For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale

Displaced Syrians arrive to Deir al-Ballut camp in Afrin's countryside, along the border with Turkey, on February 19, 2020. (AFP file photo)
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Displaced Syrians arrive to Deir al-Ballut camp in Afrin's countryside, along the border with Turkey, on February 19, 2020. (AFP file photo)
Children of displaced families living in an abandoned damaged school building, play in the yard in Binnish in Syria's province of Idlib, on March 2, 2021. (AFP file)
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Children of displaced families living in an abandoned damaged school building, play in the yard in Binnish in Syria's province of Idlib, on March 2, 2021. (AFP file)
A Syrian man carries an injured girl following Syrian government air strikes on eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma on March 20, 2018.(AFP file)
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A Syrian man carries an injured girl following Syrian government air strikes on eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma on March 20, 2018.(AFP file)
Displaced Syrian children are pictured in one of the alleys of an overcrowded displacement camp near the village of Qah near the Turkish border in Idlib province, on Oct. 28, 2020. (AFP)
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Displaced Syrian children are pictured in one of the alleys of an overcrowded displacement camp near the village of Qah near the Turkish border in Idlib province, on Oct. 28, 2020. (AFP)
This picture taken on May 4, 2020 during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan shows  members of a displaced Syrian family breaking their fast in the midst of the rubble of their destroyed home in Ariha, Idlib, Syria. (AFP)
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This picture taken on May 4, 2020 during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan shows members of a displaced Syrian family breaking their fast in the midst of the rubble of their destroyed home in Ariha, Idlib, Syria. (AFP)
In this file photo taken on June 14, 2015, a Syrian child fleeing the war is lifted over border fences to enter Turkish territory near the border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province. (AFP)
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In this file photo taken on June 14, 2015, a Syrian child fleeing the war is lifted over border fences to enter Turkish territory near the border crossing at Akcakale in Sanliurfa province. (AFP)
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Updated 19 October 2021

For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale

For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale
  • Scandinavia opened its arms to Syrian refugees in 2015, but attitudes have since hardened
  • The waves of people fleeing Afghanistan have brought the issue of European asylum policy to the fore

STOCKHOLM: Of the millions of Syrians displaced by civil war since 2011, a significant minority has managed to reach Europe, escaping not only violence and persecution but also forced army conscription and poverty.

Even in the initial phase of the arrival of the wave of humanity, many European countries closed their borders. But along with Germany, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were among the most welcoming.

In September 2014, images of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi lying face down in the Mediterranean surf near Bodrum in Turkey drove home the terrible truth about the Syrian civil war.




A graffiti by artists Justus Becker and Oguz Sen depicts the drowned Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi at the harbor in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on March 10, 2016. (AFP) 

That same month, the Swedish Migration Authority announced that all Syrian refugees applying for asylum would be granted permanent residency on arrival.

“Our assessment is that the conflict will not end in the near future,” Anders Danielsson, the agency’s director general, told national radio at the time. “Therefore, international law dictates that they should receive permanent residency permits.”

Following the announcement, the number of Syrians applying for asylum in Sweden rose from 30,000 in 2014 to 51,000 in 2015, according to government figures. Neighboring Denmark also saw an increase during 2015, processing about 21,000 asylum applications.

But six years on, the pendulum of public opinion has swung far in the opposite direction.




Along with Germany, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were among the most welcoming to Syrian refugees. (AFP file photo)

“Denmark went first down the nationalist-populist road, followed by Norway,” Swedish socialist MP Ali Esbati told Arab News.

Esbati fears his own country is beginning to follow suit. “This is due in part to many people in Sweden feeling that we did what we could in 2015 and took the responsibility that a rich country should take, while other countries did not.”

Indeed, as the situation in Afghanistan again brings the issue of European asylum policy to the fore, the political mood in Sweden is a far cry from the receptiveness of 2015.

“We will never go back to 2015. Sweden will not find itself in that situation again,” Stefan Lofven, Sweden’s prime minister, told the national daily Dagens Nyheter on Aug. 18, three days after the Taliban seized Kabul.




Afghans gather on a roadside near Kabul airport on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (AFP)

Esbati said that what upsets him most about the comments is the lack of acknowledgement of Sweden’s success in welcoming and integrating Syrians.

