Refugees find door to Sweden closing

Besitun Hadi Ahmed of Iraq, rendered unable to walk because of a spinal problem, has lost his bid for asylum in Sweden. Besitun Hadi Ahmed of Iraq, rendered unable to walk because of a spinal problem, has lost his bid for asylum in Sweden. (Kim Murphy/Los Angeles Times)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times / July 21, 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, 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.

Last year, more than 18,500 Iraqis sought asylum in Sweden. By comparison, the United States 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 percent of Iraqi asylum seekers obtained 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, with only about 43 percent of applicants winning their cases so far this year, but those who lose are also 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 percent 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.

Some say the newcomers are overwhelming the city, taking up apartments and driving down wages for those who can find jobs.

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