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By Alistair Scrutton and Johan Ahlander
ESKILSTUNA, Sweden (Reuters) - An influx of refugees from countries such as Syria is fuelling a backlash against immigration in Sweden, for years seen by victims of conflict as a bastion of tolerance.
The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats have risen in voter polls to vie for third place a year before a general election that could leave them holding the balance of power.
City councillor Adam Marttinen personifies the growing anti-immigration sentiment. Dressed in an immaculate suit, gone is the skinhead image that once pushed the party to the sidelines.
Sitting in a cafe in this industrial town west of Stockholm, where unemployment of 15 percent is almost double the national average, Marttinen said immigrants were a burden on the welfare budget. "The main thing is we have to stop immigration to this city," he said.
Outside, women in head scarves shopped in the shadow of tower blocks.
The majority of Swedes still welcome immigration, but the Sweden Democrats have advanced in voter surveys to nearly 10 percent from five percent in the last election.
Immigration is increasingly part of the mainstream debate in a country where some 15 percent of the population is foreign born, the highest in the Nordic region. It is a rise in asylum seekers, drawn by Sweden's robust economy and tradition of helping refugees, that has attracted most controversy and is stirring anxiety among minority groups.
Sweden received 43,900 asylum seekers in 2012, a nearly 50 percent jump from 2011 and the second highest on record. Nearly half were from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia and will get at least temporary residency - out of a total 103,000 immigrants.
"You can see that the language and tone is more vulgar now. That gets worse and worse," said Bejzat Becirov, founder of Sweden's first mosque, the Islamic Centre, in the southern city of Malmo, one of the cities with most immigrants.
Among 44 industrialised countries, Sweden ranked fourth in the number of asylum seekers and second relative to its population, according to UN figures.
Sweden has a reputation for treating new arrivals well, from providing housing to free Swedish lessons. Some asylum seekers are allowed to live with relatives while they await appeals on their fate.
But the immigration spurt came just as many Swedes are feeling insecure due to headlines about job cuts featuring some of their most iconic companies, from Ericsson to airline SAS. Municipalities complain they lack housing for new arrivals.
"Sweden is one of the countries that receives the most immigrants in the EU. That's not sustainable," Immigration Minister Tobias Billstrom said earlier this year.
"Today, people are coming to households where the only income is support from the municipality. Is that reasonable?"
The minister's statement reflects how Sweden's reputation as one of Europe's most welcoming countries for immigrants may be eroding. People in other Nordic countries share Swedish concerns that openness to refugees may strain their welfare states.
Asylum seekers, in the short term, add a fiscal burden on the welfare state. OECD data show foreign-born unemployed rates, at 16 percent, compare with 6 percent for native Swedes. Sweden needs high employment levels to pay for its extensive welfare, including some of the most generous parental leaves in Europe.
"Sweden is seeing the most intense debate on immigration in its political history," said Andreas Johansson Heino, a political scientist at Sweden's Timbro think tank.
"What we are seeing is polarisation in Sweden."
Across the Nordic region anti-immigration parties, which languished after Anders Behring Breivik's killing of 77 people in Norway in 2011, are gaining support.
The Danish People's Party, a power broker in the last coalition, has gained amid an unpopular left-of-centre government. In Norway, the Progress Party, hit by sex scandals that also eroded its image, is now the third largest party.
Leader Jimmie Akesson has improved the image of a Sweden Democrats party long perceived as dominated by the far right. His aim is to reduce immigration by 90 percent.
"We want to be a real kingmaker," he said.
In recent months, immigration issues have reached fever pitch. Immigration Minister Billstrom sparked furore when he said people protecting illegal immigrants were no longer "blonde and blue-eyed" but fellow migrants exploiting cheap labour. This prompted a dressing down by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
When a librarian removed a Tintin book from the children's section on the basis it contained racist and imperialist views, it caused a storm on Twitter and in newspapers. The library put it back.
Then Stockholm's police were accused of using racial profiling to arrest paperless immigrants in the metro. A bus driver in the capital made headlines when he was suspended from work, accused of separating passengers based on their foreign looks.
Around 20 percent of Swedes now believe the Sweden Democrats have the best immigration policy, pollster Novus says.
In Eskilstuna, Marttinen hopes the party will reach 15 percent of votes in this town of around 50,000 people. The party got 10 percent in the last election in a blue collar town once known as the "city of steel" for its industrial base.
Marttinen told how one constituent complained she could no longer wear skirts in the street without harassment. His tone mostly appears moderate, talking about close Syrian friends. "People take you more seriously," said Marttinen. "People now see we can act responsibly."
Testament to Sweden's history of tolerance, there has also been a backlash against anti-immigration sentiments. Aftonbladet, one of the main tabloids, ran a campaign called "We like difference". Surveys also show the Sweden Democrats may have a ceiling of support at between 10 and 15 percent.
"Sweden is not a racist country. Ninety percent are good people," said the Islamic Centre's Becirov. "But we must also be honest, it's a difficult time right now."
(Additional reporting by Johan Sennero, editing by Janet McBride)