Iraqi Refugees in Sweden 'Anything Is Better than Baghdad'

Many of the thousands of Iraqis fleeing their homeland want to go to Europe, and Stockholm is their port of entry. Now Sweden wants other European countries to share the burden. EU ministers are meeting this week to discuss how to cope with increasing numbers of Iraqi refugees.

Iraqis are fleeing the bombs and destruction in their homeland. While most refugees are in the neighboring countries of Jordan and Syria, many of them are heading to Sweden.

Iraqis are fleeing the bombs and destruction in their homeland. While most refugees are in the neighboring countries of Jordan and Syria, many of them are heading to Sweden.

Ridha Mohammed recently arrived at Stockholm's Arlanda International Airport. He handed his forged passport to an unknown companion and waited for a while in the arrivals hall. Then he told Swedish immigration agents where he was from. As an Iraqi refugee, he didn't have to worry about any potential problems.

Ridha, 40, wants to "start a new life" in Stockholm. He plans to bring his wife Tamathur, 36, and the couple's three children to Sweden as quickly as possible. "Anything is better than Baghdad," he says, even though every phone call with his family is "heart-breaking."

For a long time, life in Baghdad wasn't half bad for Ridha, who lived with his family in a decent apartment in Baghdad Jadida, a neighborhood in the east of the city. But the family's well-ordered life had begun to come apart recently. "Bombs every day," says Ridha, "morning, noon and night, and never any security."

Ridha, like thousands of his fellow Iraqis, has found a new life in northern Europe. Sweden, because of its liberal visa requirements, guarantees Iraqi expatriates the right of residence in the country. Last year Sweden welcomed more than 9,000 Iraqis, which was close to 50 percent of all Iraqi refugees arriving in Europe in 2006 and four times as many as in the previous year. Eight hundred Iraqis fled to Switzerland, and almost 2,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in Germany in 2006 (although only 1.1 percent of those applications were approved). The United States, which launched its crusade against the "Axis of Evil" by invading Iraq, accepted less than 600 refugees from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

According to estimates by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about two million Iraqis have left their country since the war started in 2003, most going to neighboring Syria (1.2 million) and Jordan (750,000). Some return as soon conditions improve in their village or city.

At the same time, the flow of refugees to Europe is increasing. About 80,000 Iraqis already live in Sweden, where the government and municipalities provide generous financial support for language courses, job training, apartments and welfare benefits. Life is so good in Sweden that families are encouraging their relatives and friends to follow their example and move there.

Masin, 56, paid $70,000 to smugglers to bring him and his wife and their five grown children to Sweden. He worked as a construction engineer in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and comes from a Christian family. "We are caught between all fronts," he says. "Everyone is against us, the Shiites, the Sunnis and even the Kurds."

It began with daily threats. Soon his wife was forced to wear a headscarf on the street to attend church services. Neighbors avoided the family. Then the first threatening phone calls started. They wanted $150,000 -- or his life. "You are kuffar (infidels) and you must die," the caller said. That was enough for Masin. In early November a middleman drove the family to Amman, where they were given fake passports and tickets to freedom.

Masin now lives in Södertälje, a city southwest of Stockholm. Of the city's population of close to 82,000, more than 6,000 are from Iraq. Many of them live in low-rent housing in the city's Ronna neighborhood -- earning it the nickname "Little Baghdad."


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