Among those who fled to Scandinavia in 2015 was Abdulla Miri. Desperate to avoid conscription into the Syrian regime’s armed forces, Miri chose to flee to Europe, promising his fiancee Nour he would get her out, too.




Refugee Abdulla Miri

“I’d paid so many bribes that my money was running out,” he said, speaking to Arab News at his home in Stockholm.


Read the second part of the report: Scandinavia’s cold shoulder


Miri recalls an incident soon after his arrival in Denmark en route to Sweden when he noticed two police officers watching him. “This was before I started to dress like a Scandinavian, so it was pretty obvious to them that I was a refugee,” he said.

“I thought I was in trouble, but the police officers helped me buy a ticket to Sweden. They knew that almost all the refugees wanted to cross the bridge to Sweden, so the three of us just laughed about the situation.”

Nine months later, Sweden granted Miri political asylum.

The Syrian refugee crisis began in March 2011 after a brutal regime crackdown on protests in support of a group of teenagers who were rounded up over the appearance of anti-government graffiti in the southern town of Daraa.

The arrests sparked public demonstrations throughout Syria, which were violently suppressed by security forces. The conflict quickly escalated and the country descended into a civil war that forced millions of Syrians from their homes.

Syrian refugees have sought asylum in more than 130 countries, but most live in neighboring states: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Turkey has the largest share of the refugee population, today sheltering around 3.6 million people.

European countries collectively host around a million Syrian refugees, with 70 percent hosted by just two countries: Germany with 59 percent and Sweden with 11 percent. Austria, Greece, the Netherlands and France host between 2 and 5 percent, while other countries host below 2 percent.

Most refugees from Middle Eastern and African states reach Europe by trekking overland from Turkey via Bulgaria and Romania, or by crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats operated by people traffickers.

At least 1,146 people died attempting to reach Europe by sea in the first six months of 2021, according to the International Organization for Migration — more than double the number during the same period in 2020, when 513 migrants are known to have drowned.

Those who survive the perilous journey get a mixed reception. Many trying to reach the UK, for instance, tend to find themselves stranded at the French port of Calais in squalid makeshift camps. For the most part, those who choose to settle in Germany or the Nordic states are afforded international protection status.

INNUMBERS

6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide, of whom 5.6 million are hosted by neighboring countries.

1,146 Asylum-seekers who drowned attempting to reach Europe in the first 6 months of 2021.

Since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, well over a million international protection decisions on applications by Syrians have been taken by asylum authorities in EU+ countries, according to UNHCR.

However, economic problems, a spate of Islamist terrorist attacks, and a sense that migrant communities have failed to fully integrate have led to a rise in right-wing populism in many European states, causing the welcoming spirit exhibited in 2015 to ebb away.

Nawal Abdo Hadid, a 62-year-old Syrian who lives in the quiet Copenhagen suburb of Gentofte, has been told her residency permit will not be renewed because the Danish authorities consider the situation in Syria no longer dangerous.




Nawal Abdo Hadid

“When I got the letter, I had a heart attack,” Hadid told Arab News. In addition to her heart problems, Hadid suffers from asthma, which makes it difficult to climb the three flights of stairs up to her one-room apartment. Her home is sparsely decorated, giving the impression of a life spent in perpetual limbo.

Hadid believes her return to Syria could be a death sentence because of her posts on social media that are critical of the government. A neighbor whom she accused of being a pro-Assad “criminal” has threatened Hadid and her son, who still lives in Syria with his six children.

“I haven’t seen my grandchildren for more than six years,” she said. “I’d rather die alone in Denmark than go back to Syria and put my son’s family at risk.”

Miri’s situation could not be more different. On receiving his Swedish citizenship in July 2017 after five years in the country, he flew to Beirut to marry Nour and then brought her home with him to Stockholm.

Although Sweden suffers from a shortage of affordable housing, the couple have been fortunate. A widower rented them the ground floor of his home in an affluent Stockholm suburb.

“Having him in our lives is a blessing,” Nour told Arab News. “I can always ask him for help and he is something of a father figure for us.”




Nawal Abdo Hadid's home in Sweden. (Supplied)

Nour, who studied English literature in Damascus and who loves the poet Lord Byron, has already begun to discover Swedish authors.

“Everything I don’t remember,” by the celebrated writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, himself the son of a Tunisian immigrant, has left a distinct impression. “He understands what moving between countries does to the soul,” Nour said.

