The Growing Iraqi Refugee Crisis: Trading Civil War for Small-Town Sweden

By in Alvesta, Sweden

As sectarian violence in Iraq continues to rage, the numbers of those fleeing the country this year is skyrocketing. Many find refuge in neigboring countries, but more and more are trying their luck in Europe. Sweden is the only country listening.

Editors note: Most of the Iraqis mentioned in this series asked that their full names not be used and that they not be photographed, saying that many of the sectarian tensions that exist in Iraq can be found in exile as well.

It's quiet in Alvesta, Sweden. The town, nestled among the forests and lakes 175 kilometers north of Malmö, has a population of just over 7,500 people. There is one hotel, a couple of restaurants, and not much to do other than to wander down to the lake and feed the ducks. But for 144 of the town's residents, boredom is the best thing about the place. After all, there are no dead bodies on the streets in the morning. For them, the town's greatest charm is the fact that it's not located in Iraq.

Alvesta is just one of scores of villages, towns and cities in Sweden that are hosting an ever-growing number of Iraqis fleeing the violence back home. The Scandinavian country took in some 9,000 Iraqi refugees in 2006 -- over 40 percent of the 22,000 Iraqi refugees who found their way to Europe. And Sweden is bracing for a significant increase this year. Based on the numbers of Iraqi refugees arriving in Europe in the first two months of 2007, the total seeking asylum this year in Europe could be well over 40,000. And with much of the rest of Europe doing little to help, most of them are likely to end up in Sweden.

"Now we are beginning to really see the humanitarian consequences of the war in Iraq," Stefan Telöken, Germany spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Nobody can now say they didn't know. It is one of the biggest refugee problems in the world, right up there with Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia."

Sweden Is the Destination of Choice

The crisis is growing by the week. According to estimates by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, the number of Iraqis displaced within Iraq -- already some 1.9 million -- is growing by 40,000 to 50,000 each month. Well over 2 million have made it across the border to neighboring countries -- Syria now hosts some 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, and Jordan has crammed in 750,000, representing an almost 15 percent boost to that country's population.

Only a tiny percentage is able to get to Europe. Plane tickets are prohibitively expensive for most Iraqis -- and many have to pay an additional $5,000 to $15,000 on the black market for passports and visas. But those who do come know where to go. Stockholm's asylum policy is the most generous in the West -- Sweden accepts some 91 percent of all applications for refugee status. Germany, by contrast, accepts only 11 percent of applicants for refugee status and Britain just 12 percent. Much of Europe, the UNHCR complains, doesn't seem interested -- which means that Sweden is the destination of choice.

"Sweden is a small country and of course we feel there should be a burden sharing" across Europe, Swedish Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy Tobias Billström told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Anyone who turns on the radio or the television can see that there are great problems in Iraq. Tremendous problems."

Of particular concern is that many Iraqis are personally targeted for assassination. Even as headlines focus on the many car bombs that rock the Iraqi capital on an almost daily basis, a new batch of corpses appears on Baghdad city streets every morning. Many are victims of the low-grade, sectarian civil war that has raged since early 2006 between Sunnis and Shiites. Many others are targeted because of their jobs. Those who run know it is their only choice of surviving.

Where Iraqis apply for asylum.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

Where Iraqis apply for asylum.

Didn't Even Tell His Wife

Take 31-year-old Abdulkhaliq Anwer, for example, now a resident of a tiny village near Alvesta. Brawny in appearance for a trained computer scientist, Anwer took a job helping to teach tech skills to the new Iraqi security forces soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Full of enthusiasm, he wanted to help Iraq leave the dictatorship Saddam had built over decades behind. Even right after the 2003 invasion, though, he knew the risks of working for the Americans, and elected not to tell anyone that he was working for DynCorp, an American private contractor hired to help train Iraq's fledgling police force. He didn't even tell his own wife.

Despite his precautions, though, he realized by 2005 that he had become a target. "They started following my car," he said, referring to Sunni insurgents. "When I went to work in the morning and when I came home, I took different routes and long detours. I knew they were there, but I was pretty sure they didn't know where I lived."

