Six years after his brother was beheaded by Iraqi insurgents, Riyad is still haunted by the memory of identifying the disfigured body and watching the mutilation on a video distributed by the killers.
Yet Riyad now has fresh worries to contend with: the threat of deportation from Sweden, which recently rejected his application for asylum. “They murdered my brother and would have done the same to me,” he told an immigration official in a secretly recorded meeting broadcast on Radio Sweden.
“Yes, I know that,” replied the official. “But it doesn’t count that they might do the same thing to you; you have to prove there is an actual threat.”
Riyad, who worked with his brother on a US army base, was drawn to Sweden by its reputation as the most welcoming European country for Iraqi asylum-seekers, having absorbed tens of thousands in the past decade. In the past two years, however, numbers have dropped sharply as Sweden shows signs of losing patience with its role as champion of refugee rights.
In 2007, 18,559 Iraqis sought asylum in Sweden and nearly three-quarters were accepted. Last year the number arriving was 2,297–and less than a quarter were granted asylum.
The decline can be explained partly by better security in Iraq. But experts say the main factor was a Swedish court ruling in 2008 placing a greater burden on refugees to prove they were in danger.
Tobias Billström, Sweden’s migration minister, insists there was no political involvement in the ruling, but the centre-right government has been quick to stress the court’s message. “Now you have to show there is a real threat,” he says. “You cannot just turn up and say you’re from Iraq.”
The tougher approach is welcomed by some Swedes, amid unease over the changing face of their traditionally homogenous society. More than a tenth of the population is now foreign-born, with Iraqis among the largest group.
Anti-immigration sentiment could make itself felt in next month’s general election, with opinion polls suggesting the far-right Sweden Democrats could win their first seat in parliament.
Few places feel the tension more than Södertälje, an industrial town where 8,000 Iraqis live, many in high-rise ghettos. Anders Lago, the town’s Social Democratic mayor, says the strain on public services is unsustainable. “We need a new system. Södertälje cannot take care of everybody.”
Behind Sweden’s new approach lies frustration that other European Union states have not taken more refugees. Before the ruling, Sweden received about 60 per cent of Iraqi asylum applications in the EU.
If Stockholm is sending a message to other countries, critics say it has come at a heavy price for vulnerable refugees. It was among four European nations recently rebuked by the UNHCR for forcibly deporting asylum-seekers to Iraq despite the continuing violence.
Mikael Ribbenvik, director of legal affairs for the Swedish migration board, said his agency had issued new recommendations to take account of persecution of minorities in Iraq–a sign, perhaps, Sweden is anxious not to let its humanitarian halo slip too far. But this may be too late for Riyad, who says he would be at risk in Iraq not only because of his past ties to the US military, but also his Christian faith. “I don’t have to remain here,” he told Radio Sweden. “Just send me anywhere in the world–except Iraq.”