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Asylum Seekers Stranded in Swedish Bureaucracy

Malmö, Sweden — Imad Al-Tamimi teaches Swedish in the same classrooms he wasn’t allowed to attend as a student.

“It’s a paradox,” says the 32-year-old teacher. “I can walk into the new arrival’s language course, but only as a teacher. I am not allowed to enter as a student, because I am not considered a refugee.”

Al-Tamimi arrived in Sweden seven years ago, but has still not been granted residency. He was born and raised in Nablus, a Palestinian city occupied by Israel. 

“I had no personal or political freedoms,” says Al-Tamimi, taking a seat in a cafe in the crowded Möllevången Square. “I was besieged mentally by society, and physically by occupation.”

“I knew I may be cleaning bathrooms here. Yet I accepted, because I wanted freedom more than personal luxuries.”

Palestinians in the occupied territories face arbitrary arrests, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, unlawful killings, forced evictions, and home demolitions by Israeli forces, Al-Tamimi says.  Although Nablus is his hometown, he decided to sacrifice the life he had built there in exchange for freedom. “I knew I’d be set back. I was a sales manager in Palestine, and I knew I may be cleaning bathrooms here,” he explains as he takes a sip of tea. “Yet I accepted, because I wanted freedom more than personal luxuries.”

Cheers and clapping erupt from the tables around us; Malmö football fans, all wearing blue and white, lean into the TV as Al-Tamimi describes the lengthy process he’s going through trying to obtain legal resident status in Sweden.  He applied for asylum as soon as he arrived in the Nordic country, but his application and appeals were denied repeatedly. On a diplomatic level, he explains, Sweden does not consider Palestine as “unsafe” for its citizens. So in contrast with asylum seekers from places like Syria, Palestinians need to prove their asylum claims on a case-by-case basis.

“Volvo bulldozers are used by Israeli forces to bring down Palestinian homes,” Al-Tamimi says, referencing the Swedish manufacturing company. “So how can Sweden consider Palestinians, whom they are aiding to occupy – even if it’s indirect – as people who do not need protection?”

His final appeal was denied in 2010. But because he had cooperated with the police, who were unable to deport him within a four-year period, he was able to renew his asylum claim in 2014. He is still waiting to hear back.

“The bureaucracy is lethal,” says Al-Tamimi. “The waiting is the hardest, it often feels like torture.”

Palestinians are one of the many diasporic communities found in Malmö, where more than 40 percent of the population have a foreign background. Asylum claims are affected by the migration officer handling the case, says Al-Tamimi, adding that personal views and biases can influence how a case is managed.

“Two people can walk in with the exact same stories and paperwork. One gets accepted, and the other is rejected,” he says. “The employee is in control of the refugee.”

Playing the Oud

While dealing with bureaucratic obstacles, Al-Tamimi spent his time studying Swedish, and learning to play the oud, a stringed instrument for playing music in the Middle East. Without residency status, he is not permitted to attend the official Swedish language courses managed by the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket). Instead, Al-Tamimi attended courses with NGOs, and studied on his own.

“I did not know how important learning Swedish was until I started speaking it,” Al-Tamimi says. “It was like looking out of a smudged window: I could see, just not clearly.”

In a twist of fate, Al-Tamimi found himself teaching Swedish to the massive influx of mostly Syrian refugees, at the same school he wasn’t allowed to attend himself. He also teaches math to nontraditional Swedish high school students.

“I don’t take welfare assistance from the migration agency, and I pay my taxes, even as a refugee. I work and I’ve even started a band,” Al-Tamimi says.

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Photograph by Hiba Dlewati.

At the new arrivals’ school, Al-Tamimi teaches a six-month language course to a variety of students, mostly from Syria. Some have not completed high school, others are academics. Their enthusiasm ranges from showing up just to mark attendance, to studying nonstop trying to learn the language as fast as possible. What all the students have in common, however, are the harrowing experiences they went through to reach safety in Sweden.

