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

Special 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)
Special 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)
Special 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)
Special 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)
Special 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)
Special 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.


UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan

UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan
Updated 6 sec ago

UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan

UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan
UNITED NATIONS: For the second straight year, Afghanistan and Myanmar were silent at the UN General Assembly’s leaders’ meeting, which ended Monday with no representative of either government stepping forward to talk as the United Nations tries to resolve who should represent them.
At the annual high-level meeting of leaders, there was no speech from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who now control the nation after a US withdrawal last year, and no words from Myanmar, where a military junta toppled the civilian government last year and detained its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
For Afghanistan, it mirrored last year’s assembly when the Taliban — in its second chapter of ruling the nation — tried to figure out how to interact with the United Nations.
Last month, the UN special envoy on Myanmar said she wouldn’t visit the Southeast Asia nation again unless its military government allows her to meet with Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, including a three-year term with hard labor imposed last week for alleged election fraud.
Myanmar’s military seized power in February 2021 from Suu Kyi’s elected government, plunging the country into what some UN experts have described as civil war. Critics say the charges subsequently brought against Suu Kyi and top figures in her Cabinet were fabricated to keep them out of politics.
In December, the UN delayed actions on both Afghanistan’s and Myanmar’s bid for seats. UN diplomats said then that the decision to delay the requests by Myanmar’s junta and the Taliban had wide support because of the actions of the two countries’ new rulers.
Myanmar and Afghanistan didn’t go entirely unmentioned Monday. Bharat Raj Paudyal, foreign secretary of Nepal, brought up both of them.
“Afghanistan has remained on the precipice of uncertainty and violence,” he noted, and asked all parties in Myanmar to “respect the will of the people to elect their representatives.”

Biden to host Macron for state visit at White House Dec 1

Biden to host Macron for state visit at White House Dec 1
Updated 26 September 2022

Biden to host Macron for state visit at White House Dec 1

Biden to host Macron for state visit at White House Dec 1
  • State visits, which feature more pomp and ceremony than the frequent bilateral meetings hosted by US presidents for foreign leaders, have not taken place so far during Biden’s presidency
  • Asked why France had been chosen for the honor ahead of other US allies, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said ‘we deeply value our relationship with France’

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden will host French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House on December 1 for the first full-scale state visit of his administration, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday.
The visit will “underscore the deep and enduring relationship between the United States and France, our oldest ally,” Jean-Pierre told reporters at the White House.
State visits, which feature more pomp and ceremony than the frequent bilateral meetings hosted by US presidents for foreign leaders, have not taken place so far during Biden’s presidency, which Jean-Pierre attributed to Covid pandemic restrictions.
Asked why France had been chosen for the honor ahead of other US allies, Jean-Pierre said “we deeply value our relationship with France.”
The link between the two countries is “founded on shared democratic values, economic ties, and defense and security cooperation,” she said.
Relations between Paris and Washington hit a major crisis last year when Australia abruptly announced it was ditching a contract to buy conventional French submarines in favor of a US nuclear-powered submarine deal.


After floods, thousands displaced in southern Pakistan to move to ‘tent-city’

After floods, thousands displaced in southern Pakistan to move to ‘tent-city’
Updated 26 September 2022

After floods, thousands displaced in southern Pakistan to move to ‘tent-city’

After floods, thousands displaced in southern Pakistan to move to ‘tent-city’
  • Nearly 1.5 million people are displaced in southern Sindh province
  • Makeshift facility in Karachi will comprise about 1,300 tents, official says

KARACHI: Thousands of people in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh will be moved to a “tent city” in the provincial capital Karachi this week, officials said on Monday, in the aftermath of catastrophic floods that had submerged a third of the country and killed over 1,600 people.

Torrential rains and melting glaciers in the mountains of Pakistan’s north triggered floods that have swept away homes, key infrastructure, livestock and crops, affecting 33 million of Pakistan’s 220 million people since mid-June.

With nearly 1.5 million people displaced in Sindh province, the local government has been using public schools as temporary shelters. In Karachi, thousands of people have taken refuge in 30 schools in the city.

Local officials are preparing to move the victims to a makeshift facility located in the suburbs of Malir, an administrative district in the eastern part of Karachi, with the relocation set to begin this week.

“About 7,000 people living in our relief camps would be shifted and the schools will be vacated,” said Raja Tariq Chandio, deputy commissioner of Karachi’s East District, where the schools currently used as shelters are located.

The temporary settlement will comprise about 1,300 tents, and K-Electric, the city’s sole power distributor, will set up a power transmission line to provide electricity to the camp, Malir’s Deputy Commissioner Irfan Salam told Arab News.

“In the tent city, flood victims will have safe drinking water and cooked meals. It has 20 washrooms and a hospital with men and women doctors and paramedics,” Salam said.

“It will take at least 10 days for K-Electric to set up the power transmission line,” he added. “Within two days, people will be moved to the tent city.”

A charity organization will be providing meals for the displaced people relocated to Malir, he added, while children will get to attend classes organized by the Sindh Education Foundation.

The deadly floods in Pakistan inundated around 15,000 schools across Sindh alone, where classes have yet to resume. Millions of students in the province are at risk of being permanently out of school, Sindh Education Minister Sardar Ali Shah said earlier this month, as the government lacked resources to rebuild the damaged facilities.

Officials said there are plans to restart classes in Karachi after displaced residents are moved to Malir, when the buildings currently used as temporary shelters can again be used for lessons.

“We are happy that classes are going to resume soon,” Javed Shah, a teacher at the Government Boys Primary School, told Arab News. “We will bring the schools to order to resume classes.”

