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Afghan Refugees Feel a Sudden Chill in Sweden

Sweden has a reputation for championing refugee protection. But recent changes to its asylum policies – especially the repatriation of Afghans to an increasingly chaotic homeland – are undermining its good name.

Written by Rory Smith Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
An unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan. AP/Alastair Grant

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – “The kids often mention the Taliban,” says Max, a government employee who works at a refugee shelter in the Swedish capital. “One kid I work with told me how the Taliban came and shot his family members in front of him, and then played football with his dad’s head.”

Given Sweden’s changing politics, he is worried about the long-term futures of the 30 minors who reside at the shelter. Max, who asked that his family name not be used, is particularly concerned about the safety of three 16-year-old Afghans whom he coaches in football. They are scheduled to be sent back to Afghanistan.

The Afghan boy’s story about the Taliban desecrating his father’s body may seem like something out of a horror movie. But a quick glance at the drawings produced by Afghan children in refugee centers across Europe reveals that a vast majority of the youngest asylum seekers have endured traumatic experiences. Violence is only one side of a complex and dispiriting reality confronting the Afghan people – 5.4 million of whom live as unclassified refugees in Iran and Pakistan, while at least 1.2 million are internally displaced in Afghanistan. A very small percentage reach Europe.

One of the kids who spoke to Max about being sent back told him that “not even the journey from the airport to my village is safe. I am going to be dead before I get there.” But the Swedish government has deemed the repatriation in line with its asylum laws. The three teenagers will be sent back home, regardless of the circumstances that await them.

Sweden Clamps Down Through Legal Means

Afghan migrants chant slogans against the E.U.-Turkey agreement. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

Afghan migrants chant slogans against the E.U.-Turkey agreement. (AP/Yorgos Karahalis)

In 2015, about 178,000 Afghans sought asylum in Europe. About 42,000 of them sought resettlement in Sweden.

“Longstanding animosity between ethnicities, forced marriages, insecurity, land disputes and the forced conscription of minors into the Taliban, the Afghan military, as well as forces fighting in Syria are the common [stated] reasons for asylum,” says Lennart Eriksson, an expert on Afghanistan for the Swedish Migration Board (SMB).

But, like many parts of Europe, Sweden has succumbed to the fear-mongering politics of the far right. The closing of the country’s borders, support for the blanket pronouncement in January to send back 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers from Europe and the recent adoption of stringent immigration laws – passed by a vast majority of the parliament – highlight the drastic changes in Swedish political attitude towards refugees. While this U-turn affects all asylum seekers, it falls especially hard upon the shoulders of Afghans.

“I believe the SMB is working pretty hard to send Afghans home,” says Anders Fredricksson, an immigration lawyer based in Gothenburg. “They are looking to find any reason that might result in a negative decision.”

The criteria related to internal displacement is a subtle but influential facet of Sweden’s legal process that disproportionately affects Afghan refugees. If refugees are able to flee to a safe area within their country of origin, they are ineligible to apply for residence in Sweden.

“They [the SMB] say you have to look at the intensity of the war,” explains Viktoria Nyström, an immigration lawyer in Stockholm who specializes in asylum policies. “In Afghanistan, the SMB says that there is a war, but it isn’t that horrible because not everyone is at risk of being injured or killed.”

Immigration lawyers explain that this limiting view is an extension of the “postconflict” status that E.U. states have assigned to the economies and governments of Afghanistan, primarily as a justification for turning down asylum requests on grounds that they are able to receive protection and support at home.

But the complex and interlinked reasons prompting the flight of Afghans have not subsided in the so-called postconflict years.

Despite 11,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan during 2015, the highest number since the 2001 invasion by U.S. and NATO forces, and the recurring title of “the least peaceful nation in the world,” the SMB considers certain areas of the country – most notably Kabul – to be safe. Such reasoning is utilized not only to reject asylum claims, but also to send back individuals and families to Afghanistan.

Drivers of Displacement

Afghan refugees wait for their documents in order to go back to Afghanistan at the UNHCR's Repatriation Center in Peshawar, Pakistan. The host government receives little funding to support more than 1 million refugees. (AP/Mohammad Sajjad)

Afghan refugees wait for their documents in order to go back to Afghanistan at the UNHCR’s Repatriation Center in Peshawar, Pakistan. The host government receives little funding to support more than 1 million refugees. (AP/Mohammad Sajjad)

Meanwhile, the number of Afghans displaced internally by conflict increased in 2015 as the Taliban intensified its ground offensive, according to a previous report by Refugees Deeply. Nicholas Haysom, special representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, expressed skepticism over the country “surviving 2016.”

Yet Swedish laws have turned against Afghan refugees. “It’s now easier for the SMB to come up with the [alibi of] ‘Afghans can flee internally to locations inside the country,’ compared to other refugee demographics,” says Fredricksson.

Many of the younger Afghans who have sought asylum in Sweden have never lived in Afghanistan. Most come from the populations that first fled to Iran and Pakistan and eventually moved on, due to being marooned without formal recognition as refugees or a lack of stable opportunities. Almost all have not lived in Afghanistan for more than a decade and have no homes or local support systems to return to. But because they are Afghan by origin, the SMB passes blanket judgments of “voluntary repatriation.” There is little that is “voluntary” from the refugees’ points of view.

The Burden of Proof

A member of the Afghan security forces stands guard during the first day of Eid-al-Fitr outside a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan. The capital remains in a fragile situation with Taliban forces closing in. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

A member of the Afghan security forces stands guard during the first day of Eid-al-Fitr outside a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan. The capital remains in a fragile situation with Taliban forces closing in. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

While the SMB’s allocation of asylum is based on case-by-case assessments, it is nearly impossible to substantiate the asylum seekers’ claims that the threats that drove them to Iran and Pakistan have persisted over the years.

“It’s very difficult to assess whether the claim is trustworthy,” Erikkson says, given that most asylum seekers have completely lost touch with their local communities. As a result it has become a life-and-death lottery, with SMB employees who are often underinformed about the conflict making the final calls.

“There are many people at the SMB that don’t understand the process or what they should be looking for. This is happening more and more,” says Nyström.

Despite the official stance of the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation that it not only lacks the resources to resettle civilians but also cannot guarantee their safety upon return, Sweden continues to send back refugees. The likelihood of returnees successfully resettling and creating a fruitful life is slim. It is much more probable that they will add to the population of internally displaced people currently suffering in squalid encampments around Kabul, where lack of basic services, starvation and recruitment by the Taliban are rife.

Such expensive returns will also not yield the intended result of reducing migration, as many of them will be reinjected into the smuggling routes to Europe.

With Kabul teetering on the edge of collapse and the Taliban holding strategic positions north of the capital, Sweden’s excuse that it represents a safe haven is losing credibility as a reason to repatriate.

The fall of the capital would be a Pyrrhic victory for Afghan refugees in Sweden who do not want to return. If the city is captured by the Taliban, refugees still in Sweden would likely be able to stay. But their families back home – assuming they have any left at all – would be trapped in the interminable cycle of violence that has pervaded Afghanistan’s recent history.

For now, the political conservatism of Sweden, backed by a series of new legal amendments, seems to be working in the favor of anti-migration sentiments. In the first half of 2016, 1353 Afghans were returned, compared to 246 in all of 2015.

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