Sweden closes door on Iraqi asylum seekers, refugees

The country has had a heavy influx of asylum application in recent years.

.SOLLENTUNA, Sweden (AP) – The fear of being sent back to Baghdad has taken its toll on Mustafa Aziz Alwi.

He says he cannot sleep and has lost about 20 pounds since his claim for asylum in Sweden was rejected in January.

“They told me it’s because it’s calmer in Iraq now, that I can go back and be happy. But they don’t know that it’s death there,” said Aziz Alwi, 25, wiping away tears in an interview at his cousin’s apartment in the Stockholm suburb of Sollentuna.

Had his case been decided a year earlier, he would probably already hold a residence permit. Sweden has given shelter to about 100,000 Iraqis, 40,000 of them since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. That’s far more than any other Western country including the U.S., which admitted just over 1,600 Iraqi refugees in the 2007 fiscal year, nearly 400 short of the annual goal of 2,000, and a big reduction from an initial target of 7,000.

But Sweden has gradually tightened its asylum rules, worried that its generous welfare system can’t cope.

The effects became evident this year, when immigration statistics obtained by The Associated Press showed only 28 percent of the claims were approved in January and 23 percent in February – down from 85 percent in January 2007.

While Sweden has won praise for the welcome it extends to Iraqis, the government sees the surge of newcomers as out of control and has appealed in vain to fellow European Union states to share the burden.

“We find it totally unacceptable that some countries do a lot while others do very little,” Migration Minister Tobias Billstrom told the AP.

“When very many people arrive within a very short period of time, it puts an enormous strain on the system, like schools and health care,” he said.

In 2007, more than 18,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in Sweden – four times more than in Germany and 10 times more than in Britain, according to figures compiled by the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, an advocacy group.

But the numbers dropped sharply this year, with only 835 asylum-seekers coming to Sweden in February – down nearly 40 percent from the previous month to the lowest level since July 2006. In the first three weeks of March, only 376 Iraqis sought asylum in Sweden, suggesting the downward trend continues.

“Unfortunately we’re not surprised,” said Bjarte Vandvik, Secretary-General of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles. “It was going to happen sooner or later. The lack of solidarity in Europe … has had this very unfortunate effect.”

Sweden’s turning point came last July when the Migration Board, citing decisions by the nation’s highest immigration court, said the situation in Iraq could not be described as an armed conflict.

As a result, asylum-seekers now must show that they have fled specific threats of violence; general turmoil is no longer sufficient grounds.

Some international refugee experts say they’ve noticed a recent drop in refugees both inside and outside Iraq as security there has improved.

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that around 2.5 million people are displaced within Iraq, while another 2 million have fled to neighboring Arab countries.

Only about 1 percent have sought asylum in industrialized countries, the U.N. said. Of those, Sweden stands out.

The country of 9.1 million emerged as the favored Western destination for Iraqis in 2006. The general unrest in Iraq was reason enough to win a residence permit.

The industrial city of Sodertalje, 22 miles south of Stockholm, exemplifies the result.

Nicknamed “little Baghdad,” Sodertalje is home to more than 6,000 Iraqis – mainly Christians – who account for about 7 percent of the city’s population. The result, say city officials, is an acute shortage of housing, schools and jobs.

“There are examples of 15 people living in a two-bedroom apartment,” said Sodertalje Mayor Anders Lago, who has been invited to talk about the city’s Iraqi refugees to the U.S. Congress next month.

“Sweden needs immigration. It’s a small country with a low birthrate, but we have to be able to receive people in a humane and dignified way – and we’re not doing that right now when they have to sleep on mattresses on the floor,” he said.