The humanitarian tragedy in Iraq truly knocks on Sweden’s door. 70 times a day, according to Swedish authorities. That is how many illegally smuggled refugees from Iraq come here – every day.
For nowadays Sweden is one of the very few countries where there is a possibility whatsoever for the Iraqi refugees to stay.
Our report begins in the Syrian capital Damascus. Because there – and to the neighbouring country Jordan – it has so far been able to come legally. But when the population there drastically increases the living conditions become more and more intolerable. The Iraqi are ”pressed out” from their first stop. It is at this point they get caught up in the smugglers’ toils.
The Dream of Sweden
In the crowd in Damascus we meet Mikhael.
- Sweden, he says, I want to go there. I have heard about Sweden. I know that it will be difficult for me because the language is different. I really want to go to Great Britain, but I cannot have my rights there. It is not as in Sweden. I have heard that in Sweden they take care of people and of refugees. So I hope to get there.
Mikhael is around thirty – a tought guy – but terrified, because he is a Christian Assyrian, and because he used to work for the Americans back home in Iraq. A fact that is looked upon with disapproval by everyone. We will follow him and his way from Iraq to Sweden. Because he is one of tens of thousands with the same goal.
Here in the streets of Damascus everybody knows of cities such as Södertälje, Jönköping and Boden. Every other person we meet has a relative or an acquaintance who has moved north with help from smugglers of human beings.
It feels like the chartering business. There are numerous travel agents everywhere – by the telephone card salesman, at the internet café or in the cigarette store – everybody knows about the smugglers, everybody knows whom to talk to. But everybody is careful. They are well aware of the fact that the smugglers are dangerous to deal with. We are talking about heavy criminals, and some also deal with weapons and narcotics; and there is a lot of money involved. We are being warned of snooping about.
Iraq’s neighbouring countries Syria and Jordan are the countries that have received most of the millions of Iraqis who are fleeing the violence in their native country.
In the district Germana in Damascus live many of the Christian refugees. In the big, bright church in the neighbourhood the Iraqi refugees gather to pray. Mostly they are women of all ages, all with thin lace shawls over their hair, who sit in the worn wooden pews to pray that they finally will find a place where they can feel safe – away from persecution. They pray for things that we take for granted home in Sweden – not risking to be killed, to dare to let the children go out and play without being afraid of them being kidnapped, to afford food, medical treatment and accommodation. Inside the church it is cool, in the street outside the heat trembles, it is dusty and smells of exhaust fumes. Almost all the small boys have plastic guns in their hands when they are running around in the alleys and playing.
What has forced away the Iraqis is obvious. An Iraqi woman who has fled from her home town tells us.
- If someone could describe what it is like to live in hell you would understand, than the world would understand what it is like to live in Baghdad. Every time somebody goes out you wonder if he or she will return. Every time a girl goes out you do not know if she will return or if she will be abducted, raped or murdered. It is like in hell.
Everybody has a reserved attitude
So far Syria has received the Iraqis, but now they have started to have a reserved attitude. That increases the pressure for the refugees – they want to move forward. The United States of America does not receive them, and neither do most of the countries in the European Union. Only in Sweden and in the Netherlands they might be allowed to stay. But in order to get here, for most of the refugees, means travelling illegally.
Two of which who know what this journey is like are Ninip and Leyla. We meet them just as they have arrived at final destination – after the last part, by train from Copenhagen to Gothenburg.
- If I knew that the way would be so difficult, Ninip says, I would never have had taken this way. I might as well have got killed home in Iraq.
Leyla and Ninip made it all the way – but they were beaten on the way and feared for their lives.
70 a day
Their story is fairly typical. We can certify that after reading a series of preliminary investigations, reports from Europol, Interpol, and the UN border agency Frontex, spoken to the Swedish Migration Board, the UN refugee agency, and police officers, been to trials and talked to numerous people who have been smuggled and are trying to make it to Sweden. There is a clear picture.
This year alone over 20,000 Iraqis will come to Sweden – most of them with the help of smugglers, according to Swedish and European police. Around 70 people come here illegally – every day. Since every smuggling usually costs around 12-15,000 dollars, the business turnover is around 2 billion Swedish crowns this year.
To Ninip and Leyla, the whole trip to Sweden cost 30,000 dollars in total, a bit more than 200,000 crowns – but then food and accommodation along the road was at their own expense.
The criminal offence of smuggling of human beings is not given a high priority to by the Swedish police. The punishments are usually very light. Most of the work of the police is not co-ordinated over the country. But during the work of Kaliber, it becomes apparent that 30 to 35 loosely put together smuggling networks work from within Sweden. They buy the services they need on the spot: someone driving between Turkey and Greece; someone who can forge different types of passports and identifications; someone working at the airport in Athens, Milan, Munich or Paris, and who can get into the transit hall with new tickets and passports.
For each that is stopped, new ones come
Hans Lippens is head of the border police in Västra Götaland.