One day, though, he came home to a note stuck on his front door. "We know you work for the Americans," the note said. "And you will be punished." At the bottom of the note, Anwer said, was a Koran verse on revenge. He realized it was time to tell his family what he was up to. He escaped over the dangerous overland route to Syria before ultimately making his way to Sweden eight months ago. He is currently waiting for a residency permit, which will allow his family to join him.

Stories like Anwer's are not difficult to find in Alvesta. All it takes is a 10-minute walk up the gentle slope from the train station through the center of town, past the only hotel, and out beyond the residential district with its two storey wooden houses. There, three apartment buildings are nestled up against the edge of the forest; inside, Iraqis fresh out of the death zone are crammed in -- four people are assigned to each two-room apartment -- along with refugees from other crisis regions around the world.

They include refugees like Mahir, a 26-year-old electrical engineer. Sitting nervously on the edge of a bed in a spare, ground-floor apartment, he explains how insurgents warned him to leave Iraq. Not long afterwards, he barely escaped being gunned down on the streets of Baghdad. His friend wasn’t so lucky, and Mahir heard the final shots being fired into his head when he was killed, execution style. Their crime? Working to fix a transfer station that just happened to be located on a military base.

The number of Iraqis fleeing their country is once again on the rise.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

The number of Iraqis fleeing their country is once again on the rise.

Afraid to Go Home

Or Firas, a former teacher of European history who was targeted for working directly with the Americans as an interpreter and political analyst. Or even Kais, who landed on “The List” of potential assassination victims solely because he had an education and was working at the university.

“We were afraid of the bombings, but at least with the bombings, you weren’t targeted individually,” Firas says. “If you are walking down the street and you get blown up by a bomb, that is your fate. There is nothing you can do about it. Every Iraqi has this attitude of fatalism. Everyone. But in 2006, it became personal. You reached a point where you were afraid to reach the door of your own home.”

Despite widespread public resistance to the Iraq war in Europe, the plight of its displaced has largely fallen on deaf ears here. In late April, the European Union said that it didn’t see an urgent need to open its doors to a greater number of Iraqi refugees. German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told reporters following a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers, chaired by Germany because it holds the rotating EU presidency, that “the situation is not such at the moment that we have to start emergency measures.” Instead, the EU opted to provide more aid to Iraq to help the internally displaced as well as Jordan and Syria, which have taken on the lion's share of refugees. In addition to the €15.2 million ($20.5 million) already allocated to the region, the EU added €13.6 million.

Radically Different Policies

For years, Europe has been working to harmonize its asylum laws and to come up with a common policy. But so far that project -- which began independent of the current Iraqi refugee crisis -- is in its infancy, and the result is that individual countries within the EU apply radically different standards and policies when it comes to Iraqi refugees. Since Saddam's toppling in 2003, Germany no longer sees a need to grant asylum status to Iraqis. Furthermore, a 2005 rule stipulates that asylum cases must be reviewed every three years, meaning that Berlin has even considered returning refugees to the relatively secure northern part of Iraq.

“It’s like a water bed,” Diederik Kramers, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Brussels, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “One country can take strict measures to say we are stopping all these people, but the burden will shift to another country.” He added, “Europe should show itself more open to accepting Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees. It is in their interest in that it would alleviate the pressure building in the region. It would also be in line with its own aim on working together on its refugees and asylum policy.”

Meanwhile, almost no Iraqi with the wherewithal to escape to Europe has much difficulty deciding where to go. Those like Anwer, Kaim, Mahir and Firas who are already in Sweden, make sure their friends know not to make the mistake of going to a different country in Europe where their chances of being accepted aren’t as good. In addition to taking in most of the Iraqis who arrive, the Swedes provide them housing and give them a roughly $300 monthly allowance. If they stay for six months, they can also qualify for residency and a boost in their social welfare benefit to $1,000 a month. Once refugees have residency, they can begin thinking about bringing their families over as well.

Not all of them want to stay, however. Anwer says he is eager to get back to Iraq once the security situation improves. “Sweden is a very generous country,” he says. “But establishing a new life is a hell of a job. It’s not as easy as you think it is. You leave everything behind -- your car, your house, your career. And then you come here to save your ass.”

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