Election 2008 The World is Watching


Sweden: A Safe Haven for Iraqis

Open borders and flexible policy attract asylum-seekers

BY Alisa RothNovember 2, 2008


Alisa Roth is reporter in the New York bureau of the American Public Media program "Marketplace," where she covers Wall Street, wealth and the auto industry. Her reporting from Sweden is part of a fellowship with the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Back when she was a doctor in Baghdad, Lamis Husain never wore a headscarf. She drove. She listened to the Back Street Boys and N'Sync and watched American movies, where she even picked up a pretty good American accent.

She was against the U.S. invasion -- she didn't like the idea of a foreign military bringing change to her country. But like many Iraqis, she saw great potential for her country in the first months after the Americans came. But her personal situation has changed in the last five years, and so have her thoughts about the U.S. and its role in Iraq.

Her sister was severely wounded when their car was bombed. Her grandmother died in the same incident. Her uncle disappeared; his body was identified in the morgue three days later.

These days, Husain spends lonely days in Sweden, while she waits to hear the outcome of her asylum application. She hasn't seen her physician husband for more than a year -- he moves among Amman, Damascus and Baghdad, also waiting for her asylum application to be accepted. (If she does get accepted, he'll be eligible to join her.) She hasn't seen the rest of her family -- who stayed behind in Baghdad -- for more than a year either. She doesn't know when she'll see them again. And the U.S. hasn't been much help.

All of which may help to explain her cynicism and resignation.

Sodertalje Library

The Sodertalje Library carries a number of Arabic books. Nearly half of all Iraqi asylum seekers in Europe go to Sweden; of those about 10 percent settle in Sodertalje, a city near Stockholm.

"I don't think there will be any future [in Iraq]. Maybe in 50 years," she says, in a coffee shop in Stockholm's main train station.

She's completely lost faith in the whole situation. And holds no expectations that the U.S. elections will fix anything.

"I'm not looking for an American president to change things for the Iraqis. I'm looking for an Iraqi president to change my country."

Husain is one of the more than 38,000 Iraqis who've asked for asylum in Sweden since 2003. Iraqis are the largest group of asylum-seekers in Europe, and about half of those arriving in Europe come to Sweden.

Although the terms asylum-seeker and refugee are often used inter-changeably, there are notable differences. Asylum-seekers arrive in a country and ask for protection. Refugees, on the other hand, are selected either in their own countries or in a third country and are brought to a new country for protection.

Thanks in part to geography, the vast majority of the Iraqis accepted in Europe are asylum-seekers. It's possible to get from Iraq directly to Sweden via overland or water routes, and there are established smuggling networks to help. In addition, Europe's open borders mean that once an asylum-seeker arrives anywhere in Europe, it's relatively easy to get to another European country of choice.

Why do so many Iraqis come to Sweden? For one thing, Sweden's long been known for its generous approach to asylum. In the 90s, thousands came, fleeing the Balkan Wars; more recently, Somalis have come in large numbers. Besides being relatively flexible in its policies of letting people in, Sweden is also more generous than other countries about family reunification.

"I'm not looking for an American president to change things for the Iraqis. I'm looking for an Iraqi president to change my country."

That doesn't mean that many wouldn't have preferred the U.S. -- but the geographic barriers and politics have made it next impossible to come to the U.S. (The U.S. has, however, pledged to take at least 17,000 Iraqi refugees next year, after taking only 15,000 total in the last five years.)

Perhaps as important, once you've been given permanent residence, Sweden's deal can only be described as cushy: free health-care; free child-care; free language classes; job training; subsidized housing; and so on.

Thanks to extensive labor migration in the 1960s and waves of refugees from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and other conflicts, there are sizable Arab communities in several Swedish cities. So many of the arriving Iraqis had cousins or neighbors who could welcome them, churches and mosques where they could worship, and stores where they could buy Arab food and other products.

Husain arrived in Sweden about a year ago and is still waiting to hear whether she will get residency.

The most important thing for Iraq, she says, is for the U.S. not to leave too soon. "They can't pull out now. There will be no power," she says. "Iran will take Iraq in maybe three days," she says, and then Turkey will come and take the north.

She would like to see the U.S. build permanent bases in Iraq, the way it has in places like Germany, Japan, and South Korea. It's too early, she says, to be trying to rebuild Iraq.

How Ghassan Azeza came to Sweden is a very different story. The 26-year-old dentist left Iraq a few months ago with his parents and younger brother after getting death threats, telling him to, "Leave Iraq within a month or we'll slit your throat." (They don't know who sent the threats, but they came because of Azeza's uncle, who had been in the military under Saddam Hussein and then gone to work for the Americans.)

Ghassan Azeza

Ghassan Azeza came to Sweden after threats were made to his life in Iraq.

They joined his older brother, who'd come to Sweden a few years ago and easily gotten asylum. But Ghassan and the rest of his family were rejected; the migration board said the threats they'd received weren't direct enough. And it didn't believe they were Iraqi despite extensive documentation they provided and Azeza's brother who had already been granted asylum as an Iraqi.

They're anxiously awaiting the results of their appeal.

"I can't imagine if the American army pulled out. I can't imagine the situation," he says. "I just want to live in peace. I don't care who runs the country."

He worries about how much power a new U.S. president will be able to wield in Iraq, since Congress needs to be on board, too. But more importantly, he's not sure Iraq is ready to take on its own security. "The militias have been incorporated into the army," he says. "[Iraq] would have to filter the army."

Like Husain, he's terrified about what would happen to Iraq if the U.S. pulled out too soon, since he expects that neighbors like Iran and Saudi Arabia are circling the carcass. But he says the same goes for the status quo. "Staying without doing anything would be a disaster."

But as it is for many Iraqis in Sweden, Husain and Azeza's thoughts about the future of the U.S. in their country is mostly abstract. Neither has gotten permission to stay in Sweden. And neither knows what they'll do if they're asked to leave. But Azeza says, he's gone from hell to heaven and has no intention of going back.

As for Husain, she says: "Not Obama or anyone can change the situation. I wouldn't go back. I'm 28 and I'm exhausted. I can't do it anymore. I don't want to raise my children in my country."