The former refugee working with asylum seekers

After a family history of forced migration, Haneen Abdel Khaleq is now dedicated to helping others in similar situations.

The former refugee working with asylum seekers
Haneen is now working as a Protection Officer in Lebanon. Photo: Malmö University

Haneen and her family were living in Kuwait when the Gulf War erupted in 1990, forcing them to flee along with an exodus of other Palestinians. By the time she was ten, she had already moved from Syria to Jordan to Qatar, before finally settling in Australia.

As an adult, Haneen began working with Palestinian refugees in Jordan and knew straight away she’d found her calling.

Then, at the height of the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe, she was offered a scholarship to study International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö University.

“At that point there were lots of people arriving in Sweden from places like Syria, and a lot of conversations going on around refugees and asylum seekers,” she says.

Find out more about the International Migration and Ethnic Relations programme at Malmö University

“Being in Malmö, I could see the effects of war on displacement and the movement of people firsthand, and could then go to class where we learned about it and discussed it in an academic way.”

She adds that learning alongside other international students from places like Africa, Asia, and the Middle East enriched her experience as a master’s student in Malmö.

“We could share our different experiences and opinions on the kind of things that were going on. That diversity was really valuable.”

Photo: Malmö University

Haneen is currently finishing her thesis while working as a Protection Officer in Lebanon, where she describes the situation for Syrian refugees as bleak.

“There are so many issues that refugees face in Lebanon; a lot to do with practical things, like their legal papers. It’s devastating to see the situation going from bad to worse, and people even considering going back to Syria,” she says.

Dealing with such heavy issues on a day-to-day basis might take its toll emotionally but, as Haneen points out, learning to cope is a process.

“When I started working with refugees five years ago it was often really difficult. People would tell me that living in limbo was making them feel suicidal. For me, receiving a lot of support from the places I’ve worked has helped, and over time it’s become easier and I’ve learned to deal with it.”

Her goal for the future is to bring about changes to migration policies, but for now Haneen says she is most comfortable on the ground, interacting with people.

“It might be a bit cliché, but the most important thing to me is to make some sort of difference, even if it’s in a small way. These people are going through what may be the worst period of their lives, and I want to support them in all the ways I can.”

Haneen’s interest in migration has understandably stemmed, in part, from her personal experience as a Palestinian Australian.

Reflecting on her outlook, she says learning about things like the economy, migration flows, and integration while at Malmö University has allowed her to think more practically about ongoing injustices and how she can make a change.

“I think I see things less emotionally these days and more pragmatically. Having seen firsthand how terribly asylum seekers are treated in Australia, I know that improving the situation for them is something I’ll always advocate.”

Studying at Malmö University was an important part of Haneen’s journey towards supporting others, as well as helping her to come to terms with certain parts of her own life and identity.

“My studies helped me to understand that my identity doesn’t have to be so rigid,” she explains.

“Who I am doesn’t have to be based on being either Australian or Palestinian. I’ve lived in so many countries up until now and the more I learn and experience, the freer I feel to live and identify the way that I want.”

This article has been produced by The Local Client Studio and is sponsored by Malmö University.


Swedish Iranians complain of ‘drastic drop’ in visas for relatives

Iranians living in Sweden are complaining that relatives are no longer being granted visas to visit, causing pain and heartbreak for one of Sweden's most established immigrant communities.

Swedish Iranians complain of 'drastic drop' in visas for relatives

“This has affected our community very greatly,” Kamran Chabokdavan, spokesperson for the Swedish-Iranian interest group, or Intresseföreningen för Svensk-Iranska frågor, told The Local. “There’s so many people who are feeling depressed or mistreated.”

He had planned to marry his Swedish partner in 2019, but has still not been able to as his parents have not been able to get a visa to come to Sweden, despite visiting, and returning back to Iran several times before. 

“If it was the first time that my parents came here, then it would be more reasonable to say that we cannot be sure that you will go back,” Chabokdavan, who works as a vet in Gothenburg, said. “But if the person has been here ten times before, and suddenly you decide to reject the application, that is a little bit odd.” 

The group now has 2,000 members on Facebook and has contacted the embassy in Tehran, Sweden’s foreign ministry, and MPs in two of Sweden’s political parties, who Chabokdavan said had promised to raise the issue in their parties and to the government.

Chabokdavan told The Local that many Iranians were suffering from the shift to a stricter visa policy. 

“Another member in our group had a sister who was a late-stage cancer patient at the hospital, and her parents couldn’t come here to say goodbye to her.” 

Rozita Akrami, a data scientist at Ericsson, also a group member, has collected data showing that Sweden is now the worst country in the Schengen area for giving visiting visas to Iranians, with only 35 percent of visa applications by friends and relatives of citizens accepted. 

She claims there was a “drastic drop” in the acceptance rate, from 55 per cent in 2018 to 35 percent in 2019, with France accepting 75 percent of visa applications from residents’ relatives that year and Switzerland 79 percent. 

“It seems that the Swedish embassy in Iran has decided to apply stricter criteria, which are really, really unclear,” Chabokdavan said. “It’s really not clear what’s the criteria is here, or why they are rejecting so many documents.” 

In a judgement from last week, the Migration Court ruled that the tougher approach taken by the Swedish embassy in Tehran was justified by a recent rise in the number of Iranians granted visas to Sweden who had then decided to stay and apply for asylum.  

“The embassy further notes that in recent years hundreds of Iranian citizens have applied for residency in Sweden after travelling in on a visa that had been granted,” the court said, justifying its decision to reject an appeal. 

“The embassy can point to the Migration Agency’s reports that a several of these people had had been granted visas previously, even several visas. As a result, visas previously awarded are not a strong indicator of an intention to return.” 

In its judgement, it also noted that sanctions against Iran had resulted in a “severely worsened economy”, with “high unemployment and a weakened currency”, while also pointing to growing “repression of religious minorities” and “imprisonment of political dissidents”. 

In a letter to the embassy in Tehran the group complained that there was no mechanism to replace documents rejected by the Swedish authorities, or to send in missing documents. The group also called for clarity on how applicants’ economic situation was assessed and how relevant it was, and called for the embassy to publish its official statistics from 2015 to 2022. 

“This is about parents who have lived for 60 to 70 years in their homeland and visited Sweden several times while always leaving the Schengen region before their visa has expired,” they wrote. 

Chabokdavan said that in some of the rejection letters, applicants had been told that the worsening economic situation in Iran made Sweden’s authorities worried that visiting relatives would not now return. 

Other rejection letters, he said, had stressed that just because the applicant had visited Sweden and then returned home to Iran many times before, did not mean that they could be relied upon to do so again. 

He said that it was unclear what documents would be enough to prove how well established and tied to Iran the visa applicants are. 

Iranians, who came to Sweden both after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, are one of Sweden’s most successful migrant groups, with 60 percent getting a university education, and many working within universities, or in high skilled professions.   

“These are people who are really established in Sweden by their job or their studies,” Chabokdavan said. “And their parents usually have a strong, economical base in Iran, otherwise, they couldn’t get this kind of visa from the beginning.”

The Local has contacted the Swedish foreign ministry and the embassy in Tehran for comment.