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16 Dec, 2008 04:33

Trying to fit in: Iraqi refugees in Sweden

It's ten years since the U.S. led military operation ‘Desert Fox’ was launched in Iraq. Since then four million Iraqis have fled the country. More than 80,000 have found a safe haven in Sweden, but what are their chances of integrating into Swedish society?

In pursuit of a new life away from the hourly dangers of life on the streets of Baghdad, thousands of refugees have parted company with their loved ones, in the hope of a new beginning and with only the tenuous hope that they may be reunited.

Ahmed is one such case.  He left behind a career as a lawyer, his family and friends.  But now, after 18 months of uncertainty, he’s been granted residency in Sweden, and is excited at the possibility of bringing out his family.  He says the possibility of a new life justified the perilous journey he made to get out of Iraq.

“It was just a wooden motor boat of about ten meters long,” Ahmed said, “There were about seventy people in it. We spent about five days in the sea. It’s impossible to describe those five days without food and water”.

Those that make it to Sweden find themselves placed in camps, for what can seem a torturously long decision making process.

“We've lived here for over a year already, and we don't have the residence permit yet,” a refugee woman said. “We left the country illegally, travelling by sea through Turkey. We almost lost our child”.

They are free to travel around Sweden, are paid an allowance, and are given the opportunity to study. But residency is by no means guaranteed, and permanent residence in Sweden is being increasingly restricted, meaning that fewer than 40% will succeed.

“The problem is that the majority of the Iraqis have been given a decision of deportation,” says Aram Bovary, Director of the Swedish Migration Board, “However, we decided to give the residence permit to about 30-40% of them. Two or three years ago this group was larger, about 80-90%.”

Some people have had to wait up to five or six years for an answer. But the Immigration Service intends to speed up the process so that it takes no longer than 6 months. But what is their future even if they get that vital yes? Is it as rosy as they expect?

Whalid Al Mektadi, a documentary film maker, who’s lived in Sweden for almost two decades says integration can be hard.  He’s met many Iraqi immigrants working in jobs which do not make full potential of their skills and qualifications. University professors and doctors eke out a living as taxi drivers.

“When a professor is driving a taxi, I think it hurts,” said Whalid Al Mektadi. “I am very appreciative to this society, to Sweden, it is a wonderful country, but this is something we can’t deal with, we are different, and our dream is more than getting a job like taxi driver”.