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

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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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

  • 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.


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

Updated 28 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

JEDDAH: Fears mounted on Saturday that a highly infectious new COVID-19 strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new
omicron variant.

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern.”

South Korea, Australia, and Thailand joined the US, Brazil, Canada, and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations.

The Saudi Interior Ministry and authorities in the UAE said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry.

They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries. But foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the Kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the Kingdom will allow direct entry to travelers from all countries who have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting next Saturday. The ministry added the travelers would need to quarantine for three days.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The WHO on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it omicron.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the Foreign Ministry said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.


Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Updated 28 November 2021

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

  • Manila imposes new travel curbs over omicron variant fears

MANILA: The Philippines has imposed new restrictions and is considering expanding its travel ban to include new countries, officials said on Saturday, amid concerns over the emergence of the new omicron COVID-19 strain.
The new variant was reported to the World Heath Organization from South Africa earlier this week. It has already been detected in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The organization on Friday declared the new variant, dubbed omicron, as being “of concern” — the most serious category the agency uses for tracking outbreaks.
The announcement came as the Philippines said that it would start accepting vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries from Dec. 1, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the update, Manila moved to ban inbound travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. On Saturday, acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a statement the ban “shall take effect immediately and until Dec. 15.”
Dr. Beverly Ho, director at the health promotion and control bureau, told reporters the list of banned destinations may be expanded further.
“There is already an ongoing discussion, and expect that there will be developments,” she said in a press briefing.
“The decision will be based on the data that we will get,” she added, saying that the response to any infectious disease “always starts with strict border controls.”
As the omicron variant has been reported in Hong Kong, home to more than 232,000 Filipino expats, many of whom will be heading home for Christmas holidays, Ho said that restrictions on travel from the region are now under discussion.
Since the WHO’s preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of infection with the omicron strain, Philippines media have been quoting health experts as urging caution to keep the country’s caseload in check.
“If omicron has many mutations, we presume that the behavior of this virus is more transmissible compared to the delta variant,” Dr. Rontgene Solante from the Philippine College of Physicians said, as quoted by the local media.
The number of COVID-19 infections in the Philippines has been steadily falling since mid-September, when the country was recording more than 26,000 new cases per day due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
For the past few days, the country has been recording fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, with 899 reported on Saturday.


Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Updated 28 November 2021

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed local authorities on Saturday to increase their COVID-19 preparedness and review the country’s reopening for foreign arrivals, amid global concerns over the emergence of a new coronavirus strain.
The emergence of the omicron variant comes as India has managed to control the outbreak after facing a deadly COVID-19 wave which, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, killed over 450,000 people between March and May.
The South Asian nation announced on Friday it would reopen for international flights from Dec. 15, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19. On Saturday, Modi requested that the reopening plan be reviewed.
“PM asks officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence,” his office said in a statement.
Modi also requested that technical support be provided to regions reporting high numbers of new infections and ordered coordination to ensure the proper functioning of oxygen plants and ventilators.
As India has so far fully vaccinated some 35 percent of its 1.3 billion population, the prime minister’s office said he had told officials to accelerate second-dose coverage.
Authorities in Mumbai, the financial center and industrial hub of India, have already announced that inbound passengers from South Africa will be quarantined on arrival and those who test positive for COVID-19 will have their samples sent for genome sequencing.
“There are concerns in Mumbai about the new variant of coronavirus,” Mumbai mayor Kishori Pednekar told reporters on Saturday. “There is an increased risk of COVID-19 in other nations, so those coming from abroad will have to undergo genome test.”
Prof. Rama V. Baru, epidemiologist at the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said genomic sequencing may prove crucial in containing the spread and that a strategy to implement it should be introduced by the Indian Council of Medical Research — the country’s top medical research body.
“Testing can be done, but after testing you need to know what is the variant. For that you need genomic sequencing,” she told Arab News. “There has to be a design by which the ICMR comes up with a protocol because they have a network of institutions in different parts of the country. We need to be proactive and quick before the number of patients increases. Once the number increases, our capacity for genomic sequencing is very limited.”


Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Updated 27 November 2021

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

NAIROBI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greatly concerned about Ethiopia’s military escalation and called for urgent negotiations over the crisis, a US State Department spokesperson said.
The comments came hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared on the frontline with the national army.
“Secretary Blinken expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation in Ethiopia and emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations,” Ned Price said in a statement late on Friday.
Price released the statement after a phone call between Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Blinken.
On Friday, Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported that Abiy was on the frontline with the army fighting rebellious Tigrayan forces in the northeastern Afar region. Abiy posted the same video on his Twitter account.
Abiy’s government has been fighting Tigrayan forces for more than a year, in a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Ethiopia has announced new restrictions on the sharing of information about the war in the north of the country which stipulate that battlefront updates can only come from the government.
“Disseminating information on military maneuvers, war front updates and results via any medium is forbidden,” except for information provided by a joint civilian-military command set up to oversee a state of emergency, the government’s communication service said late on Thursday.
The statement did not specify the implications of the new rules for journalists or media outlets covering the war, which broke out last November between the government and rebellious forces from the northern region of Tigray.
It did not, for instance, address the consequence of publishing information provided by unauthorized sources. Ethiopia’s media regulator did not return calls from Reuters seeking clarification on the matter.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told Reuters on Friday, “The state of emergency prohibits unauthorized entities from disseminating activities from the front via various channels including media.” She did not elaborate.
Ethiopia’s parliament designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that controls most of Tigray, a terrorist group earlier this year. In its statement, the government’s communication service instructed “those using freedom of speech as a pretext ... to support the terrorist group” to refrain from doing so.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversaw sweeping reforms when he took office in 2018, including the unbanning of more than 250 media outlets, the release of dozens of journalists and the repeal of some widely criticized media laws.
However, some rights groups say press freedom has eroded since then as the government has faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including the conflict in Tigray and neighbouring regions.
At least 38 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, most of them since the conflict began, according to a Reuters tally.
Asked about the arrests in May, Ethiopia’s media regulator said “freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.”


Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM

Updated 27 November 2021

Taliban regime won’t ‘interfere’ in other countries’ affairs: PM

  • Mohammad Hassan Akhund: ‘We ask all the international charity organizations to not withhold their aid and to help our exhausted nation’
  • Inflation and unemployment have surged in Afghanistan, while the country’s banking sector has collapsed since the Taliban takeover

KABUL: The Taliban co-founder and now prime minister of Afghanistan Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund pledged Saturday that his government will “not interfere” in other countries’ internal affairs, and urged international charities to continue offering aid to the war-ravaged country.
Hassan’s audio speech broadcast on state television — his first address to the nation since the Taliban seized power in August — came ahead of next week’s meeting between the United States and the Taliban in Doha.
“We assure all the countries that we will not interfere in their internal affairs and we want to have good economic relations with them,” said Hassan in a nearly 30-minute speech that came amid criticism on social media for remaining silent since they took power, even as the nation faced severe challenges.
The Taliban seized power on August 15 after ousting the previous US-backed government, as Washington hurriedly withdrew its troops from the country after a 20-year war.
The Taliban’s previous regime was toppled in a US-led invasion after the 9/11 attacks in the United States that were carried out by Al-Qaeda, whose now-killed founder Osama bin Laden lived in Afghanistan at that time.
Hassan is a Taliban veteran who was a close associate and political adviser to Mullah Omar, the founder of the movement and its first supreme leader.
Said to be in his 60s, Hassan served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in the movement’s previous regime between 1996-2001.
He was placed on a UN Security Council sanctions list connected to the “acts and activities” of the Taliban.
Hassan’s government faces a series of challenges, in particular reviving the country’s dilapidated economy that has been dried of international aid, which used to make up 75 percent of the national budget under the previous US-backed governments.
“We ask all the international charity organizations to not withhold their aid and to help our exhausted nation... so that the problems of the people could be solved,” Hassan said in his speech.
Inflation and unemployment have surged in Afghanistan, while the country’s banking sector has collapsed since the Taliban takeover.
The financial crunch was aggravated after Washington froze about $10 billion of assets held in its reserve for Kabul, and deteriorated further after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund halted Afghanistan’s access to funding.
The United Nations’ aid agencies have warned that a major humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Afghanistan, with more than half of the country’s 38 million population expected to face hunger this winter.
The rapidly worsening situation has forced Afghans to sell their household goods to raise money for food and other essentials, with the local currency crashing and prices skyrocketing.