Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 

 An Afghan family heads to freedom as part of a major airlift at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in August, 2021. (AFP)
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An Afghan family heads to freedom as part of a major airlift at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in August, 2021. (AFP)
Refugees from Afghanistan arrive in small boats on the shores of Lesbos near Skala Skamnias, Greece on June 2, 2015.(AFP file photo)
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Refugees from Afghanistan arrive in small boats on the shores of Lesbos near Skala Skamnias, Greece on June 2, 2015.(AFP file photo)
Housing shortages and rising crime levels have led to a hardening of attitudes in Scandinavian countries, including Sweden. (AFP)
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Housing shortages and rising crime levels have led to a hardening of attitudes in Scandinavian countries, including Sweden. (AFP)
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Updated 19 October 2021

Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 

Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 
  • Anticipated influx coincides with hardening attitudes toward asylum-seekers in Sweden, Denmark and Norway
  • Housing shortages, street crime and poor integration blamed for Scandinavian coolness toward refugee admissions

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: As Europe braces for a steady influx of Afghan refugees fleeing the return of the Taliban and economic chaos, a recent shift in political rhetoric suggests that Scandinavian countries are less willing to help asylum-seekers now than they were in 2015, when they offered sanctuary to tens of thousands of displaced Syrians.

More than 123,000 Afghan civilians were evacuated from Kabul airport by US forces and their coalition partners between August 15, when the Taliban seized the capital, and August 31, when the last foreign troops left strife-torn Afghanistan.

Many of those who fled were taken to emergency processing centers in Spain, Germany, Qatar and Uzbekistan. The UN has warned that up to half a million Afghans could flee their country by the end of the year, with many looking to Europe as a potential sanctuary.




Afghans desperately try to board a departing US military cargo plane at Kabul Airpoirt in September when the Taliban sized control of the country. (AFP file photo)

However, opinions in the once welcoming Scandinavian states of northern Europe appear to have changed over the past six years, with the people there increasingly reluctant to open the doors to asylum-seekers.

“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 newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Aug. 18, three days after the Taliban seized Kabul.

Indeed, as the situation in Afghanistan again brings the issue of European asylum policy to the fore, attitudes across Scandinavia appear to be hardening.

“Denmark first went down the nationalist-populist road, followed by Norway,” Swedish socialist MP Ali Esbati, who long predicted Sweden would follow suit, told Arab News.

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

Even before the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan, more than 550,000 people in the country were forced to flee their homes this year due to fighting, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. In addition to the deteriorating security situation, Afghans have also been contending with a severe drought and food shortages, leading to huge levels of internal displacement.

In 2020 almost 1.5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and about 780,000 to Iran, according to UNHCR. Germany was third on the list of destinations, with 180,000 Afghans heading there, while Turkey took in 130,000.

Following the fall of Kabul, by early last month about 125,000 Afghans had applied for asylum in Turkey, 33,000 in Germany and 20,000 in Greece.

French authorities have indicated they will accept some refugees but have not specified how many. German authorities also did not specify a number but Chancellor Angela Merkel said 40,000 people still in Afghanistan might have the right to seek asylum in Germany.


Read the first part of the report: No country for asylum-seekers 


The UK said it will take in 5,000 Afghans this year as part of a scheme to resettle 20,000 over the next few years. Austria, Poland and Switzerland said they will not accept any Afghan refugees and have been actively bolstering border security to prevent attempts to enter the countries illegally.

As for Scandinavia, the picture is unclear. Having earned praise for accepting thousands of Syrians at the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015-16, authorities in Sweden, Norway and Denmark appear less willing to bear the burden this time. In fact, the governments of the three nations have not guaranteed even those Syrians already granted asylum the right to remain.




Housing shortages and rising crime levels have led to a hardening of attitudes in Scandinavian countries, including Sweden. (AFP)

This increasingly unwelcoming attitude appears to have developed for a number of reasons, including a shortage of housing and a feeling of embitterment toward other EU member states who have failed to accept their share of responsibility for refugees.

A rise in crime is also a factor. In Sweden, for example, first- and second-generation migrants are overrepresented in crime statistics. While the Swedish National Council on Crime Prevention has repeatedly cautioned that there is a difference between correlation and causation, immigration and crime are nevertheless now inextricably linked in the minds of many voters.

