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The hidden lives of Sweden’s undocumented migrants

Faisal Enayat Khan · 9 Jul 2008, 15:02

Published: 09 Jul 2008 15:02 GMT+02:00

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Ahmad curses the mess that is his life as he winds his way down the narrow spiral staircase of the three-storey building he has been working in for the last two weeks. The 28-year-old building contractor from Afghanistan has been eking out an existence outside the system ever since his most recent asylum application was rejected by the Swedish authorities last year.

The Migration Board made it clear that his country was sufficiently secure to permit his safe return. But Ahmad scoffs at the notion and says he has decided to live and die in Sweden.

“The Migration Board says that we have an army and police. I hope they understand that these are the same guys who have taken part in the 30 year old Afghan war; they have just changed their brand name from Mujahedin to National Army or National Police Force,” he tells The Local.

Ahmad came to Sweden as an asylum seeker when his father was killed by the victorious Mujahedin, who assumed control of the security situation in Afghanistan after the US led coalition smashed the hard line Taliban regime in late 2001.

“They killed my father because he was an honest civil servant and did not share the ideas they had,” he tells The Local.

“If they had found me they would definitely have killed me too.”

After almost two years spent passing through various countries at the hands of human smugglers, he finally reached Sweden in 2004 and applied for asylum.

But the Swedish Migration Board rejected his application. Writing to him in late 2005, the board said it did not believe that Ahmad’s life would be in danger if he was sent back to Afghanistan. The country had become more stable, the letter read, and there were thousands of foreign troops to help police its more lawless territories.

Ahmad is one of around six hundred Afghans who have chosen to live in hiding after the Migration Board threatened them with deportation. Their fate shared by an estimated 15,000 foreign nationals living in Sweden as undocumented migrants.

Ahmad’s situation was not always this bleak. Between November 2005 and March 2006, the then Social Democratic-led government introduced a temporary amnesty making it possible for around 30,000 migrants to have their asylum applications reassessed under more generous terms than was previously the case.

The amnesty covered both migrants who had been living in hiding, as well as those whose applications had been rejected but were stuck in Sweden because of unrest in their home countries or a lack of cooperation from authorities in their home countries in carrying out Sweden's deportation orders.This resulted in the granting of 13,051 permanent residence permits and 4,282 one-year permits.

Ahmad managed to secure a one-year residence permit in the spring of 2006, along with a promise that the board would review his case again a year later.

Relieved at having received permission to remain in Sweden, Ahmad set up a construction firm, rented a house and began developing a social network.

“Life was great,” he says. “I felt like a human being again after a very long and difficult time in my life.”

But the glorious year passed quickly and in the summer of 2007 Ahmad received a letter from the Migration Board stating that it was preparing to review his case.

“I knew nothing good would come of it. So I abandoned my apartment, fired my employees, sold my truck and went into hiding,” he says.

His prognosis proved correct: the Migration Board revoked his residence permit and advised him to return to Afghanistan or face forced deportation.

Ever since the board decided to review his application, Ahmad has been living in a three room rental apartment in the suburbs with six of his similarly “illegal” countrymen.

Though Ahmad is better off than his flatmates, the jobs he takes do not pay well and sometimes he is not paid at all. But he earns enough to feed himself and, when needs must, some of his compatriots.

“We are all in the same boat,” he says.

As the bus from work weaves it ways through a wealthy suburban neighbourhood, Ahmad points out a brown apartment building that houses the clinic he visits if ever he gets sick. The clinic, which is run by Doctors of the World, is open once a week from 7pm to 9pm.

A few days after meeting Ahmad, The Local returns to the clinic, where other migrants struggle to deal with their own personal dramas.

Patients sit on a red corner sofa in a room at the end of an orange and off-white hallway. On the wall hangs a large portrait of the Hindu deity Krishna. A group of toddlers play with some old toys and a box full of Lego. The room is separated by a divider, on the other side of which sits a woman with bright green eyes and a broad smile.

“Welcome to the asylum corner,” says Karolina Johansson, one of the clinic’s consultants.

She explains that the clinic provides undocumented migrants with more than just medical care; they are also offered free survival tips and asylum consultation.

“We basically inform people who live in hiding how to avoid situations which could endanger their lives,” says Johansson.

But just as she runs through the clinic’s sundry services, a young man approaches and imparts some bad news.

“Hi Karolina,” he says. “Did you hear about those seven Afghans who were taken by the police from the food factory?”

“No!” says Johansson, visibly upset by the news.

The men in question were arrested by the Swedish Border Police on June 4th at a food processing plant in the suburbs of Stockholm following an unsuccessful appeal to the Migration Court.

Ahmad is furious when he hears about the raid later. He directs his anger not at the police but at his fellow countrymen.

“They should have known better than to work in a place for which the police have the address,” he says.

Story continues below…

“Look at me. I abandoned my own business just to avoid arrest.”

Back in the clinic, the drama continues to unfold.

One woman is there to renew her ageing mother’s prescriptions, while a Serbian man tells a lawyer that his son will never make a full recovery if his family is deported.

A couple from Azerbaijan have brought in their three-year-old daughter Alex in the hope of finding a doctor who can help cure her of a respiratory ailment that has been keeping them all awake at night.

Alex’s parents have lived in Sweden for 4 years, two and a half of which have been spent in hiding.

“Of course it is hard to live here the way we do, but the consequences of going back home make the difficulties we face here pale into insignificance,” says the girl’s father.

Most of the undocumented migrants are encouraged by the clinic to stay on in Sweden in the hope of securing an amnesty, or at last until the statute of limitations permits asylum seekers to apply anew.

“There is always hope at the end of the tunnel,” says Karolina Johansson.

But both Ahmad and the patients at the clinic hold out little hope of emerging from their hiding places until 2010 at the earliest; Migration Minister Tobias Billström has said there will be no amnesty for refugees during the current term.

Editors Note: The original version of this article contained a lack of specificity regarding Sweden's temporary amnesty program from 2005 to 2006. The current version of the article contains updated information.

Faisal Enayat Khan (news@thelocal.se)

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