Miri, who now uses his Swedish nickname “Abbe,” speaks flawless Swedish. Nour’s Swedish has a barely detectable Arabic accent although she struggles at times to find the right words.

Every year, on June 6, Miri hosts a Swedish National Day party for their friends. Native Swedes do not usually bother with the holiday, so the gatherings are something of a novelty.

“My Swedish friends don’t even call it National Day any longer,” he said. “They call it Abbe’s Day instead.”

Miri’s journey will be difficult for future asylum-seekers to mimic. On June 23, the Swedish parliament approved a new immigration bill that makes temporary residency permits the norm, just like the Danish system.

“We need an entirely new political (framework) in order for people to be included in society and to settle in,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, an immigration policy spokesperson for the conservative Moderate Party, recently told national radio.

“We have to start by decreasing immigration.”

Still, hope springs eternal. On the windowsill of Miri and Nour’s home sits a pile of books on pregnancy and parenthood. They arrived as a gift from a Swedish neighbor when she learned the couple were expecting their first child.

____________________

This is the first of a two-part series. Next: What Afghan asylum-seekers can expect.


India reports highest COVID-19 fatalities since July as states update tallies

India reports highest COVID-19 fatalities since July as states update tallies
Updated 05 December 2021

India reports highest COVID-19 fatalities since July as states update tallies

India reports highest COVID-19 fatalities since July as states update tallies
  • The revised figures took single-day deaths to 2,796, the highest since July 21

MUMBAI: India on Sunday reported its highest single-day COVID-19 deaths since July after two states revised their death tolls.
The eastern state of Bihar added 2,426 unrecorded deaths while the southern state of Kerala added 263 deaths to their tallies on Sunday, a federal health ministry spokesperson told Reuters.
The revised figures took single-day deaths to 2,796, the highest since July 21, according to a Reuters tally.
A devastating second wave in March and April this year saw thousands of deaths and millions affected.
Indian states have continued to add unreported COVID-19 deaths in recent months, lending weight to some medical experts’ opinions that such deaths are much higher than the reported number of 473,326.


Indian villagers protest as army kills 13, fearing rebels

Indian villagers protest as army kills 13, fearing rebels
Updated 05 December 2021

Indian villagers protest as army kills 13, fearing rebels

Indian villagers protest as army kills 13, fearing rebels
  • Local media reports said Indian security forces had mistakenly opened fire on civilians
  • It was unclear what led to the incident in the state bordering Myanmar

GAUHATI, India: Angry villagers burned army vehicles in protest after more than a dozen people were killed by soldiers who mistakenly believed some of them were militants in India’s remote northeast region along the border with Myanmar, officials said Sunday.
Nagaland state’s top elected official Neiphiu Rio ordered a probe into the killings, which occurred on Saturday, and he tweeted, “The unfortunate incident leading to the killing of civilians at Oting is highly condemnable.”
An army officer said the soldiers fired at a truck after receiving intelligence about a movement of insurgents in the area and killed six people. As irate villagers burned two army vehicles, the soldiers fired at them, killing seven more people, the officer said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
One soldier was also killed in the clash with protesters, he said.
Insurgents often cross into Myanmar after attacking Indian government forces in the remote area.
Nyamtow Konyak, a local community leader, said those killed were coal miners.
India’s Home Minister Amit Shah expressed anguish over the “unfortunate incident” and said the state government will investigate the killings.
The army officer said the soldiers had laid an ambush for a week following intelligence that insurgents were planning to attack soldiers in the area, 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Gauhati, the capital of Assam state.
Government forces are battling dozens of ethnic insurgent groups in India’s remote northeast whose demands range from independent homelands to maximum autonomy within India.

Related


Indonesia Semeru volcanic eruption kills 13; 10 evacuated

Indonesian rescuers and villagers evacuate a victim on a car in an area affected by the eruption of Mount Semeru in Lumajang, East Java, Indonesia, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. (AP)
Indonesian rescuers and villagers evacuate a victim on a car in an area affected by the eruption of Mount Semeru in Lumajang, East Java, Indonesia, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. (AP)
Updated 05 December 2021

Indonesia Semeru volcanic eruption kills 13; 10 evacuated

Indonesian rescuers and villagers evacuate a victim on a car in an area affected by the eruption of Mount Semeru in Lumajang, East Java, Indonesia, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. (AP)

JAKARTA: Ten people trapped after Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupted have been evacuated to safety, the country’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) said on Sunday, as the death toll from the disaster climbed to at least 13 and with dozens injured.
Semeru, the tallest mountain on Java island, threw up towers of ash and hot clouds on Saturday that blanketed nearby villages in East Java province and sent people fleeing in panic.
The eruption severed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang and wrecked buildings, authorities said.
BNPB official Abdul Muhari said in a news release that 13 people have been killed after the eruption, two of whom have been identified. Ninety-eight have been injured, including two pregnant women, and 902 have been evacuated, the statement said.

