Iraqi refugees find the door to Sweden closing
Besitun Hadi Ahmed, an Iraqi Kurd, recently lost the ability to walk because of a spinal problem, and doctors say his only hope is medical treatment and physical therapy not available in Iraq. He recently lost his case for asylum in Sweden and could be deported at any time, making him fearful about going to therapy.
They and others hoping for asylum face a new, stricter law in the traditionally hospitable but now inundated nation.
By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 13, 2008
SODERTALJE, SWEDEN — Naseir's daughter was 7 when a local gang leader saw her on a Baghdad street and passed on the word: She was beautiful, and in a year or two, the man would take her as his wife. Until then, she would need to begin wearing a veil when she went out playing, and practice the principles of Islam, even though she wasn't Muslim.
To Naseir, this meant two things. One: “Basically, he was talking about raping my daughter.” And two: “We had to get out of there.”
Naseir paid a driver to get him and his family across the border into Syria, then launched a desperate odyssey alone by taxi, truck, plane and rubber dinghy to reach Sweden, long Europe's most hospitable gateway for people fleeing the war in Iraq.
But amid a refugee flood that has taxed even this Scandinavian nation's traditional liberal compassion, Sweden has dramatically narrowed the standards for granting asylum to people from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Naseir, who imagined that he would soon be calling his family to join him in Sweden, now finds himself facing deportation, and has gone into hiding to avoid the police.
The change in policy stems from a new immigration law and an appeals court ruling this year that found, incredibly to many Swedes and refugee advocates, that legally there is no internal armed conflict in Iraq — allowing deportation of asylum seekers to their home country.
“They say there is no armed conflict in any part of Iraq. There is no armed conflict in Somalia; there is no armed conflict anywhere in the Middle East. There is armed conflict in five or six of the most southern parts of Afghanistan,” said Kalle Larsson, a Left Party member of parliament who has sought to preserve asylum opportunities in Sweden.
“I'm afraid that what is really happening is the system is sending political signals to the courts and to the migration board,” he said. “And these signals are saying, 'There are too many people coming to Sweden.' ”
For hundreds of refugees across Sweden, the deportation orders seem to amount to death sentences.
“How can we go back? After what happened to us, Iraq to me was no longer a country,” Naseir, who does not want his last name published, said as he slumped over at a coffee shop one recent afternoon to hide the tears streaming down his face. “Iraq became a graveyard.”
Last year, more than 18,500 Iraqis sought asylum in Sweden. By comparison, the U.S. processed 734 Iraqi asylum applicants in 2007, and Britain handled 2,075, although these countries are the main military forces in the war.
Sweden initially granted residency permits to nearly all Iraqis who applied, and even last year 72% of Iraqi asylum seekers got permission to stay. Those granted residency are eligible for 18 months of Swedish-language and employment-skills training, plus about $1,490 a month (reduced to $360 after 18 months) in cash benefits.
But the doorway is narrowing sharply.
Not only have the new legal standards meant a drop in approvals, withonly about 43% of applicants winning their cases so far this year, but those who lose are getting booted out.
Since February, 290 Iraqis have been ordered expelled from Sweden and have returned voluntarily to Iraq, according to the Swedish Migration Board. Ten others have been forcibly returned.
Nowhere has the Iraqi migration been felt more than here in Sodertalje, an industrial town of 83,000 people south of Stockholm.
The city has been flooded with refugees from Iraq, mainly Christian Assyrians who have been among the most heavily threatened populations since the war began in 2003. Naseir is a member of another threatened Iraqi minority, the Mandaeans, who revere John the Baptist.
Since 2006, nearly 7,000 Iraqis have streamed into town, and 1,200 more are expected this year. Combined with other mainly Christian immigrants who fled in earlier years from Iraq, Syria and Turkey, foreign-born residents and their children now make up nearly 40% of the city's population.
The city has urged authorities to settle new immigrants in other parts of the country, where they are more likely to find jobs and apartments.
“The whole thing's gone totally haywire. We have more Iraqis who have come here to Sodertalje than went to the whole United States,” said Ulla Glantz, 64, a lifelong resident of the city.
Even their compatriots say the newcomers are overwhelming the city, taking up apartments and driving down wages for those who can find jobs.
“When I came, nobody gave me a house, no money. . . . I am working for that all this time, I'm working every day,” said Aydin Sharro, 42, an Assyrian who immigrated to Sodertalje from Turkey as a child in 1976, when his father was hired at the local truck factory. “But all them, none of them are working, and they expect to have the same as I have.
“Of course, it's not right to send them back to a war situation. But I tell you, you give me one week and tell me I can do whatever I want to do? I send them all out. Every one of them.”
Like most Iraqis who have come to Sweden, Naseir was attracted by the country's policy of allowing successful asylum applicants to bring their families there to join them.
He was refused, he said, because he had initially entered Europe in Greece, and was required by the Swedish authorities under international law to apply for asylum there — a near-guarantee of refusal.
Before Sweden's new immigration law, the government might have had the discretion to grant him asylum anyway. Now it's left to the courts, which rule on the letter of the law.
“I could have gone to Germany, because my brother lives there, but I knew that even if I got there, I would not be able to get my family there,” he said.
Those like Naseir who have been denied asylum but managed to avoid deportation are also being denied free medical care, except in emergencies.
In one recent case cited by the Red Cross, a 26-year-old undocumented woman was refused testing for vague symptoms of pain and fatigue. Eventually she turned to the Red Cross, which provided her with X-rays that diagnosed an advanced stage of breast cancer.
Besitun Hadi Ahmed, a 23-year-old Iraqi Kurd, recently lost the ability to walk because of a spinal problem. Doctors say his only hope is medical treatment and physical therapy not available in Iraq, yet he has recently lost his case for asylum and could be deported at any time.
His welfare benefits and work permit have been cut off.
“They just said: 'You have no future here. We can't give you anything,' ” said Ahmed, who had hoped to qualify for Sweden's national wheelchair basketball team.
He hesitates to go to his physical therapy sessions.
“I don't know if I'm going to get arrested,” he said.
“As soon as he sees a police car, he freezes up,” said Annelie Olausson, a friend who recruited him to the basketball team.
“You start to wonder, what's wrong? What's happening in Sweden, that someone like him can't be protected here?”
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