Iraqi asylum seekers struggle to survive in Sweden

11.jpg By Tim Mansel
BBC News
Although Sweden once led the way in welcoming Iraqi refugees, the authorities are now clamping down and Iraqi asylum seekers are increasingly faced with deportation.

Jakob’s family have been threatened with death in Iraq unless they convert
I have just spent a week meeting some very angry, very frightened people.

Lilian, for example, who cleans a house in Sodertalje. And George, who does odd jobs and shares a basement room in Gothenburg. And Jakob who is 20 and goes to high school in Gustavsberg outside Stockholm.

They did not want to tell me their real names for fear of being identified, both in Sweden and at home, because they are all Christians from Iraq who went to Sweden to seek asylum and they have all had their asylum requests turned down.

This they find hard to understand.

I have seen the court judgement that confirmed Jakob’s refusal.

It cites several threats made against him and his family in Iraq, in which they are told to convert to Islam or be killed.

One of these threats was delivered by eight masked men armed with pistols who broke into their flat in Baghdad early one morning.

They all tell similar stories of kidnap and ransom, of churches being bombed, of death threats.

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

2.jpgIn the last two years, Sweden has deported more than 500 Iraqis
And they are baffled by the attitude of the Swedish authorities.

There are no human rights in Sweden, they say, even animals are treated better here. Unfair as that may be, it is a line I hear more than once.

I am taken to meet Lilian by Nuri Kino, a journalist who has devoted a lot of time to the plight of Iraqi asylum seekers in Sweden.

On the motorway down to Sodertalje, he tells me he has been on the phone to Lilian’s lawyer that morning and she has just been told that Lilian’s appeal has been rejected.

The lawyer, he says, does not dare tell her yet – and he is not going to either.

Both hands come off the steering wheel as he gesticulates furiously.

The town has a large community of Assyrian Christians. They have come from Turkey and Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

Nuri himself is one. He was born in Turkey and came to Sweden during the Cyprus crisis of 1974.

‘Ducking and diving’

3.jpgNuri Kino works to help Sweden’s asylum seekers
Sodertalje has been a magnet for asylum seekers from Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Nuri calls it Mesopotalje.

There are several reasons why people who fled from Iraq chose Sweden.

They include the country’s reputation for generosity (established in the 1970s when refugees from Chile were taken in after the fall of Allende), the existence of an Iraqi community where people would feel safe, and a well established smugglers’ network.

But Sweden is now tired of being a soft touch.

“We expected a higher degree of solidarity from our European Union neighbours,” Tobias Billstrom, the minister responsible for asylum, tells me.

In the last two years, Sweden has deported more than 500 Iraqis.

Deportation is what Lilian is scared of.

She is not married and both her parents are dead. Her brothers have found refuge in Canada and Australia.

If a person gets a negative response to their asylum claim, they must leave because otherwise we would have free immigration and that is not what the people of Sweden want

Tobias Billstrom, Swedish migration minister
She does not give much for her chances in Baghdad without male protection.

“I’ve got nowhere to go,” she says. “I’d just have to stay in the airport.”

In Sweden she ducks and dives to survive, living for a few days here, a few days there, sometimes in Sodertalje, sometimes in Stockholm. Her only regular income is the few hundred Swedish crowns she earns cleaning.

Nuri nags her about her smoking. “Have you eaten today?” he asks, “Or are you still living on coffee and cigarettes? You’re going to kill yourself.”

“I might as well just throw myself off a bridge anyway,” she says.

She is joking, I think.

UN condemnation

We finish talking and Lilian looks at Nuri. “No,” he says. He knows she wants to ask about her appeal.

“Nuri,” she pleads.

“No. I don’t know,” he says. “We need to go and talk to your lawyer.”

She says something in Arabic and he gives in. “You’re rejected,” he says.

Lilian is quiet at first, trying to take it in. “OK,” she says quietly. But then she gets angry and starts sobbing.

“Why?” she says. “Why?”

The week I am in Sweden there is news of a deportation flight.

Fifty-six Iraqis are put on the plane. The deportation is condemned by the United Nations, which insists it is not safe to send Iraqis back to Baghdad.

“But if a person gets a negative response to their asylum claim, they must leave,” says Tobias Billstrom. “Because otherwise we would have free immigration and that is not what the people of Sweden want. We aim to intensify our returns policy.”

That is not something Lilian wants to hear.

A couple of days later, Nuri picks her up in Stockholm and we eat ice-cream in a park. She is laughing and joking.

Her situation has not changed but the sun is out and she has come to terms with her latest setback.

She needs that kind of resilience to survive.