Mount Semeru releases volcanic materials during an eruption as seen from Lumajang, East Java, Indonesia, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. (AP)

Thoriqul Haq, a local official in Lumajang, said earlier that sand miners had been trapped around their work sites.
BNPB said at least 35 people had been hospitalized, while Lumajang’s deputy head said 41 people suffered burns.
Semeru, more than 3,600 meters (12,000 feet) high, is one of Indonesia’s nearly 130 active volcanoes. It erupted in January, causing no casualties.
Indonesia straddles the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” a highly seismically active zone, where different plates on the earth’s crust meet and create a large number of earthquakes and volcanoes.
Separately, an earthquake of magnitude 6 struck north of Halmahera on Sunday, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center (EMSC) said. Halmahera is about 2,000 km


Biden, Putin set video call Tuesday as Ukraine tensions grow

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Russian President Valdimir Putin at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Russian President Valdimir Putin at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 05 December 2021

Biden, Putin set video call Tuesday as Ukraine tensions grow

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Russian President Valdimir Putin at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (AFP)
  • Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, recently charged that a group of Russians and Ukrainians planned to attempt a coup in his country and that the plotters tried to enlist the help of Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov

MOSCOW: Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will speak in a video call Tuesday, the White House and Kremlin said, as tensions between the United States and Russia escalate over a Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border that’s seen as a sign of a potential invasion.
Biden will press US concerns about Russian military activities on the border and “reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Saturday, confirming the planned call after first word came from Moscow.
Putin will come to the call with concerns of his own and intends to express Russia’s opposition to any move to admit Ukraine into the NATO military alliance. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “the presidents will decide themselves” how long their talk will last.
The last known call between the leaders was in July, when Biden pressed Putin to rein in Russia-based criminal hacking gangs launching ransomware attacks against the United States. Biden said the US would take any necessary steps to protect critical infrastructure from such attacks.
Ransomware attacks have continued since then, though perhaps none has been as alarming as the one from May that targeted a major fuel pipeline and resulted in days of gas shortages in parts of the US
Russia is more adamant than ever that the US guarantees that Ukraine will not be admitted to the NATO military alliance. But NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said this past week that Russia has no say in expansion plans by other countries or the alliance. Numerous former US and NATO diplomats say any such Russian demand to Biden would be a nonstarter.
US intelligence officials, meanwhile, have determined that Russia has massed about 70,000 troops near its border with Ukraine and has begun planning for a possible invasion as soon as early next year, according to a Biden administration official who was not authorized to discuss that finding publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The risks for Putin of going through with such an invasion would be enormous.
US officials and former American diplomats say while the Russian president is clearly laying the groundwork for a possible invasion, Ukraine’s military is better armed and prepared today than in the past, and that sanctions threatened by the West would do serious damage to the Russian economy.
“What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be, will be, the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” Biden said Friday.
Ukrainian officials have said Russia could invade next month. Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russia-annexed Crimea is estimated at 94,300, and warned that a “large-scale escalation” is possible in January.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, recently charged that a group of Russians and Ukrainians planned to attempt a coup in his country and that the plotters tried to enlist the help of Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.
Russia and Akhmetov have denied that any plot is underway, but the Russians have become more explicit recently in their warnings to Ukraine and the United States.
Biden is also expected to speak with Zelenskyy in the coming week, according to a person close to the Ukrainian leader. This person was not authorized to comment publicly before the announcement of the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Kremlin said Friday that Putin, during his call with Biden, would seek binding guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine. Biden tried to head off the demand in comments to reporters Friday before leaving for a weekend stay at Camp David.
“I don’t accept anyone’s red line,” Biden said.
Psaki said in a brief statement Saturday that Biden and Putin will discuss a range of topics in the US-Russia relationship, “including strategic stability, cyber, and regional issues.”
She said Friday that the administration would coordinate with European allies if it moved forward with sanctions. She alluded to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that had been under Ukraine’s control since 1954. Russia has also backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a 7-year conflict that has cost over 14,000 lives.
“We know what President Putin has done in the past,” Psaki said. “We see that he is putting in place the capacity to take action in short order.”
US-Russia relations have been rocky since Biden took office.
His administration has imposed sanctions against Russian targets and called out Putin for the Kremlin’s interference in US elections, cyberactivity against American companies and the treatment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned last year and later imprisoned.
When Putin and Biden met in Geneva in June, Biden warned that if Russia crossed certain red lines — including going after major American infrastructure — his administration would respond and “the consequences of that would be devastating.”


