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IMMIGRATION

The hidden lives of Sweden’s undocumented migrants

Sweden has taken in thousands of asylum seekers in recent year. But not all have had their applications accepted. Faisal Enayat Khan describes his encounters with just a handful of Sweden's estimated 15,000 undocumented migrants.

The hidden lives of Sweden’s undocumented migrants

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.

“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.

IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.
 

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
 
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
 
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.” 

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