The same is true in Denmark. In Copenhagen, social media influencer and political hopeful Hussain Ali said it is time to break with the cultural trait of “berøringsfrygt,” which translates as a “fear of touching” sensitive topics.




Fans greet and fist-bump Hussain Ali (left), with Copenhagen City Hall in the background. (Supplied)

Ali, a Dane of Iraqi heritage, is running for a seat in the city assembly on a conservative ticket. His impassioned social media posts railing against the failures of integration regularly attract thousands of likes. He recently suggested that all non-citizens convicted of crimes should be deported.

“There are so many young people who live in a bubble of resentment toward Denmark because they feel alienated,” he told Arab News. “They are stuck between Danish culture and the culture of their parents’ home countries.

“I tell them that if they brought their anti-social attitude back to Syria, for example, they would not last more than a minute without being punished. In the Middle East, you respect your elders — that’s part of their heritage that their parents should be teaching them.

“They are also creating damaging stereotypes and prejudice. Many of my friends are judged based on their skin color. People make assumptions about me at first sight.”

INNUMBERS

123,000 - Afghan civilians evacuated from Kabul airport, August 15-31.

1,200 - Afghans deported from the EU in the first half of 2021.

While some might consider Ali a firebrand or an upstart, his message has clearly struck a chord with many. When he walks around Copenhagen he is regularly fist-bumped by young supporters. But not all of the attention he receives is positive.

As he sat outside a kebab shop during our interview, a young man who appeared to have an immigrant background shouted at him: “You’ve sold your soul.” Ali tensed up but remained seated.

“That guy is probably just frustrated and stuck in a situation where he doesn’t have an outlet for his creativity and ambition, despite all the opportunities in Denmark,” he said later.




Syrian refugees react to Denmark's decision to repatriate, initiating a sit-in in front of Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark. (AFP File/Getty Images)

Although the hardening of attitudes in Sweden and Norway has been less marked than it has been in Denmark, the mood is clearly swinging in a similar direction.

“The trajectory is quite typical, really,” said Esbati, the Swedish MP. “First a nationalist-populist party starts banging its one-issue drums on migration.

“Then it gets some sort of breakthrough in the media and in elections, followed by the conservative parties moving toward the (nationalist-populist) position. And finally the social-democrats and other left-leaning parties shift over time in the same direction.”

On June 23, the Swedish parliament approved a new immigration bill that makes temporary residency permits the norm, just like the Danish system.




Danish flags wave in the spire of the Danish Parliament building in Copenhagen. Denmark has gone down the nationalist-populist road, rejecting asylum seekers from Afghanistan. (AFP file photo)

“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, said during a recent appearance on national radio. “We have to start by decreasing immigration.”

As European states wrestle with their collective conscience about how best to balance their duty to protect vulnerable civilians with a desire to preserve their national identities, the growing appeal of the populist right in Scandinavia and elsewhere can only reduce the options available to Afghans who are too frightened to return home.

The stories of Syrians with firsthand experience of the welcome mat being pulled out form under them do not inspire confidence.

Hamdi and Sama Al-Samman were threatened by the Syrian regime at the end of 2011 for giving food, clothes and blankets to internally displaced families in their native Damascus.

“I knew we’d get in trouble,” Sama said. “But I couldn’t avoid helping those families.”




Hamdi Al-Samman arrived in Denmark in October 2014 after fleeing the Syrian regime. (Supplied)

She added that she began sleeping in her clothes in case the family had to flee in the middle of the night. When the situation became untenable in January 2013, the couple took their three children to Egypt.

From there, Hamid, an electrician by trade, headed to Europe, arriving in Denmark in October 2014.

“We chose Denmark because it would take just one year for the children and me to join him,” Sama said. “In Sweden, the family reunification process would take longer.”

Hamdi found work easily and, since joining him, Sama has been studying Danish so she can work in the preschool education system. Their daughter, Noor, who is in her final year of high school, wants to become an architect.

“Denmark has an amazing emphasis on education,” said Sama. “Our children have opportunities here that they would never have in Syria. Our daughter has opportunities because of gender equality.”

The family’s relief was short-lived, however. In January this year, Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s prime minister, said her goal is to reduce the number of asylum-seekers to zero. A few months later, the Al-Sammans were informed that their temporary residency permits will not be renewed. They are appealing against the decision.


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 10 sec ago

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

India reports highest COVID-19 fatalities since July as states update tallies
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 35 min 57 sec ago

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.”