“My Swedish is not as good as a native speaker’s, but there is a trust because they know I can understand their pain,” Al-Tamimi explains, recalling his own difficulties of entering into a completely new society. “We come from similar backgrounds, are going through similar experiences.”

Integration into Swedish Society

In addition to language skills, the official schools try to integrate the new arrivals into Swedish society. Al-Tamimi says that although integration is important, it shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the new arrivals on their own. There are still no official institutions that reach out to the Swedish host community to raise awareness of the new arrivals or their cultural backgrounds.

“We cannot take all the steps,” says Al-Tamimi. “Immigration is nothing new thing in Sweden, but they’re still making the mistake of not working on the host community.”

In the large waiting hall of the Migrationsverket in Malmö, men and women sit on bright couches, hunched over paperwork, while children run up and down the halls.

More than 160,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden in 2015. The main challenge was finding accommodation as thousands of refugees arrived every week, said Freidrick Bengtsson, chief of press at Migrationsverket.

“We’ve managed, but now we come to the other step,” said Bengtsson.

“It’s not just Swedish policies that have changed. It’s public opinion too.”

It’s not just Swedish policies that have changed, said Bengtsson. It’s public opinion too.

“You remember Aylan,” Bengtsson asked, referencing the three-year-old boy from Syria who drowned in September 2015 with his mother and brother, as they attempted to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. The image of his small body washed up on a beach sparked an international outcry about the refugee crisis and lack of safe passage. Bengtsson said all of Swedish society was shaken by the image, and public opinion was all for defending refugee rights.  “The memory of little Aylan was only for a few weeks, then the discussion changed.”

The current discussion is that Sweden has done enough. In November 2015, Sweden changed its asylum laws, imposing border control checks on all modes of transportation, restricting family reunification, and giving most refugees since April only temporary residence. The automatic permanent residency Syrians had a right to exists no more, and was replaced with temporary residence of up to three years. Yesterday, Swedish parliament approved an even stricter bill, limiting asylum seekers who arrived after November 24, 2015, with protection status to remain for only 13 months. The change of policy is an effort to make Sweden a less desirable destination for asylum seekers, with the country having taken in more refugees per capita than any other EU country.

“I’m very sad that the EU, together, could not manage this crisis.”

“I’m very sad that the EU, together, could not manage this crisis,” said Bengtsson, pointing out that 1.1 million asylum seekers in the EU translates as 1 refugee for each 500 EU residents. “The EU says it’s a huge crisis, but how can that be a huge crisis?”

With 130,000 asylum cases open at the moment, Bengtsson said, asylum claims are taking much longer to process. Migrationsverket is going to coordinate with NGOs to introduce Swedish language courses to refugees who still don’t have residencies, but the problem with waiting is more extensive. Sweden provides asylum seekers with official accommodation, often in camps, and can assist with independent lodging.

However, despite having their immediate needs such as housing and a monthly stipend, many refugees just want to work. Sweden provides asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be processed with temporary work permits, but employers are less likely to hire new arrivals without residencies. This is in part because the state pays employers a percentage of new arrivals’ salaries (for a period of time) –but only if they have residencies.

“The waiting is not good for anyone,” said Bengtsson, pointing out that waiting makes asylum seekers more likely to work in the so called “black” market, which makes them more subject to exploitation. “And the black market is big in Malmö.”

With the massive backlog of applications, however, waiting is a reality. Asylum applications are taking up to two years to be processed, and the tightened policies only heighten refugees’ anxiety. In January, Home Affairs Minister Anders Ygeman announced that the government would deport up to 80,000 rejected asylum seekers. Rejected asylum seekers sometimes evade deportation, Bengtsson said, by not cooperating with the authorities or destroying identification papers. But the tightened laws mean they are in return denied work permits, housing and their monthly allowance.

The massive influx of refugees in Sweden, coupled with the sharp change of policy, make it easy to get lost in the numbers, said Bengtsson. He recalled witnessing a father reuniting with his family after 18 months of being apart.

“It’s so easy for people to become stats and figures, that you forget behind each stat, and each figure, is someone like me,” Bengtsson said.

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati