Iraqis adrift

KA Dilday
19 February 2007

Before the Iraq war began in 2003, Gil Loescher & Arthur C Helton's openDemocracy column warned that a likely result would be a huge flood of refugees. Four years on, the United Nations confirmed their fears: António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that because of the war in Iraq, more civilians have been displaced in the middle east than at any time since 1948 when Palestinians left during the war that led to the creation of Israel.

Despite starting the war, mismanaging it and creating a cesspool of violence and instability the United States has until the last week, refused to take in more than a token number of Iraqi refugees - about 600 since the beginning of the war. More than any other country, neutral Sweden has opened its arms, accepting more than 80% of the thousands of Iraqis who apply for refugee status. And as curious as it must seem to the growing numbers of western European anti-immigrationist pundits and politicians, Sweden seems none the worse for it.

America's approach to Iraqi refugees, yet again emphasises the hypocrisy of American foreign policy. Although the United States started the war by claiming it was seeking to disarm Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration quickly shifted its stated aims to humanitarian ones; the war would create a better life for Iraqis.

After four years of war, the country is so volatile and unstable that no normal life can be lived in most parts of Iraq. Yet the United States, with a population of 300 million, accepted only 202 Iraqi refugees in 2006. Under pressure from the United Nations (and no doubt US allies like Jordan and Egypt which are among the Iraqi neighbouring countries being overwhelmed with refugees) it has finally agreed to accept 7,000. Sweden, with a population of 9 million, already accepted more than 9,000 in 2006 alone. What accounts for this stark difference?

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice"
(December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

"The labour of others" (April 2006)

"A question of class, race, and France itself: reply to Richard Wolin" (May 2006)

"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (June 2006)

"Zidane and France: the rules of the game"
(19 July 2006)

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"
(5 February 2007)

More Iraqis apply for refugee status in Sweden than in any other country. They apply in part because they know they have a good chance of being accepted but also because decades of liberal immigration policies mean that there are already substantial populations of Iraqis in Sweden. Yet Sweden's receptiveness cannot last forever and it has asked the rest of Europe to share the burden for this war.

On 12 February 2007, its ministers of immigration (Tobias Billstrõm) and European affairs (Cecilia Malmstrõm) used the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet to publish an open letter to the European Union about Iraqi refugees. It said: "Sweden can help many of them but Sweden cannot help all of them. There must be solidarity between the EU's member states so that more of us share the responsibility of offering refugees protection."

France, for example, has proudly displayed its moral authority since, from the beginning, it opposed the US- and British-led coalition's war with great fanfare on the world stage. It continues to take an "I-told-you-so" attitude. Yet as it is, in the heat of a presidential election in which (as Patrice de Beer discusses in openDemocracy) immigration is a controversial topic, France has done little to extend a hand to Iraqi refugees. Only forty-eight applied for asylum in France in 2006, according to the UNHCR.

Britain, which shares responsibility for Iraq's instability, hasn't done much better particularly in comparison to fellow EU members. In addition to Sweden, the Netherlands, Greece and Germany have all accepted more Iraqi refugees than Britain has since the war began.

A better way

Sweden's receptiveness is part of a centuries-long approach to foreign policy. In forming immigration policy it has always considered the moral aspect of the movement of people (although theoretically, refugees are expected to return to their home when the situation improves). In the mid-20th century Sweden had a labour shortage like much of western Europe, and like other western European countries, it imported foreign workers. But unlike countries like France and Spain which hoped, expected and enforced legislation so that workers would leave, Sweden expected that its labour migrants would become citizens. It offered them the full rights available to Swedish workers including access to unemployment.

The conventional pessimistic wisdom at play in much of western Europe and the United States claims that an open-door policy in regard to immigration will lead to an overrun that destabilises the country, takes jobs away from long-time residents and creates friction between native residents and new arrivals with incompatible cultural mores. Yet Sweden has not suffered from any of these things in any greater degree than other countries of immigration with much more restrictive policies and in fact, has had a more tranquil integration process than many of them.

True, Sweden has its share of people who are opposed to the current levels of immigration or at least prefer more selective policies. The Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats) is a small anti-immigrant party aimed at young people, its leader Jimmie Åkesson, is not yet 30 years old. Yet the much-reported shift to the right in the September 2006 general election isn't quite what it seems. The left Socialdemokraterna (Social Democratic Party) had held office all but nine of the last seventy-three years, and its leader Gõran Persson had been prime minister for eleven.

More than a strong swing to the right, it was (as Mats Engström argued in openDemocracy) a natural political change: the Social Democrats lost by a slim margin to the Nya Moderaterna (New Moderates), a centre-right party led by 41-year old Fredrik Reinfeldt, a victory which some attribute to Reinfeldt's strategic decision to ally with other centre-right parties to create the new formation, while the social democrats squabbled with the smaller parties on the left.

And the New Moderates are pretty much that. They are certainly at least if not more left-leaning as any United States "left" party, the Democrats for example. Indeed two of the New Moderates' main proposals were cutting taxes for the poor and giving credits to employers who hire young people who have been jobless for long periods don't appear very rightwing to those of us who have endured the "tax-cuts-for-the-rich" policies of George W Bush.

For years, doomsayers have been predicting the collapse of Sweden's liberal social economy, but it is still quite healthy. It suffers from unemployment, although at relatively modest levels that many European countries would be pleased to display. And life for immigrants does have its hardships: they suffer from higher levels of unemployment than native Swedes and the policies for housing them in various towns have not always been wise, thus creating friction. But its most stark contrast is with its neighbour, whose bumbling government mishandled the entirely avoidable cartoon fiasco in 2005.

A Scandinavian contrast

Denmark sent troops into the Iraq war and is in the process of deporting most of the Iraqis who have applied for asylum in the country. This is in keeping with its "closed-door" policy. Denmark's immigration policies are the most restrictive in the European Union (see Ulf Hedetoft's article in openDemocracy). Citizens under the age of 24 are not allowed to bring a foreign spouse to reside in the country; thus many of them live across the border in Sweden and commute to Denmark to work.

This is an example of one of the paradoxes of the European Union: Sweden, which at first resisted entry to the European Union, might succeed in expanding it. A Swede has the right to work anywhere in the European Union and in many cases, Sweden permits citizenship after two years of residency in the country, thereby putting immigrants on a fast track to work in, yes, Denmark.

Sweden is by no means perfect. And because it is a relatively small country, it is a special case. But its success shows that humanist immigration and refugee-acceptance policies can work. The country has a struggle ahead: with its changing population Sweden will have to work hard in the coming years to ensure that its society remains relatively harmonious. It has to find jobs for its immigrants and its young people. But the Swedes have shown that they are willing to make sacrifices for the greater good: when the country endured a fiscal crisis in the 1990s, Swedes preferred that the government raise taxes rather than cut social programmes.

The desire to be a compassionate country has created a happier country. Despite its open-door policies, the kind that anti-immigrationists say let in hordes of riff-raff, ruining life for all, Sweden's children rank as the second happiest in the world (according to Unicef's report of February 2007 on children's well-being in rich countries) and its citizens as the seventh happiest (according to a study released in July 2006 by Adrian G White of Leicester University, central England). And despite its much-vaunted "shift to the right", the first thing one reads on the Swedish foreign-ministry site is this from its current incumbent, Carl Bildt: "My emphasis is on the need to work for an open Sweden, an open Europe and an open world."

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