Sweden said the Syrian immigrants were 60 percent men. The Syrians were "mainly young with an average age for women at 27 and for men at 29."

Immigration has been heavily debated in Swedish political circles in recent years.

In recent months, opposition leader Stefan Loefven of the Social Democrats and conservative Migration Minister Tobias Billstroem have both argued that Sweden takes in too many immigrants, though both stressed that they wanted to maintain the country's generous asylum policy.

The populist, far-right Sweden Democrats have meanwhile seen their popularity climb since entering parliament for the first time in 2010, with a public opinion poll on Sunday putting their support at 8.5 percent.