Rohingya from Bangladesh island camp visit families

A health worker along with locals at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya. (AP/File)
A health worker along with locals at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya. (AP/File)
Updated 05 December 2021

Rohingya from Bangladesh island camp visit families

A health worker along with locals at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Bangladesh hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya. (AP/File)
  • 68 of Bhasan Char’s 20k refugees have returned to the mainland to see loved ones

DHAKA: Bangladeshi authorities said on Saturday they are planning to make Rohingya family reunions more frequent, as the first group of refugees resettled to a remote island camp in the Bay of Bengal last year visited their relatives on the mainland.

Bangladesh hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingya, who fled neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017. Most of them live in Cox’s Bazar, a coastal region in the country’s east, which with the arrival of Rohingya became the world’s largest refugee settlement.
To take pressure off Cox’s Bazar, the Bangladeshi government has since December 2020 sent 20,000 refugees out of a planned 100,000 to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island some 68 km from the mainland.
The UN refugee agency had criticized the relocation on the grounds of safety and Bhasan Char’s livability until October, when it signed an agreement with the Bangladeshi government to start operations on the island. Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch continue to oppose the project, questioning whether the resettlement has been voluntary.
A year since the beginning of relocation, 68 Rohingya living in the island camp were allowed to arrive in Cox’s Bazar on Tuesday night to stay for eight days.
“We have plan to regularize such visits for family reunions of the Rohingyas. After the return of the first batch, we will review the outcome and organize the tour for a second batch if there are no anomalies,” Zohirul Islam, in charge of the Bhasan Char camp, told Arab News.
“In the first batch 68 Rohingyas were taken for the reunion with the families and friends at Cox’s Bazar. They will stay over with the family for eight days.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• The UN refugee agency had criticized the relocation on the grounds of safety and Bhasan Char’s livability until October, when it signed an deal with the government to start operations on the island.

• Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch continue to oppose the project, questioning whether the resettlement has been voluntary.

He added it took a year to grant permission, as authorities needed time to prepare the trip and logistics.
Fatema Begum, 23, who was reunited with her ailing mother in Cox’s Bazar, said the visit gave her “great peace of mind.”
“I was worried about my mother’s health condition,” said Begum, adding: “I was not sure whether I could see her again in my life.”
She told Arab News she would rather stay on the mainland, as most of her family members are in Cox’s Bazar, but in Bhasan Char her fisherman husband has more opportunities to earn a livelihood.
Unlike her, Zobaer Ahmed, 24, said he felt safer on the island as gang violence incidents have been on the rise in Cox’s Bazar in recent months.
“But it’s a great joy to be reunited with my mother, sisters and eight other family members after so many months,” he said. “I am happy to see their faces. No words can express my joy.”
For Ahmed, Bhasan Char is a good place for living, he said, as each family has its own house and there is more space compared with the congested makeshift settlements of Cox’s Bazar. He expressed hope, however, that there would be more freedom of movement for the island’s inhabitants.
“I have shared the information with my friends and family members over the facilities we are currently enjoying at Bhasan Char island,” he told Arab News. “Some of them have expressed interest to be relocated to the island.”
Nur Khan, a prominent human rights activist in Bangladesh, said the reunion was a “praiseworthy initiative,” but certain issues should be addressed as recent reports suggest that dozens of refugees have fled the island, where they are not allowed to move outside the camp.
“The authorities also need to think why some Rohingyas tried to flee from the island in recent months. The authorities should work to find out and remove the causes,” Khan told Arab News.
“We should keep in mind that the Rohingyas are free men also. They took shelter here to save lives. So, we need to ensure a life with dignity for them.”