Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the unrelenting violence in their homeland since the U.S. invasion in 2003—a mass exodus directed primarily to neighboring Arab countries
But a growing tide of Iraqis is seeking shelter and a new start in Europe, where Sweden is emerging as the destination of choice due to relatively lax immigration laws.
The number of Iraqis applying for asylum in the 25 countries of the European Union rose by nearly 50 percent to 7,300 in the first six months of the year, bucking a downward trend in the total number of asylum-seekers, U.N. statistics show.
One-third of them came to Sweden, a country of 9 million people with an Iraqi immigrant community of more than 70,000 which has so far resisted clampdowns on immigration seen elsewhere in the EU.
The latest immigration figures in Sweden show the surge has intensified in recent months. By October, nearly 5,000 Iraqis had sought asylum in the Scandinavian country this year—more than double the total in 2005.
The immigration authority was forced to set up a special unit last month to deal with the case load.
“We’re up to 1,000 per month” in September and October, said Magnus Ryden, a former case worker at Sweden’s Migration Board. “That’s quite a remarkable figure. I think our staff is experiencing a certain overload.”
An additional 3,000 Iraqis this year have applied for residence permits to be reunited with a spouse or parents already living in Sweden.
Experts attributed the surge to changes in Swedish immigration law that have made it easier for Iraqis to gain residence permits, especially those from the most violent areas, such as Baghdad.
Muhannad Yousif said he quit his job as a bodyguard at a government ministry and fled Baghdad after being kidnapped and shot and watching three of his colleagues gunned down within two months in 2005.
Like hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, Yousif initially went to Jordan, where he paid $8,000 to a smuggler who gave him fake travel documents, a plane ticket and promises of a better life in Sweden.
Unlike Sweden, other European countries “are becoming increasingly restrictive,” said Migration Board expert Krister Isaksson, noting Denmark and Britain as examples.
Britain has seen a steady drop in asylum-seekers in recent years, as the government has tightened immigration laws and stepped up border controls. Britain and Poland are the only EU countries to have forcibly returned Iraqis whose asylum applications were rejected, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.
Denmark also has seen a drop in refugees after tightening its asylum laws in 2002. Before the change, some 90 percent of Iraqis who sought asylum were granted shelter in Denmark. The number was down to 7 percent last year.
Despite the growing number of Iraqi refugees arriving in Europe, the overwhelming majority of those who have fled the country have ended up in the Middle East. Some 890,000 Iraqis have moved to Jordan, Iran and Syria since 2003, according to Iraq’s Immigration Minister Abdul-Samad Sultan.
Many who venture to Europe turn to smugglers who provide them with fake passports and travel documents for fees of as much as $10,000, several Iraqis who made the journey said. Some use Eastern European countries as transit points, while others seek to board direct flights to Western European countries from Amman, Damascus or Istanbul, they said.
After Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany were the most popular destinations for Iraqi immigrants this year, but both have adopted stricter policies that make it harder to get residence permits.
Sweden has gone the other way. Last year, Parliament decided to give a second chance to asylum-seekers who were hiding in the country after their applications were rejected. Of 30,000 people who reapplied, about 60 percent were approved, including 5,300 Iraqis.
In addition, the immigration law was changed this year to widen the definition of people considered in need of protection. Now, the general turmoil in their home country is considered a reason to grant protection.