- There are at least 30 different organizations that actively work with smuggling of human beings here, and in the first place it is about Iraqis.
- When you make a swoop on them, what happens next? Do they vanish, or do they remain?
- No, they remain. There will be a short interruption for maximum a week, and then they are back in business. Even if we arrest and imprison people, the organizations continue via other contacts and other networks. So it just continues all the time.
-So, it never really ends?
- No, it does not, says Hans Lippens
We meet a smuggler
We have had contact with several smugglers, but none of them is ready to face us – in private. Everyone is very suspicious and afraid of getting caught. Finally one man agrees to meet us at a café in Stockholm. He works for a gang with many co-workers all over the world. We claim to need help to get an Iraqi relative out from Mosul. The man we meet at the café seems to be on pins and needles, and does not want to take his jacket off.
- When he gets there, shall he call one of your friends?
- And then you will give me a number?
- Yes, then you will be given a number.
-Which he calls.
- Yes, exactly.
-And how quickly can you get him here to Sweden?
- Yes, that depends, but it will work, like that… You can’t tell, nowadays it has become a bit harder to get to Europe. But we have our route, so it’s no problem. It will be taken care of.
- I’m a bit nervous, this is illegal, isn’t it?
- Yes, but it is… well… all the people who have come here, maybe twenty, thirty thousand, and it… well… everybody come on that way. There is no other way. You can choose yourself. I cannot wait for him so long, because we have other people… coming.
Eight in a box
In Damascus we meet Mikhael yet again. He is waiting for information about how the trip will be arranged. He has come up with the money by selling everything that he owned and had. To him – as to most others – there is no way back. When we meet him again he has just had contact with yet another smuggler who transports people between Turkey and Greece, hidden in an UN truck. – That is where Mikhael will be hidden in a large wooden box together with 8 others.
- He said that I have to pay him seven thousand dollars for it, and he said that he only takes seven to eight people every time. They will put them in a box, cover it, and make a small hole in the box in order to let air in so that one can breathe. Then they will put the box in the middle of the truck. Even if they stop the truck they would not discover the box, since it is in the middle of the truck platform. It is a truck which will bring things for the UN, from Turkey to Greece, and from Greece to Turkey.
- Do you know anyone else who has made it out that way?
- Yes, my cousin made it to Athens the same way, ten days ago, with a UN truck.
Mikael will travel from Syria to Sweden via Turkey, as will most the others, because from Turkey the old smuggling road still via Greece and further into Europé and countires of the Schengen Agreement. The methods are numerous: by foot at night, by rubber boat, small high speed boats, or by car, or by truck. It all depends on luck and how much you can pay.
A three year old in a tanker
A man we met our first night in Damascus has decided to bring all his family with him on the journey. He does not dare to leave his wife and his children – three and five years old. He has already bought the trip – they will climb down inside the tank of a tanker with about forty other men, women and children. There they will hide during the journey over the mountains between Turkey and Greece, a trip which takes 24 hours. He has shifty eyes when I wonder how he will make a small three-year-old be quiet inside the steel tank for twenty four hours. He quietly says that it has to work, this is the only way out, because here in Damascus the money is running out, everything only gets more and more expensive.
Deceived several times
Another refugee, Mohammed, is a sunni Muslim and was threatened to death by Mujahideen, the Islamic militia in his home district of Dora in Baghdad. He does not dare to meet us in public, so we meet in a lumber room behind a café. Five times Mohammed has tried to escape to Europe, but has been left by the smugglers on the road between Turkey and Greece.
He has had the maximum of bad luck. Three times he has been left at the border and been arrested. Twice he succeeded in passing the border, but the promised truck did not show up. No trucks came. He had been deceived by the smugglers. They had bluffed. Every time he was arrested he had to spend ten days in custody. Every time he lied, and said that he was a Palestinian. Had he said the truth, that he was an Iraqi, he would have been deported.
Now Mohammed tries to earn money for yet another trip, but it is hard because the prices are increasing all the time. There is no guarantee that he will not be deceived once again, because deceiving desperate refugees has also become a business. We meet many – both in Damascus and in Sweden – who have been deceived by smugglers, or people claiming to be smugglers, into paying large sums of money.
Difficult journey for Mikhael
Mikhael finally succeeded in getting away from Syria. He has come to Athens when we manage to get hold of him the next time. He is tired and afraid. Together with 24 other men he was locked in a truck with furniture. It drove and drove and drove. For 24 hours. There was a bottle inside, in case somebody needed to pee.
- The trip was very difficult. There was hardly any room in the truck, no air, and we were too many inside. It was hard, very hard. But thank God we have arrived. It was very packed. We drove across the border very easily, he had already paid the customs officer, and we were not stopped at all. We were in the truck for thirty hours. There was no air. We could not breathe.
- When do you think that you will arrive in Sweden?
- I don’t know. I am looking for a smuggler who can take me there, but it is very difficult to fly from here right now, many refugees have been caught at the airport. I think that I will go to Italy by sea. They say that if you reach Italy, it is very easy to reach other Europeans from there. I do not feel safe even though I am in Schengen, I do not have any documents, no papers.
