Asylum seekers’ perilous path to Sweden

Syrians risk their lives and their life savings to reach one of the few EU countries welcoming them.

Sweden allows Syrian refugees with permanent residence status to bring their families [GALLO/GETTY]

Stockholm, Sweden Over the past two years, Hussein witnessed the horrors of war in his hometown of Damascus. But the most frightening moment of his life did not come in Syria. Rather, it was during a stormy night in the Mediterranean Sea, when the small fishing boat carrying him and 15 other Syrians from Turkey to Greece was overturned by the waves.

Hussein – whose real name, like those of the other Syrians interviewed for this article, have been concealed for their families’ safety – managed to survive by swimming back to the capsized ship and holding on, in the frigid water, until the Greek coast guard rescued him. He said at least one of the other Syrians on board drowned.

The 24-year-old dentist recalled the terrifying experience while sitting in the warm reception centre of the Swedish Migration Board, in a Stockholm suburb. He feels lucky. He has reached one of the only European Union countries that promises Syrian refugees permanent residence.

Hussein’s journey to Sweden was dangerous and expensive. The only way for individuals to apply for asylum in Sweden – or anywhere else in the Schengen area – is to enter that country unlawfully. More than 23,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in Sweden since January 2012, and they all either entered with forged documents or by infiltrating an EU border. Sweden does not penalise asylum seekers who enter illegally, based on Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.

Let me tell you something maybe not a lot of people know. The rich people - they escape. The poor people who deserve to escape - they can't.

by - Khassan, Syrian asylum seeker

Hussein’s trip to Stockholm began with a car ride from Damascus to Beirut, where he boarded a flight to Istanbul. Following other Syrians he met, Hussein headed west to the coastal town of Bodrum, located 24 kilometres from the Greek island of Kos. The next step was sneaking in to Europe.

He paid a Turkish smuggler $2,750 for the 30-minute boat ride to Kos, the trip that left him stranded in the sea, clinging to life. He was sent directly to a detention centre after being rescued. After being freed, Hussein travelled to Athens and paid $2,000 for a fake Spanish passport and a plane ticket to Stockholm. The badly fabricated document, however, was exposed at the airport and he was not allowed to board the flight. With no other recourse, Hussein took a ferry to Italy, and then paid $2,000 for a 30-hour car ride with several other Syrians from Milan to Stockholm, finally arriving in the country on December 14.

“My family is in Syria – my parents, my brother and my two sisters. They stay there because they cannot go through the difficult ways to come here. It is very dangerous,” Hussein told Al Jazeera after applying for asylum. “If countries open the door for Syrians to come in a straight way, then many people will come.”

High-cost smuggling

The people Hussein is referring to are currently either in Syria or in overcrowded refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The high number of refugees fleeing Syria make it one of the largest exoduses from one country in recent history, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. But only those who with financial means can afford to leave the region and attempt to reach the welcoming but distant northern European countries.

The high costs of human trafficking have separated Khassan, a 28-year-old from Aleppo who arrived in Sweden in early November, from his wife and two children. The price tag for smuggling one person from Aleppo to Stockholm – $22,000 according to Khassan – made it impossible for the entire family to travel, so he left his loved ones behind and made the trip alone.

“Let me tell you something maybe not a lot of people know. The rich people – they escape. The poor people who deserve to escape – they can’t,” Khassan said. “I hoped that I could bring my wife and my children with me, but I didn’t have enough money for everyone.”

He chose Sweden because it is the one country that has publicly declared that those Syrian refugees who are granted permanent residence will be allowed to bring over their spouses and children. Khassan’s plan is to apply for family reunification as soon as his asylum application is approved. For now, he is sharing a hotel room with three other Syrian asylum seekers, free accommodation provided by the Swedish Migration Board. He spends most of his days on the internet, following websites and Facebook contacts for any news coming out of Aleppo.

It takes the Migration Board an average of three months to make a decision on an asylum application. For Khassan, whose family is waiting in a war zone, this seems like an eternity. But he is grateful, well-aware that most other countries provide Syrians only a temporarily right of residence, which does not give them the right to family reunification.

EU’s ‘shame’

Sweden, which has traditionally held an open-door policy towards individuals escaping persecution or violence, is now facing the largest wave of asylum seekers since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Despite accommodating refugee policies in Sweden and Germany, the EU as a whole has played a very limited role in the Syrian crisis, taking in only 0.5 percent of the 2.3 million people who have fled Syria.

The EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives. Across the board European leaders should hang their heads in shame.

by - Salil Shetty, Amnesty International

“The EU has failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary-general. “Across the board European leaders should hang their heads in shame.”

In a recently published op-ed, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Anders Danielsson, general director of the Swedish Migration Board, jointly called on European Union member states to “focus less on protecting borders and more on protecting people, and to turn into action their commitments for more solidarity and burden-sharing with the countries in the Middle East that host the vast majority of Syrian refugees”.

In an interview at the Swedish Migration Board’s office in Stockholm’s international airport, Danielsson stressed the urgency of the situation. “You have to give people a chance to get to Europe,” he said. “Otherwise they will seek other ways to get to Europe – across the Mediterranean – and then you put people into very dangerous situations. We all know what happened outside Lampedusa.”

To minimise human trafficking and limit the dangers asylum seekers face on their way to Europe, Danielsson suggests resettlement, which involves the transfer of refugees from camps in countries bordering Syria to host countries around the world.

The United Nations’ refugee agency has formed a core group of states – chaired by Sweden – whose goal is to promote international resettlement for up to 30,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. To date, 20 countries have confirmed pledges for resettling Syrian refugees, totalling more than 18,000 places. Danielsson is hoping more nations will join to create a global effort.

“We have to get used to the situation that we have. This is not a situation that will suddenly disappear,” he said. “Syria’s war might possibly or hopefully disappear, but in a couple of years somewhere else in the world – perhaps in the neighbourhood of Sweden – we will have a new crisis, so we have to have a continuous plan for receiving refugees.”

Follow Yermi Brenner on Twitter: @yermibrenner

Source: Al Jazeera