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Sweden shutting door on refugees: critics

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08:54 CEST+02:00
Recent decisions by Sweden to send refugees back to Baghdad and other war-ravaged areas have tarnished its reputation for welcoming victims of conflict, critics say.

The Scandinavian country may have taken in more Iraqi refugees than any other western country, but some specialists are worried that the country has begun to harden its line.

"There have been a number of decisions on the right to asylum that we believe really go against Sweden's international obligations," Madeleine Seidlitz, refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty International Sweden, told AFP.

Sweden is widely renowned as one of the world's most humane societies.

Over the past year however, Swedish immigration officials have ruled that the country can legally send rejected asylum seekers back to Iraq, Somalia and parts of Afghanistan, including Kabul. The ruling was based on the argument that there were no internal armed conflicts there.

The authorities also found themselves subjected to widespread criticism recently for sending a man back to Eritrea despite fears he might face persecution there.

"That we in Sweden can through a judicial asylum process reach the conclusion that it is acceptable to send people back to any of these countries is stupefying," said Seidlitz, who is herself a lawyer.

Swedish Migration Minister Tobias Billström has rejected the criticism, pointing out that each individual asylum seeker still has the right to a legal review of his or her application.

"Sweden has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to our process of trying asylum applications," he told AFP. "Sweden has the ambition of being a generous country," he added.

There is no doubt Sweden has been generous. Last year alone, the Scandinavian country received requests for asylum from 18,559 Iraqis, more than 70 percent of whom were allowed to stay, according to figures from Swedish immigration and United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

In comparison, the United States last year took in 1,608 Iraqi refugees, according to campaigning group Refugees International.

Critics however say Sweden's asylum policy has taken a new, more cold-hearted turn following a February 2007 court ruling on how to understand the Swedish legal definition of internal armed conflicts.

In accordance with international law, Sweden automatically offers anyone from areas in the grips of such a conflict the right to stay.

Last year's court decision however held that rebels or opposition forces must hold territory for such a situation to exist.

It paved the way for subsequent rulings that asylum would no longer automatically be granted to Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis.

"The public may consider there is an armed conflict (in these places), but according to Swedish law that is not the case," head of the Swedish Migration Board Dan Eliasson told AFP.

Amnesty's Seidlitz meanwhile charged the immigration agency was "hiding behind semantic interpretations" to send people back to unsafe areas.

Without a recognized internal armed conflict, people seeking protection in Sweden from undeniably brutal conditions in places like Iraq now have to prove they would personally be persecuted or threatened if they returned home.

As a result, the Scandinavian country this year expects its total number of asylum requests to drop to around 25,000 from 36,207 last year.

No statistics are yet available on the total number of granted asylum applications.

But the number of Iraqis allowed to stay has plummeted from more than 80 percent of asylum seekers in 2006, to around 70 percent last year, to just about 25 percent in the first three months of 2008, according to UNHCR figures.

"Sweden has been extremely generous ... and we can understand it wants to plan for (the Iraqis') return, but we think it is still premature," said Hanne Mathiesen, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

When it comes to Afghanistan, the Migration Board has acknowledged that six provinces are in the grips of armed struggle, but argues that people from these areas can be sent to "safer" parts of the country like Kabul.

Critics have poured scorn on this internal refugee solution, insisting a network is vital to anyone living in Afghanistan.

And four lower migration court rulings have since the beginning of the year blocked attempts to send people to Kabul who were not from the Afghan capital.

Ali Muhammad Hassani, a 21-year-old refugee from the central Afghan province of Ghazni who is awaiting expulsion from Sweden, told AFP he was terrified to be sent to the Afghan capital.

"They want to send me to Kabul, but I've never been there. I don't know anyone there," he said. "There is a war in Afghanistan. I'll die if they send me back."

Critics claim the Swedish definition of internal armed conflict is narrower than that understood by international law. And rulings on whether a country is home to an armed conflict are sometimes based on outdated material, they argue.

The Swedish definition of such conflicts "does not conform with international law," Sylvain Vite, a legal advisor to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, told AFP during a visit to Stockholm last week.

The Geneva Convention's definition was broader and included situations where "guerrillas and non-state groups don't have control of a territory," he added.

Thabo Muso, a legal representative for a number of Afghans trying to avoid deportation, argues that their findings were also based on inaccurate information.

The claim that only parts of Afghanistan were unsafe was based on "old information (from 2005, 2006 and early 2007) that is no longer correct," he told AFP.

"The situation in Afghanistan has worsened considerably since the summer of 2007."

"Completely wrong," said Migration Board chief Eliasson.

"I oppose any claim that we have become more restrictive. That is just not true," he insisted.

For Muso however, Swedish immigration policy had taken a radically new and ruthless direction.

"If there is a suicide bomber or someone starts shooting with an automatic weapon into a crowd, it's not you they want to kill. They don't care who they kill, but you're dead anyway. If the risk is too high you simply can't send someone back," he said.

AFP's Nina Larson

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