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Meet the American trans activist seeking asylum in Sweden

MY SWEDISH CAREER: Danni Askini, 36, has been in Sweden since July 9th, but she has visited the country 'some 20 times' previously. This time however, Askini hopes to stay: she has had to flee the United States after her work as a human rights defender has become too dangerous there.

Meet the American trans activist seeking asylum in Sweden
Danni Askini, the trans activist seeking asylum in Sweden. Photo: John Victory

This article is part of The Local's My Swedish Career series. Read more interviews with international professionals and entrepreneurs in Sweden here.

Askini's story is one of great hardships, yet she radiates positivity. Passionate and enthusiastic, the Seattle native talks frankly about her career, her private life, and her hopes for the future. 

“I was adopted, and I grew up in foster care. It was a rough time. I went through homelessness, and I transitioned from male to female as a teenager. Since the late '90s, I have been doing LGBT activism, but more specifically, trans activism. In 2006, I met a Swede and fell in love. From that time, I started moving back and forth to Sweden, until our relationship ended in 2015,” she says.

Getting to Sweden

But now, she intends to stay in the country long-term, explaining: “My work in the US has become too dangerous.”

White supremacists and Nazis have threatened Askini. As her visibility as a campaigner for transgender rights increased, she began receiving death threats and even experiencing violence. “From the federal government, I have not received help to keep doing human rights work in the US,” she says.

Askini's future in Sweden is uncertain. Upon leaving the US, her passport renewal was rejected, despite providing the necessary documentation. She was granted a temporary emergency passport to leave, but according to the State Department in Washington DC, she still has not “demonstrated a legitimate claim” to US citizenship, refusing her a new passport.

“I had to fill out another form, the so-called N-600 certificate, with over 180 questions on it. Because I am adopted and I was in foster care, I do not know the answers to some of the questions,” says Askini.

Requesting asylum

If she has to return to the US, she says, “there is the real possibility that I would be arrested and detained at the border control on charges of identity fraud”. And if that happens, she is concerned about the risk she might face as a trans woman.

“In US immigration detention facilities, transgender women are often detained with men, and they run a huge risk of getting raped or sexually assaulted there. So I am trying to explore what my legal options are to remain in Sweden. It is rare, coming from the US, to apply for asylum in Sweden. I have a 90-day tourist visa until October 9th, so I have a legal status here, but I am in uncharted territory,” the American says.

“I am really fearful that my application for asylum here will be immediately labelled 'manifestly unfounded'. At the asylum reception, they can declare your application unfounded and deport you within 14 days to your country of origin. I need to pay for an attorney to be able to have a chance to even have my application be considered. Despite the status of Sweden as an open country, it is quite hard to gain asylum here nowadays.”

One option is to request political asylum: “I have good reasons to think that I have been targeted because of my political work. For example, I am suing the Trump administration over the transgender military ban. I have sued military officials, and I took on the Seattle mayor last year, with him ending up having to resign.”

Awaiting new developments for her asylum request, Askini keeps a low profile online. “My fear is that even talking to The Local may tip off migration authorities to deport me or to deny my application on the grounds that I would not be in enough danger.” However, she also believes it is important to tell her story.


Trans activist and writer Danni Askini. Photo: John Victory

Generosity and opportunity

Askini lauds the Swedes for their generosity. “For all of the difficulties and the heated debate about asylum seekers in this country, the truth is I have been treated with nothing but kindness and respect by friends, friends of friends, officials, by all of the agencies I have encountered here. People here are generous in spirit and in means, and I think you don't find that in the US any more. Swedish people offered me housing or knew someone who could offer assistance with asylum requests, without expecting anything back,” she says. “I am so grateful for that, and it has really helped me get a sense of safety, of belonging, of being welcome. I miss home, and it has not been easy coming here, but it has been a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

Askini sees opportunities for people like her here. “There is a strategic advantage for Sweden as an economy to be profiling itself with its human rights policy and culture. This is an amazingly open, innovative country, where LGBT people are treated with respect and dignity. Seattle is called Silicon Forest, because of all the tech companies there, and I am trying to convince my trans friends in tech there to come to Stockholm. There are so many tech jobs here, and I would love to bridge a gap between the LGBT community working in tech in the US and Sweden.”

In the meantime

During her time in Sweden, Askini has been working on a book for US audiences with Penguin Books.

“It will be a how-to guide for activism in the age of Trump, walking people through the basics of how to do activism and how to manage the emotional aspects of that work. It's about conflict, and a lot of people are inherently conflict-averse. So my book discusses the emotions that come up: What are effective advocacy strategies in the US in times of increasing authoritarianism? I hope it will reach Swedish audiences as well. The same truths apply: Europe is experiencing a shift towards the far-far-right, and the traditional approaches on the left have lost their effectiveness.”

There is a vital need for insight into how much the US has changed with regards to its human rights situation, she says.

“I have been working so much with LGBT issues, and topics that overlap it. The information I have gained about this can contribute to building a new human rights framework for Sweden in negotiations with the US. I would love to work on this, as soon as I know more about my own fate. In the meantime, I am learning Swedish and hope to continue moving forward and strengthen people's understanding of what is happening in the US,” Askini concludes.

Ruben Dieleman is a Dutch freelance journalist and an assistant researcher at the political sciences department of Gothenburg University.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”

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