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The path to Swedish asylum: A smuggler speaks

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16:00 CET+01:00
Rami Abdelrahman travels to Jordan and tracks down the first link in the chain of an underground operation involved in the smuggling of Iraqi refugees to Sweden.

“Immigration services, immigration services,” Jabber calls to Iraqis walking towards the Swedish Embassy in Amman. His office stationery consists of a deck of cheap yellow business cards with a mobile number printed in black. His “company” is called International Immigration Services, or so says the card.

Jabber has stationed himself on the low wall of The Salahuddin Mosque in front of the embassy. He makes petty cash by selling postage stamps, filling out applications and translating Arabic texts into English.

But occasionally Jabber has some big money rolling in, when he arranges for those who fail to get a Swedish visa to fly to the Scandinavian country through a sophisticated smuggling network.

“Business has been regressing in the last year or so,” he tells The Local during an interview at a café in Jabal Al Weibdeh, one of Amman’s seven main hills and “home” to thousands of Iraqi refugees.

Jordan has more than 400,000 Iraqi refugees, according to the latest official study carried out by the Jordanian government in conjunction with Fafo, a Norwegian agency experienced in the compilation of immigration statistics. According to their report, 40 percent of these refugees would like to move to a third country.

Jabber, a middle-aged Jordanian of Palestinian origin, has been in business since the 1980s. He says the highlight of his career was between 2004 and 2006, when he helped more than 80 Iraqis into Europe, each yielding more than $3,000 in revenue.

“We had more routes open for us then and more people interested in fleeing to Europe. We never worked with arranging fake passports, but helped Iraqi passport holders to get to Greece or Italy with their real identification documents,” says Jabber, his words emerging through cigarette smoke and the scent of Turkish coffee.

“Right now there are a few channels left for us to send people into Europe. One is the Bab Al Hawa border point between Syria and Turkey. To get through that point, one has to travel to Syria to meet with two people who are available in the Sayeda Zainab square in central Damascus.

“They run the show in Syria. They ask for about $6,000 for their services since they bribe policemen at border control points in Syria, Turkey, and Greece,” he says.

Jabber says his costs have soared over the past year since Jordan and Syria began tightening their borders with Iraq and requiring Iraqis to acquire visas before allowing them through. The constant exchange of fire between Kurdish rebels (PKK) in the north of Iraq and Turkish forces also made it impossible to smuggle people across that border.

However, those who manage to come into contact with Jabber are offered a “simple plan”.

He asks for cash in advance, before sending different sums to various parts of the network. Once he gets the all-clear, he calls the person to be smuggled and gives them directions to the pick-up location.

“They are driven all the way to Turkey, and from there taken by boat to Greece. In Greece, they have to wait for several days until Albanian boats come in to take them across the sea to Italy.

“On Italian shores they are driven to Germany by car, and then by trucks to Scandinavia.”

He said the trip usually takes up to eight months, by land and sea, if there are no unexpected hurdles.

But the process is not as simple as it sounds, says Ali Abdellahi, a Kurdish-Swede who was smuggled to Sweden via a similar route in the mid-1990s.

Abdellahi was imprisoned with little food by the smugglers in Greece, and had to swim half way to the Italian coast where he was picked up by the local police and taken into a refugee camp (where he was eventually smuggled out by a member of another smuggling network).

But it was worth the risk, says Abdellahi, who gained Swedish citizenship 6 months after his arrival in Enköping, and now has a permanent job in one of Stockholm’s biggest media production companies.

For a “little extra” cost, however, Jabber can save refugees the hassle of life-threatening risks and fly them on first class tickets to Scandinavia.

“We have to send them first to Bangkok or Singapore or other Asian airports to deflect attention.

“They have to pay full price, though. One person refused to pay for the complete package, and he ended up in India instead of Norway,” says Jabber.

In the last two years, police at all European airports have begun asking to see the passports of passengers arriving from the Middle East before they even leave the plane. This is a security measure aimed at stopping those without passports from entering European territory, according to Europol.

Jabber stresses to refugees that they must either rip up or throw away their passports after boarding the plane for their final destination.

“One person kept his passport, and was sent back by the Norwegian police to Bangkok,” he says.

Across the street from Jabber’s office, the Swedish Ambassador in Amman, Tommy Arwitz, says the Swedish authorities are well aware of these techniques and regularly send police to European and Middle Eastern border checkpoints and airports to update airline companies and local authorities on smuggling techniques.

Recent media reports estimate that around 40,000 people made their way into Sweden illegally during 2007. Arwitz says that European laws do not allow European embassies to receive asylum applications on their premises. However, “we have a lot of competence in identifying false passports.”

Jabber currently operates alone in Jordan. Local anti-corruption authorities have recently detained at least two other smugglers. “They were fraudsters,” says Jabber.

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