Swedish minister apologises for remarks on immigrants

Swedish Migration Minister Tobias Billstroem apologised Monday for controversial remarks he made about illegal immigrants' looks in the country's paper of record Dagens Nyheter (DN).

"Sometimes we get the impression that a person in hiding is living with a nice blonde lady in her 50s or 60s who wants to help. But that's not the way it is. Most of them live with their countrymen who are not at all blonde-haired and blue-eyed," Billstroem told the paper in its edition published on Monday.

DN published its recording of the interview on its website.

Billstroem, of the conservative Moderate Party which is the biggest party in the coalition centre-right government, apologised for his remarks several hours later.

"I expressed myself poorly. Appearance isn't relevant in any way when discussing these issues," he told Swedish news agency TT.

The government has recently come under fire over allegations police have been using racial profiling in the subway to track down and deport illegal immigrants.

"Lately, the government has started talking more and more about ethnic Swedes, blonde-haired and blue-eyed," opposition leader Stefan Loefven of the Social Democrats lamented on Facebook.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said Monday it was "good" that Billstroem had apologised.

But he defended the police efforts, insisting that those who had been denied residency permits had to leave the country, and noted on public television on Sunday that Sweden is "a country that has among the most generous migration and asylum rules in the developed world."

In February, Billstroem said Sweden took in too many immigrants but insisted he wanted to maintain the country's generous asylum policy.

Sweden's populist, anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, meanwhile continues to gain support in public opinion polls.

The party entered parliament for the first time in September 2006 with 5.7 percent of votes, and a Demoskop poll in early March credited them with 11 percent.

In 2012, Sweden received almost 44,000 asylum requests. In the European Union, only Germany and France registered higher numbers, with 64,000 and 60,000 requests respectively, according to the Swedish Migration Board.