Related


Bangladesh still searching for missing passengers after deadly boat accident

Bangladesh still searching for missing passengers after deadly boat accident
Updated 26 September 2022

Bangladesh still searching for missing passengers after deadly boat accident

Bangladesh still searching for missing passengers after deadly boat accident
  • Government launches probe as about 30 not found, 35 dead
  • Small vessel packed with Hindu devotees, women and children

DHAKA: Bangladeshi authorities continued their search on Monday for missing passengers after an overloaded boat sank in the country’s northern district and killed at least 35 people in the worst waterways disaster to hit the South Asian nation this year.

The small boat, packed with mostly Hindu devotees, and women and children, sank in the Karatoya river on Sunday. Some passengers were returning from a popular temple in the northern Panchagarh district on the occasion of the Durga Puja celebrations.

Authorities have recovered the bodies of 35 people as of Monday afternoon, comprising 17 women, 11 children, and seven men, Panchagarh district administrator Mohammad Jahurul Islam told Arab News.

“Until Monday afternoon we have found 35 dead bodies,” Islam said. “Still, 20 to 30 people are missing. However, we found some missing people alive today as they were rescued by the locals on Sunday and took shelter in the homes of nearby relatives.”

A committee has been formed to investigate the incident and is expected to file a report within three days, he added.

“This sort of boat capsize is very rare in this region, because these small rivers are mostly calm in nature,” Islam said.

Officials suspect the fatal incident had occurred due to overcrowding.

“It seems that the boat had capsized due to overload(ing),” Shahjahan Ali, who led the search and rescue operations, told Arab News.

“We are conducting the operations in a 15-kilometer radius in the surrounding areas of the river. Now our operations are ongoing in some special areas where few of the bodies might have been floating around. Tomorrow we will also continue the search,” he added.

Bangladesh sees hundreds of people die each year in ferry accidents, due to lax safety standards despite extensive inland waterways in the low-lying country.

At least 34 people died in April 2021 after an overcrowded ferry collided with a cargo vessel and sank on the Shitalakhsya River outside the capital Dhaka.


Cancel Africa’s debts as global crises worsen, Mauritanian FM tells UNGA

Cancel Africa’s debts as global crises worsen, Mauritanian FM tells UNGA
Updated 26 September 2022

Cancel Africa’s debts as global crises worsen, Mauritanian FM tells UNGA

Cancel Africa’s debts as global crises worsen, Mauritanian FM tells UNGA
  • Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug urges international community to help Sahel region combat instability, terror
  • Emphasizes Mauritania’s support for ‘sovereignty and dignity’ of the Palestinian people

LONDON: Mauritania’s foreign minister on Monday urged the international community to cancel foreign debt for African nations amid the intensifying global financial crisis.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug also asked for support for the Sahel region in countering terrorism.

He thanked Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for his “diligent efforts aimed at promoting the UN and bolstering its role” amid “very difficult and complex international conditions.”

Merzoug highlighted a perfect storm of issues, from the Russia-Ukraine conflict to the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorism and climate change-related natural disasters, noting how these events are placing disproportionate pressure on poorer countries, especially in Africa.

“These crises, and the economic, social and humanitarian repercussions of them, are unprecedented,” he said, adding how, for instance, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has affected food and fuel supply lines to developing countries.

He praised the international community for work on securing agreements for the shipment of grain through the Black Sea, but called for “ramped up efforts to find solutions that would guarantee peace, security and dignity for all the peoples of the world,” which, he said, should include canceling African debts.

“The Islamic Republic of Mauritania calls upon the international community to fulfil its responsibilities to developing and poor countries, to assist them as quickly as possible to address the challenges threatening their food security as well as to counter other negative effects of these crises,” he said.

Merzoug added that Mauritania has made progress across a raft of issues, including “re-establishing the values of justice, equity, democracy, individual and collective freedoms, the freedom of the press, and the adoption of dialogue and consultation to manage government affairs with participation by civil society.”

He highlighted the country’s efforts to protect human rights by combating human slavery and child trafficking, as well as illegal migration.

He also discussed government programs to support the poor and youngest in society by building schools and medical centers, and providing clean water.

“We have prepared programs to train youth and to empower youth so that they will be positive elements when joining the labor market. We have also worked to promote women’s participation in political life,” he said.

Merzoug added that Mauritania has taken in and provided assistance to 85,000 refugees from neighboring Mali, but called for greater efforts to resist instability and terrorism in the region.

“Mauritania has always taken care to establish an interlocking approach to combating terrorism in all its forms,” he said.

“We believe that the countries of the Sahel represent a key force to resist terrorism and to establish development throughout the region. Here, we call for support for this group of countries as we move and overcome those obstacles they face today.”

Merzoug reiterated Mauritania’s commitment to the environment and renewable energy, saying the country is focused on sustaining 40 percent of its power from “clean, renewable” sources.

He added that Mauritania will make the most of its “enormous natural resources” in wind and solar potential to expand this weighting in the future. 

“We have achieved significant results in our efforts to address desertification through agricultural reforms in those areas that have been affected by droughts,” Merzoug said.

“We are looking to improve our use of water resources and to protect biodiversity. Here, we are very hopeful about COP27, which is to be held in Egypt from Nov. 6-18, and we hope that all states will respect their commitments there.”

Merzoug emphasized his country’s support for the “sovereignty and dignity” of the Palestinian people, calling for a “political solution that maintains Palestine’s territorial integrity and independence.”

He also called for support for the “legitimate powers” in Mauritania’s “brother country” of Yemen, adding: “We call for a peaceful solution.”