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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.

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The first sign of this shift came last July when the Swedish Migration Board decided that the situation in Iraq had improved enough that blanket protection for those fleeing central and southern parts of the country was no longer needed.

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Sweden's migration court upheld the decision in an October ruling, saying the fighting in Iraq did not qualify as an "internal armed conflict" – the European Union's prerequisite for requiring member states to offer shelter to refugees.

This means that in order to gain asylum, applicants must show that they personally are threatened, something advocates for refugees say can be difficult to do. In a landmark case, a refugee was denied protection despite producing a fatwa calling for the death of his relatives because he was not named in the document.

Sweden has also begun forcibly deporting Iraqis, including to violence-prone south and central Iraq. Mr. Billström, the migration minister, says the measure was needed to keep the asylum system from breaking down, but it has prompted an outcry from humanitarian groups. "The consequences of returning refugees back to those areas can be as serious as death," says William Spindler, a UNHCR spokesman.

Some Swedes also fear the policies could erode a rich humanitarian tradition, which dates back to World War II.

Since the rules took effect, the nation has seen the number of Iraqi asylum claims tumble, with just 2,550 filed between January and March – about half the number submitted during same period in 2007. Meanwhile, a growing number of refugees have begun applying for the "reintegration contribution," a payment of $3,364 that the Swedish government gives to Iraqis who voluntarily return home.

A perilous, $20,000 journey

But experts say most Iraqis are more likely to hole up in Sweden or try neighboring countries. (Norway has already seen a spike in Iraqi applicants.)

This is partly because of the ordeal Iraqis go through to get to Scandinavia. With Europe tightening its borders, many hire smugglers, which often means crossing the Aegean Sea on rickety boats, spending days locked in container trucks, or braving Greece's land-mined border with Turkey on foot.

To pay smugglers, who usually charge $10,000 to $20,000, many Iraqis sell everything.

Joulet Barbar, a Södertälje resident who wears her graying hair tucked under a thick, white shawl, says she hawked her house, her furniture, and her heirloom jewelry, and still had to borrow $10,000. Now she sleeps on a mattress in a relative's living room. "At least here I am safe," she says.

Other refugees say violence has scattered their friends and relatives in Iraq, leaving them with few roots back home.

"For these people, there is little or nothing to return to," says Mr. Joseph of Caritas. "And they will find a way – any way – to avoid going back, because the last thing people give up is the hope of a better life."