Up till now Sweden has been the only EU country with a reasonably accommodating approach to admitting Iraqi refugees. The Swedish town of Södertälj has become a particular stronghold for refugees, and is now known throughout the local population simply as "Little Baghdad". Petra Tabeling went there
Hossam, a twenty-four year-old Iraqi student from Baghdad, has lived in Sweden for several months, in the city of 70,000 Södertälje, near Stockholm.
He feels free, for the first time in his life and there is a good reason for this; up till now Sweden has pursued a highly liberal immigration policy, most Iraqi refugees' asylum applications have been approved without problems, and the Swedish government's integration measures provide financial support for refugees such as Hossam as well as the chance to learn the Swedish language.
In recent years more than 20,000 Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in the European Union; 9,000 of them alone in Sweden.
A Christian minority persecuted in Iraq
Hossam left war and chaos behind him in Iraq: moving to Sweden was the beginning of a new life for him: "Above all, you are treated like a human being here," he says. "Here I am allowed to be what I believe in, without offending anyone or anyone offending me."
Hossam received threats in Iraq because he worked as a translator for the US military after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but Hossam and his family also became a target for Islamist extremists because he belonged to Iraq's Christian minority.
Around 3% of the Iraqi population, 8,000 people in total, belong to this religious community of Christians, including the Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian churches. They are increasingly in the firing line of Islamist extremists, with attacks on church buildings and priests increasing dramatically over recent years.
According to a current study by the organization of Assyrian and Chaldean refugees in northern Iraq, the situation in central and southern Iraq is now even more acute than feared.
Fleeing to "Little Baghdad"
Hossam was one of many who fled to Sweden, escaping the war and destruction in Baghdad. Like most Iraqi refugees he accepted that he would have to take many detours before finally reaching Sweden. His goal was Södertälje, already going by the name of "Little Baghdad" because around 6,000 Iraqis were by then living in the small town south-west of Stockholm, most of them Christians.
In Södertälje they have established various networks and religious communities; in Södertälje's three Catholic churches extra masses are celebrated in Arabic.
The influx of Iraqi Christians is enormous, and given the well-attended services in Södertälje, the Lutheran "Church of Sweden" can hardly complain; although at least 80% of Sweden's ca. 9 million inhabitants of Sweden are officially members, like churches in most EU countries it is showing a decline in church attendance.
Alongside his friends and nephews, Hossam sings in the Church choir, takes part in parish activities and helps in the Swedish old-people's home as care-workers. For him and his friends, community spirit and altruism are not only pillars of Christian belief; they are also a reason why they feel so at home within Swedish society.
"I feel integrated and accepted here," Hossam says. He has not experienced ghettoization or discrimination, even though he lives in an 80% Iraqi area. When he comes to talk about his Muslim countrymen, Hossam treads carefully:
"Of course we accept each other, but we don't want the religious conflicts to be repeated here." To this end they consciously go their separate ways; whereas most Iraqi Christians live in Södertälje, most Iraqi Muslims head for Malmö.
An end to the liberal immigration policy?
This year Sweden already anticipates that a total of 20,000 people will attempt the difficult journey there from Iraq. However schools and accommodation will soon be full, complains the mayor of Södertälje, Anders Lago. Södertälje alone took in more refugees from Iraq than Germany, Spain, France and Italy all together.
The Swedish immigration minister, Tobias Billström has made repeated calls on the other EU countries to shoulder the burden collectively.
In the mean time the guidelines for the recognition of refugees have progressively been tightened; the Swedish immigration authorities recently decided to deport refugees to southern Iraq or Baghdad in particular situations. Refugees must then prove that they are personally threatened in their homeland.
Hossam has certainly found a new homeland in Sweden. When his language course is finished the ambitious young Iraqi wants to study dentistry in Stockholm. Whether he will ever return to Iraq remains extremely unclear.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Steph Morris