We Need Global Solidarity for Refugees

As a European and a Swede (and an economist), I am struck by how often we discuss refugees in terms of the “cost” of accepting asylum seekers.

These conversations miss out on the many economic benefits of migration. Young refugees are often so inclined to start building their new lives that they integrate quite quickly into a new country with much to offer. We also miss the most important component of the conversation – the refugees themselves.

Wars, violence and persecution lead to people fleeing from their homes. A new report released on June 19, 2019 from UNHCR shows that 70.8 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide – more than the UN Refugee Agency has ever recorded. Levels have doubled in the past 20 years and increased by 2.3 million people in the past year alone.

This year’s UNHCR Global Trends report states that these figures are conservative since the Venezuelan crisis is only partly reflected. According to data from neighboring nations, about 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, which makes it one of the world’s largest displacement crises in recent history.

What do these numbers actually mean? 

The majority of individuals who are forcibly displaced are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – people who are displaced to other areas within their own country. There are 41.3 million IDPs worldwide. Refugees – people forced to flee their country because of conflict, war or persecution – accounted for 25.9 million people worldwide in 2018 (half a million more than in 2017). Asylum seekers are people outside their country of origin who receive international protection but are awaiting the outcome of their claim to refugee status. They account for 3.5 million people globally.

Now, here are some important facts: 

  • About 80% of refugees live in countries neighboring their countries of origin
  • The world’s poorest countries host a third of all refugees worldwide
  • High income countries (like most countries in Europe) host only 2.7 refugees per 1,000 of population on average
  • In 2018, every second refugee was a child

Research shows that women and children are the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon of war to further inhibit civilian populations to fight for peace and their fundamental human rights. One very recent case of this is Sudan today. 

Europe has seen a surge of refugees since 2014. Many have risked their lives in horribly overcrowded rubber dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea for safety – sometime without functioning life vests. UNHCR estimates that over 17,800 people have died at sea between 2014 and 2018. In this year alone, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 559 people have died and are missing.

The largest group of people seeking refuge in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean are from Afghanistan.

The war-torn nation was recently reported as the most dangerous country in the world, and 2018 was the most deadly year ever recorded for civilians in Afghanistan.

So what is Europe doing to support asylum seekers from Afghanistan and those crossing the Mediterranean Sea? From what I understand and see in my daily life in Sweden – not enough.

This week, the Swedish parliament voted to extend a “temporary” stringent law which has been highly criticized by humanitarian aid organizations and UN Agencies. Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and other countries in Europe continue to deport individuals back to Afghanistan – many of whom arrived in Europe as unaccompanied minors several years ago.

Sea rescues have been criminalized as NGO rescue ships are no longer permitted to work out of Italy. Pia Klemp, a German boat captain, faces 20 years in prison and horrendous fines for saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean.

Sweden is using old prisons to forcibly detain high-school attending, Swedish speaking young asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who await deportations. The wait may last several months and the migration and judicial system for asylum seekers is highly criticized. Racism is becoming more visible.

This week, a friend of mine who is an Afghani asylum seeker in Sweden was harassed by police for no reason as he got off a train. We later found out from migration officials that they have been ordered to intimidate asylum seekers so that they will be more inclined to return voluntarily.

Despite being an eternal optimist, I have a hard time seeing anything positive in this stark situation. The message that Europe is sending is that some lives are valued less than others – that some lives are just not important enough to be saved.

“While language around refugees and migrants is often divisive, we are also witnessing an outpouring of generosity and solidarity, especially by communities who are themselves hosting large numbers of refugees. We are also seeing unprecedented engagement by new actors including development actors, private businesses, and individuals, which not only reflects but also delivers the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugee Filippo Grandi.

“We must build on these positive examples and redouble our solidarity with the many thousands of innocent people who are forced to flee their homes each day.”

We are facing a European crisis that will cost us our solidarity, our humanity and our safeguarding of human rights. The price is too high. If we lose these, we won’t have anything of value left.

I am thankful to be a part of the Swedish Facebook group Vi står inte ut! (We can’t stand it!) which has become a network of 10,000 individuals working to support asylum seekers in various ways. It is through networks like this one that I witness solidarity and fire to fight for our sisters and brothers from other countries.

It is difficult to continue to read and share the stories of refugees, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and fight for a change in our world today.

Sweden Deports Victims of Child Marriage and Torture to Afghanistan

[Sweden] please just kill me. I would rather die than be sent back to Afghanistan.

Those are the roughly translated words of an 18-year-old refugee in Sweden who fled child marriage, violence and abuse. After 2 years of uncertainty in Sweden, she has just received a deportation order. She is to be sent back to the hell she fled from in Afghanistan. This young woman has learnt Swedish and wants no more than to give back to her new society. She wants peace, freedom and safety.

Sweden has a long reputation for taking strides in humanity, gender equality and human rights. In 2014, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called upon Swedes to open their hearts to the surge of refugees arriving in Europe. Yet, in the past years Sweden has reversed its stance, closing its borders and limiting the options for asylum seekers to stay in the country. Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, is concerned about these developments. Read his 2018 report on Sweden.

Sweden is sending civilian asylum seekers back to war torn Afghanistan, even as insecurity has increased in recent years.

A new UN report documents 2018 as the year with the highest recorded number of civilians killed in the Afghan conflict. The report also shows the increased toll of the conflict on children.

To make matters worse, Sweden is also sending back refugees who face grave risks should they return to Afghanistan. This includes girls who have fled child marriage, young LGBTQ individuals, and those who have converted from Islam.

Sweden can no longer take a prize as a leader for human rights, if this torture continues within our borders. Many refugees who receive deportation decisions arrived in Sweden as minors and have lived in the country for years. Many have learned to speak the language, and built networks through schools, churches, sports clubs and human rights organizations. However, these asylum seekers are not believed or deemed trustworthy as they tell their stories to Swedish authorities.

Many suffer from ill mental health due to the uncertainty of their lives and the many risks they face.

Karolinska Institutet released a report in February 2018 showing the alarming number of suicides among refugees in Sweden. The suicide rate among unaccompanied refugees up to the age of 21 was 51.2 per 100,000 in 2017, compared to 5.2 per 100,000 among the same age group of the general population in 2016. If these frightening statistics are not evidence of stories of war, torture and abuse, I don’t know what is.

Desperate to avoid deportation, some turn to the media to tell their stories. This increases the risk of being found by their perpetrators and family members. The ones who believe they deserve to be killed in the name of honor for leaving their marriages or religion.

Sweden cannot take a prize as one of the best countries for women, either. That statement only refers to women of privilege and women who already live in safety. If Sweden deports girls (and boys) who have been victims of child marriage in Afghanistan, we are not acknowledging the human rights violation that affects 35% of girls. We are ignoring the fact that these refugees lack the support networks they need to avoid abuse and violence upon returning.

In the Joint Way Forward agreement between the EU and the Islamic State of Afghanistan it is agreed that: “Unaccompanied minors are not to be returned without successful tracing of family members or without adequate reception and care-taking arrangements having been put in place in Afghanistan.”

As child marriage is an institution built by families, the family is not a safe space to be returned to.

This also applies to those who have come out as LGBTQ or who now identify as Christian. Death threats among these groups of refugees are commonplace and returning is not an option. What we need to do is believe them when they share their stories and use our privilege to advocate for them.

Sweden needs to act now to avoid sending people to face violence or even death in the name of honor.

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