In E.U., hope dims for Iraqi refugees
Sweden, Europe's most generous host, is scaling back to ease strains on its welfare system. One town alone has accepted more Iraqis than the US since 2003.
Last year, Mr. Tobya watched his livelihood turn to ashes. First, insurgents with Molotov cocktails torched his liquor store in central Baghdad. Then, he says, his business partner was kidnapped and fatally shot.Skip to next paragraph
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Fearing for his life, Tobya fled to this sleepy town in Sweden's snow-covered hills, where friends and family had found refuge. But the Swedish government has denied his asylum claim and asked him to return to Iraq.
"If they could guarantee that no one would kill me, I would go back tomorrow," says Tobya, a stocky man with cropped, thinning hair who asked that only his last name be used. "But Baghdad – the place is an inferno."
Until recently, Sweden was a kind of Promised Land for Iraqi refugees. Drawn by its liberal asylum rules and generous social benefits, 18,559 Iraqis sought refuge here in 2007 alone – far more than in any other Western country.
Humanitarian groups have held up the nation's policies – part of a long open-door tradition – as a model. They have also warned that if other industrialized nations don't follow Sweden's lead and take in more Iraqis, the mounting refugee crisis in the Middle East could destabilize the region. But with its welfare system under strain, Sweden has begun clamping down on Iraqi asylum seekers in recent months, dampening hopes that the West will step in and help contain the crisis.
Indeed, since January, the nation has granted just 25 percent of Iraqi asylum claims, down from more than 80 percent in 2007. It has also begun forcibly deporting those rejected back to Iraq.
"We had hoped to see other nations rise to Sweden's level," says George Joseph, the director of Caritas Sweden, a Catholic aid group. "Instead Sweden has stooped to meet them."
49,000 Iraqis have fled here
Since 2003, when war broke out, at least 4.7 million Iraqis have been uprooted, creating the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since Israel was founded. About half of the displaced remain in Iraq, while more than 2 million have spilled into Syria and Jordan, where the influx has overwhelmed hospitals and schools and created water and housing shortages.
Humanitarian groups say that situation among refugees in these countries is increasingly desperate, with many living in ramshackle camps and struggling to meet basic needs, like food and medicine. Unless industrialized nations act soon, Amnesty International has warned that the situation could "implode, further destabilizing the region."
But most Western countries have refused to offer direct aid to Syria and Jordan, or welcome more than a handful of refugees. The US admitted just over 1,600 Iraqis in fiscal year 2007, far short of its initial 7,000 target, which the State Department attributes to administrative bottlenecks.
Sweden, a country of 9 million people, which has played no role in the Iraq war, has taken a more liberal approach. Until recently, refugees fleeing Iraq's violent south and central areas were all but assured asylum and a generous resettlement package, including subsidized housing, job training, and a monthly stipend for living expenses.
As a result, Sweden has seen nearly 49,000 Iraqis pour into the country since 2003, and watched the number of Iraqi asylum claims climb by almost 600 percent. Last year, it received nearly as many Iraqi asylum seekers as all other European nations combined.
Mayor's effort to meet refugee needs
But the sudden influx has strained Sweden's generous welfare system and overwhelmed the handful of communities to which the newcomers have gravitated. Among them is Södertälje, a town of about 80,000 people just south of Stockholm. Since 2003, it has welcomed between 5,000 and 6,000 Iraqis refugees – slightly more than the US.
To handle the influx, the local government has hired more than 70 employees, whose sole job is to help refugees integrate. Still, Mayor Anders Lago says, the town is struggling.