Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 

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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)
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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)
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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 

  • 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.


More attacks will happen, says UK’s top counterterrorism cop

Updated 06 December 2021

More attacks will happen, says UK’s top counterterrorism cop

  • Neil Basu’s warning came during an inquiry into the 2017 bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester
  • ‘I’m going to be very blunt about this: We won’t stop them happening again, they will happen again. We have to try and minimize or reduce the risk,’ he said

LONDON: Britain’s highest-ranking counterterrorism police officer has warned that despite improvements in the ways agencies collaborate to prevent terror attacks, they cannot stop them all and it is inevitable that there will be more.

The comment by Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police Service came on Monday when he appeared at the inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. Twenty-two people were killed, including a number of children, when 22-year-old suicide bomber Salman Abedi detonated an explosive device at an Ariana Grande concert.

Basu, who serves as the National Police Chiefs Council lead for Counter Terrorism Policing, told the inquiry: “The horror of this makes you look very hard at, hopefully, preventing it ever happening again.”

But he added: “I’m going to be very blunt about this: We won’t stop them happening again, they will happen again. We have to try and minimize or reduce the risk and that means constantly trying to have a system that looks at improvement, no matter how busy we are.”

The inquiry into the attack in May 2017 is examining the activities of emergency services, including the police and intelligence agencies, in the lead-up to the attack.

Basu said the results of a joint police and MI5 review of a number of attacks that took place in 2017, including the arena bombing, were “humbling.” That review made 104 recommendations for improvements, four of which remain outstanding.

He added that cross-agency collaboration has improved since 2017 but that more work can yet be done to better align the work of agencies.

“We’re very close but we need to be closer still,” Basu said.

The inquiry also heard from Ian Fenn, the former headteacher of a Manchester school Abedi attended between 2009 and 2011. He said Abedi was not a good student and was, at times, “aggressive and rude” to teachers, and had been suspended for theft and for setting off fireworks.

However, there was “no indication,” Fenn added, that Abedi held extremist views at that time.

“He never came across as somebody who was opinionated, who was driven, that had an agenda,” he told the inquiry. “He was a typically lackluster child who drifted around.”


Pakistan army helicopter crashes in Kashmir; 2 pilots killed

Updated 06 December 2021

Pakistan army helicopter crashes in Kashmir; 2 pilots killed

  • Rescue helicopters and troops have been dispatched to Siachen

ISLAMABAD: A Pakistani army helicopter crashed on Monday in bad weather in the Pakistan-administered section of disputed Kashmir, killing the two pilots on board, the military said.
A statement from the military said the helicopter went down on the Siachen glacier, one of the world’s longest mountain glaciers, located in the Karakoram Range, and often referred to as the “highest battleground on earth” because of the wars that Pakistan and India have fought over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Rescue helicopters and troops have been dispatched to Siachen, the military said. No further details on the crash were immediately available. The two pilots were identified as Maj. Irfan Bercha and Maj. Raja Zeeshan Jahanzeb.
Siachen is known for tragedies, a desolate place where more troops have died from avalanches or bitter cold than in combat. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.


Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines

Updated 06 December 2021

Gunmen kill town mayor, wound another in south Philippines

  • Investigators were trying to identify the two gunmen and two companions who escaped on motorcycles and determine their motive
  • The two mayors were reportedly running in May 9 elections

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines: Motorcycle-riding gunmen killed a town mayor and wounded another in a brazen attack Monday that also killed their driver and caused villagers to flee to safety in a coastal village in the southern Philippines, police said.
Mayor Darussalam Lajid of Al-Barka town was killed and Mayor Alih Sali of Akbar town was wounded by at least two men armed with pistols while walking in Zamboanga city shortly after arriving on a speedboat from their island province of Basilan, police said.
A bodyguard of the two mayors was wounded and a driver who came to pick them up was killed, police said.
Investigators were trying to identify the two gunmen and two companions who escaped on motorcycles and determine their motive, including the possibility that it involved a political rivalry.
The two mayors were reportedly running in May 9 elections. Philippine elections have been marred in the past by bloody feuds and accusations of cheating, especially in rural regions with weak law enforcement and a proliferation of unlicensed firearms and private armies.


Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated

Updated 06 December 2021

Italy imposes new COVID-19 rules on unvaccinated

  • Only those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the rules

ROME: People in Italy unvaccinated against COVID-19 can no longer go to the theater, cinemas, live music venues or major sporting events under new rules that came into force Monday.
Only those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt from the rules, which represent a significant tightening of restrictions in the face of rising infections.
New measures are also being enforced on public transport, with a so-called Green Pass showing proof of vaccination, recent recovery or a negative COVID-19 test now required even on local services.
A man in his 50s was fined $452 (€400) for not having his pass on Monday morning as he got off a bus near Piazza del Popolo in Rome, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“I don’t have it because I wanted to get vaccinated in the next few days,” he was reported as saying.
A record 1.3 million Green Passes were downloaded on Sunday ahead of the change.
Meanwhile in Rome at the weekend, new rules requiring face masks to be worn outdoors in the busiest shopping streets came into effect.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by coronavirus in early 2020 and has one of the highest death tolls, at more than 134,000.
However, it is currently faring better than many of its neighbors, with 15,000 cases out of a population of 60 million reported on Sunday.
Almost 85 percent of over 12s have been vaccinated, a booster campaign is in full swing and jabs will soon be available for younger children.
The Green Pass was introduced in August for access to theaters and cinemas, museums and indoor dining, and extended to workplaces in October — a move that sparked widespread protests.
From now until January 15, a new “Super Green Pass,” which can only be obtained through vaccination or recent recovery, will be required for cultural activities — although not museums — and inside restaurants.
However, having a coffee at the bar of a cafe and eating outside is allowed without a Green Pass.
The restrictions will be further tightened in regions at higher risk of coronavirus.
Currently most of Italy is classed as the lowest of four levels, which range from white to yellow, orange and red.
Two regions are yellow — Friuli Venezia Giulia and Bolzano, which both border Austria, a country in partial lockdown over the number of cases there.


Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus

Updated 06 December 2021

Omicron spreads in India, full vaccination in focus

  • India has fully vaccinated 51 percent of its 944 million adults and given at least one dose to 85 percent
  • Most other cases have been in people who have recently come from abroad

NEW DELHI: Cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have risen to 21 in India over the weekend and people must step up for vaccination, officials said on Monday.
The western state of Rajasthan reported the most number of omicron cases with nine, followed by eight in Maharashtra, two in Karnataka and one each in Gujarat and the capital New Delhi.
“The people of Delhi must get fully vaccinated, wear a mask and maintain social distancing,” its health minister Satyendar Jain said on Twitter.
He said the city’s first omicron patient was being treated at a state-run hospital. Some 94 percent of its adults had received at lease one dose, he added.
The country has fully vaccinated 51 percent of its 944 million adults and given at least one dose to 85 percent. Tens of millions of people, however, are overdue for their second dose despite ample vaccine supplies, government data shows.
India reported its first two omicron cases in the southern state of Karnataka on Thursday, in one person with no recent travel history.
Most other cases have been in people who have recently come from abroad, but doctors said the mutated virus was already spreading in the local population as well.
“omicron is here, community spread is underway,” surgeon Arvinder Singh Soin, who has been treating COVID-19 patients, said on Twitter. “Mask up. Get FULLY vaccinated.”
India reported 8,895 new COVID-19 cases for the past 24 hours, taking the total to 34.64 million. Deaths rose by 211 to 473,537.
Since a record surge in infections and deaths in April and May due to the Delta variant, new cases have hovered around 10,000 in the past few weeks.