Mud to their waists
Back in Gothenburg and to the couple who made it – Leyla and Ninip – when they arrived they said that they would rather have died than travelling that way again. The trip was horrid.
At first they flew to Istanbul in Turkey via Amman in Jordan. In Istanbul they had to wait for a long time in an apartment together with many other refugees before they continued their journey. At first they had to wade in mud up to their waists a whole night, left alone by the smugglers, and without knowing where they were. The only thing they were told was to listen for the sound of a spoon clinking against a glass – that was the signal for them to move forward.
At dawn they were met by new smugglers. Now they were to cross a river in a small rubber boat, four at a time. On the other side, a refrigerater truck for vegetables was waiting. All 42 were packed in the truck.
- At first it was freezing in there, but then it got more and more suffocating, and finally it felt as if we were completely out of air! It felt as if we could not breathe during the 14 hours we were locked in, Layla says.
When the refrigerated truck arrived in Athens, new men took over, and Layla and Ninip received Iraqi passports with Schengen visas, and air tickets taking them to Denmark, and then train tickets to Sweden.
Leyla and Ninip’s trip, just like the one Mikhael is taking, is a very typical trip for the Iraqi refugees who want to come to Sweden.
”I will do anything”
But the trips are getting more and more expensive, something that Hana assures us. Her old mother is left in Iraq, and needs extra help on the way. Then it will cost 20,000 dollars, says one of the smugglers she has contacted.
And how will she obtain that?
- I will do anything to get her here. Anything. I can work as a slave. I do not want to reach this level, but there are women who sell their bodies, she says..
In Damascus itself desperation is increasing. Because what can one do when one’s savings are ending? And everything is getting more expensive – the rent, the food, the medicine. People do everything in order to survive – a women tells us that her brother sold his kidney – and now the operation scar is infected, and she is afraid that he will die.
An Iraqi we meet got the price of his trip reduced by smuggling diamonds.
-I only had 6,000 dollars. He told me that it cost 12,000, but that I could get help if I brought diamonds with me to Sweden. If anything should be missing, he warned, think about your family home in Iraq. Think about their safety.
A league put to trial
We attend a trial at Södertörn district court. A league is prosecuted for smuggling Iraqis to Sweden. The ring leader, an Assyrian, has been doing it for over ten years, when he was prosecuted for the first time. When he was arrested this time, he was still wearing electronic tagging from the last sentence. Another of the defendants has to report to the police regularily, but still has time to travel between Sweden and Turkey to arrange smuggling trips.
These people say that they did it to be kind, to help. But the couple in Gothenburg held witness to something else.
- We were treated like animals by the smugglers in Turkey and Greece, Leyla says. The smugglers were masked and had clubs which they used to abuse the men. It was not torture, but they beat them on the neck and their legs. If somebody fell, they received a beating in order to keep walking.
Billions in circulation
Europol says the same thing: this is about pure profit. The smuggling to Sweden has a turnover of maybe two billion Swedish crowns this year, and the great profits together with the fact that the risk of getting caught is so small, has made the smugglers more and more in number, Göran Görtzen at Europol says.
- Yes, our estimation is that the use of criminal organizations has increased. The tougher and stricter the border controling is, the better travel documents you get, they better expertise is required in order to pass the obstacles, and that makes people use criminal networks to a greater extent to be smuggled in to the EU. We see a clear trend that people take bigger and bigger risks. Reports of bodies in the ocean are being more and more common. These organizations do this for the money, and have no scruples; a human life is not worth anything to them.
The investigations that are actually being done cost enormous sums of money, several billions of crowns are not unusual, since there always are many people involved, long hours of wire-tapping, and most of it has to be translated. That is for example the case in the trial going on in Stockholm at the moment, regarding smuggling of human beings.
No light in sight
In Iraq things are difficult. Shia are threatening sunni, who are threatening Shia Muslims. Christians are fleeing. Parents worry that their children might be abducted. Those who have worked for the Americans are being threatened. Those who have worked for Saddam are being threatened - and ones who go out for grocery shopping might be killed by accident.
Mohammed, the man who has been deceived so many times, he will still try to get away again.
- Yes, some day, but not right now. I will do it the same way as before, it is about luck, either I will make it, or I will get caught. Once more.
And Mikhael... We only receive an automatic reply when we try to call hem. He does not answer. He has been arrested at the airport in Athens and is held in custody, waiting to probably be deported to Iraq.
Reporters: Marie-Jeanette Löfgren and Nuri Kino
Footnote: Friday, October 2, 2007, the verdict against the league in the Stockholm trial was delivered. The ring leader was sentenced to prison one year and seven months for serious smuggling of human beings. The sentences of the five others were lower.
This programme is one part in the series about the refugee invasion from Iraq. The two others were broadcasted November 11, 2007 and November 18, 2007.