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Despite its liberal reputation, Sweden proves no safe haven for Afghan refugees Open in fullscreen

Asher Kessler

Despite its liberal reputation, Sweden proves no safe haven for Afghan refugees

The deportations to Afghanistan have sparked protests in Sweden [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 August, 2018

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Never mind the death threats, the Scandinavian country deems Afghanistan a 'safe' country to which rejected asylum seekers can be deported, reports Asher Kessler.

Last week, Elin Ersson, a 21-year-old Swedish student, refused to take her seat on a flight from Gothenburg to Istanbul. On that same flight was a rejected asylum seeker who was being deported from Sweden to Afghanistan via Turkey. Because a plane cannot legally take off unless all passengers are seated, Elin's actions eventually led to both her and the Afghan man being escorted off the plane. The deportation was delayed.

The man's identity is publicly unknown, and it is unclear what has happened to him, although the likelihood is that he has since been deported. What is clear however, is that Elin's actions, watched by millions through her livestream, have reopened the debate over the legitimacy of deporting asylum seekers to Afghanistan.

Over the past four years, Sweden has received more than 275,000 asylum seekers. With a population of just under 10 million people, this means that Sweden has per-head welcomed more refugees than any other European country. And a large proportion of asylum seekers in Sweden, and in Europe, originate from Afghanistan.

In 2015, Sweden received nearly 42,000 requests for asylum from Afghan citizens, roughly a quarter of all applications that year. Over the following years the number of applications from Afghan citizens has hovered around the 2,000 mark.

Sweden has long been a sought-after destination for asylum seekers. For decades the Scandinavian country had some of the most generous asylum, immigration and integration policies in the world, let alone Europe. But in early 2016, after the majority of Afghan asylum seekers entered Sweden, that all changed.

Stefan Löfven, the centre-left Swedish prime minister radically transformed Sweden's relation with its refugees by introducing harsh new legislation that made life far more uncertain and difficult for asylum seekers and refugees in Sweden. Suddenly, what was the most generous country in Europe began offering the minimum rights possible under EU regulation. At the same time, the government began increasing the number of deportations. 
In one single incident in Kabul, 98 people were murdered in a suicide attack. But weeks later the Swedish government resumed deportations


An unsafe Afghanistan

There are almost 2.5 million Afghan refugees scattered across the world and the number of displaced people has been rising over the past few years. This is because Afghanistan remains a war-torn country, which experiences nearly daily suicide attacks.

According to UN officials, 2,258 civilians were killed in the first quarter of 2018. In fact, the violence inside of Afghanistan was so heavy in January 2018 that European countries temporarily stopped deporting people to Afghanistan. In one single incident in Kabul, 98 people were murdered in a suicide attack. But weeks later the Swedish government resumed deportations.

The Taliban still controls approximately 14 percent of Afghanistan, and it contests another 30 percent. Worryingly, over the past few years, Islamic State group fighters have also seeped into the country, causing even further terror and instability.

The New Arab spoke to Omid, an Afghan refugee who fled to Sweden in 2015 after receiving threats from the Taliban. He explains that asylum seekers who are deported back to Afghanistan are especially in danger. Not only is Afghanistan unsafe because of the protracted conflict, but returning refugees are targeted because of their attempt to flee.

"If the Taliban catch them [deported refugees], they kill them," he said.

Like Germany and the UK, Sweden currently considers Afghanistan a "safe" country. And the Scandinavian country's official policy is to deport all Afghans who fail their asylum process, although the number of actual deportations are far below the number of Afghans whose asylum applications have been denied.

But according to UNHCR officials, by deporting asylum seekers to Afghanistan, European countries are "condemning them to death".

Recently, a 23-year-old Afghan asylum seeker was found dead from suicide in his hotel room after being deported from Germany. Omid expresses no surprise. He admits that he would do the same if he were ever deported to Afghanistan. 

Child refugees

Afghan refugee children cannot be deported from Sweden, but they can be when they turn 18 - and this causes incredible anxiety and destroys integration prospects.

There are approximately 40,000 Afghan child refugees in Sweden; compared with other European countries this is a particularly high number. Many of these children only receive a visa that lasts until their 18th birthday, or until they have finished high school. At the end of that period, they are forced to leave their state-provided homes and could be deported.

For children who already speak fluent Swedish and have often integrated well, their lives become overshadowed by the fear of turning 18 and facing deportation.
It is hard to motivate a young person who does not know if they are going to be sent back, next month, next year or in three years... What's the point of going to school?


The New Arab spoke to Susanne Durehead, a therapist who works at the Red Cross Treatment Centre for Persons Affected by War and Torture. She emphasises how the threat of future deportation overwhelms many children.

"It is hard to motivate a young person who does not know if they are going to be sent back, next month, next year or in three years," she says. "What's the point of going to school?"

For these children, the threat of deportation turns time into a terrifying countdown. Every day leaves teenagers feeling more and more anxious. Alarmingly, the trauma of deportation has produced a phenomena in which hundreds of refugee children have fallen into comas. Thousands more children have disappeared in fear of deportation, often fleeing to other countries or going underground in Sweden, both extremely dangerous options.

In Gothenburg, The New Arab spoke to a youth worker who spent the past few years mentoring a 16-year-old Afghan boy who arrived unaccompanied in Sweden. After 18 months, the boy learnt to speak fluent Swedish and had developed friendships with local children. But as his 18th birthday approached so did the end of his temporary asylum visa. After he turned 18, and his last appeal was rejected, he was forced to abandon his life in Sweden to try and seek asylum elsewhere in Europe. 

Future options

Sweden faces a general election in September and the far-right Swedish Democrats are gaining momentum in the polls.

The Swedish centre-left government fear the political repercussions of being seen as soft on immigration. So it is unlikely that deportations will stop.

As one municipality advisor in Malmo told The New Arab, relaxing asylum laws would "be like digging your own political grave".

Asher Kessler is a freelance journalist who has written for Huck Magazine and The Huffington Post.

Follow him on Twitter: @Ashkwondo

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