SHARE
COPY LINK

IMMIGRATION

The path to Swedish asylum: A smuggler speaks

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.

IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.
 

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
 
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
 
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.” 

SHOW COMMENTS