For Afghans fleeing the Taliban regime, the experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a warning
STOCKHOLM: Of the millions of Syrians displaced by the civil war since 2011, a significant minority have managed to reach Europe, escaping not only violence and persecution, but also forced conscription and poverty.
Even in the initial phase of the arrival of the wave of humanity, many European countries closed their borders. But with Germany, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were among the most welcoming.
In September 2014, images of drowned toddler Alan Kurdi lying on his stomach in the waves of the Mediterranean near Bodrum in Turkey shed light on the terrible truth about the Syrian civil war.
In the same month, the Swedish Migration Authority announced that all Syrian refugees seeking asylum would be granted permanent residence upon arrival.
“Our assessment is that the conflict will not end in the near future,” Anders Danielsson, chief executive of the agency, told national radio at the time. âTherefore, international law requires that they receive permanent residence permits. “
Following the announcement, the number of Syrians seeking asylum in Sweden increased from 30,000 in 2014 to 51,000 in 2015, according to government figures. Neighboring Denmark also saw an increase in 2015, processing around 21,000 asylum applications.
But six years later, the pendulum of public opinion has swung far in the opposite direction.
“Denmark took the nationalist-populist route first, followed by Norway,” Swedish Socialist MP Ali Esbati told Arab News.
Esbati fears that his own country is starting to follow suit. “This is in part because many people in Sweden feel that we did what we could in 2015 and took the responsibility that a rich country should take, while other countries did not. not done.”
Indeed, while the situation in Afghanistan brings the issue of European asylum policy back to the fore, the political atmosphere in Sweden is far from the receptivity of 2015.
“We will never go back to 2015. Sweden will never find itself in this situation again,” Stefan Lofven, Swedish Prime Minister, told the national daily Dagens Nyheter on August 18, three days after the capture of Kabul by the Taliban.
Esbati said what bothers him most about these comments is the lack of recognition of Sweden’s success in welcoming and integrating Syrians.
Among those who fled to Scandinavia in 2015 was Abdulla Miri. Desperate to avoid conscription into the Syrian regime’s armed forces, Miri chose to flee to Europe, promising her fiancee Nour that he would also get her out.
âI had paid so many bribes that my money was running out,â he said, speaking to Arab News from his home in Stockholm.
Miri recalls an incident shortly after arriving in Denmark on his way to Sweden when he noticed two police officers watching him. âThis was before I started dressing like a Scandinavian, so it was pretty obvious to them that I was a refugee,â he said.
âI thought I was in trouble, but the police helped me buy a ticket to Sweden. They knew that almost all the refugees wanted to cross the bridge to Sweden, so the three of us laughed at the situation. “
Nine months later, Sweden granted political asylum to Miri.
The Syrian refugee crisis began in March 2011 after the regime’s brutal crackdown on protests in support of a group of teenagers who were gathered over the appearance of anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Daraa.
The arrests sparked public protests across Syria, which were violently suppressed by security forces. The conflict quickly escalated and the country descended into a civil war that forced millions of Syrians from their homes.
Syrian refugees have sought asylum in more than 130 countries, but most live in neighboring states: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Turkey has the largest share of the refugee population, now housing around 3.6 million people.
European countries collectively host around one million Syrian refugees, 70 percent of whom are hosted by just two countries: Germany with 59 percent and Sweden with 11 percent. Austria, Greece, the Netherlands and France host between 2 and 5 percent, while other countries host less than 2 percent.
Most refugees from Middle Eastern and African states reach Europe by walking overland from Turkey via Bulgaria and Romania, or crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats operated by human traffickers .
According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 1,146 people have died trying to reach Europe by sea in the first six months of 2021, more than double the number in the same period in 2020 , when 513 migrants drowned.
Those who survive the perilous journey receive a mixed reception. Many trying to reach the UK, for example, tend to find themselves stranded in the French port of Calais in squalid makeshift camps. For the most part, those who choose to settle in Germany or the Nordic states enjoy international protection status.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, more than a million international protection decisions concerning applications from Syrians have been taken by asylum authorities in EU + countries, according to UNHCR.
However, economic problems, a wave of Islamist terrorist attacks and the feeling that migrant communities have failed to integrate fully have led to a rise in right-wing populism in many European states, causing the welcoming spirit manifested in 2015.
Nawal Abdo Hadid, a 62-year-old Syrian who lives in the quiet suburb of Gentofte in Copenhagen, has learned that her residence permit will not be renewed because the Danish authorities consider that the situation in Syria is no longer dangerous.
âWhen I received the letter, I had a heart attack,â Hadid told Arab News. In addition to her heart problems, Hadid suffers from asthma, which makes it difficult to climb the three flights of stairs to her one-room apartment. His house is sparsely decorated, giving the impression of a life spent in perpetual limbo.
Hadid believes his return to Syria could be a death sentence due to his social media posts criticizing the government. A neighbor she accused of being a pro-Assad “criminal” threatened Hadid and her son, who still lives in Syria with her six children.
âI haven’t seen my grandchildren for over six years,â she said. âI’d rather die alone in Denmark than go back to Syria and put my son’s family in danger.
Miri’s situation couldn’t be more different. When he received his Swedish nationality in July 2017 after five years in the country, he flew to Beirut to marry Nour, then brought her back to his home in Stockholm.
Although Sweden suffers from a shortage of affordable housing, the couple got lucky. A widower rented the ground floor of his house to them in an affluent suburb of Stockholm.
âHaving him in our lives is a blessing,â Nour told Arab News. “I can always ask him for help and he’s kind of a father figure to us.”
Nour, who studied English literature in Damascus and who loves the poet Lord Byron, has already started to discover Swedish authors.
“Everything I don’t remember”, by the famous writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, himself the son of a Tunisian immigrant, left a strong impression. âHe understands what moving between countries does to the soul,â Nour said.
Miri, who now uses her Swedish nickname “Abbe”, speaks flawless Swedish. Nour’s Swedish has a barely detectable Arabic accent, although she sometimes has trouble finding the right words.
Every year on June 6, Miri hosts a Swedish national holiday for her friends. Native Swedes usually don’t care about vacations, so gatherings are a novelty.
âMy Swedish friends don’t even call it National Day anymore,â he said. âThey rather call it the day of the abbot.
Miri’s journey will be difficult for future asylum seekers to emulate. On June 23, the Swedish parliament approved a new immigration bill that makes temporary residence permits the norm, just like the Danish system.
“We need an entirely new political (framework) for people to be included in society and settle there,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, spokesperson for immigration policy, recently told national radio. Moderate Conservative Party.
âWe must start by reducing immigration.
Yet hope is eternal. On the window sill of Miri and Nour’s house is a stack of books on pregnancy and parenthood. They arrived as a gift from a Swedish neighbor when she learned the couple were expecting their first child.
â¢ This is the first in a two-part series. Next: What Afghan asylum seekers can expect.