STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Sweden, which has welcomed far more Iraqi refugees than has the U.S. or the rest of Europe, said Friday that it is tightening its asylum rules and will forcibly deport Iraqis who are denied refuge.
The announcement marked an abrupt change in the relatively lax rules that had made Sweden a safe haven for thousands of Iraqis fleeing the chaos in their homeland.
"Sweden used to be positively unique. Now they've joined the rest of the gang," said Bjarte Vandvik, Secretary-General of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles.
More than 18,000 Iraqis have arrived in Sweden seeking asylum since 2006, the highest number in any European country.
The Bush administration announced in February it would allow up to 7,000 Iraqis into the U.S. by the end of September. Fewer than 800 have been allowed in so far.
Many of the refugees in Sweden have joined existing Iraqi communities in Sodertalje, south of Stockholm, and the southwestern port city of Malmo. Although they have generally kept a low profile and have been widely welcomed by Swedes, the influx has raised concerns over strains on Sweden's generous social benefit system.
The government has repeatedly complained that other European countries aren't doing enough to shoulder the burden.
About 80 percent of asylum applications by Iraqis were approved in Sweden last year, but immigration officials said that number would drop as more stringent rules are enforced.
Previously granted asylum based on the general turmoil in their homeland, Iraqis now must show that they face specific threats of violence if they are sent back, Sweden's Migration Board said.
"The consequence will probably be that fewer asylum seekers will be granted asylum in Sweden," said Dan Eliasson, director-general of the Migration Board.
The board also said it would start forcibly deporting Iraqis whose asylum applications are rejected, which runs against recommendations by the U.N. refugee agency.
"Those who are rejected should return voluntarily," said Deputy Judge Joakim Hugoson, a legal adviser at the Migration Board. "But if he or she doesn't do that the board will hand over those cases to the police for a forcible return."
The move sparked furious protests from refugee rights activists and Iraqi immigrants.
Tony Saliba, head of the Syriac Orthodox church in Stockholm, said forcibly returning asylum-seekers to Iraq "is equal to giving them a death penalty."
Lars Gustafsson, a lawmaker for the Christian Democrats — one of four parties in the center-right government — called for changing existing laws to stop the immigration authorities from adopting the stricter asylum rules.
The Swedish Migration Board said it was compelled to adopt the tighter rules after reviewing rulings this year by the country's highest immigration court. Those dealt with cases that had already been rejected by the board, but officials said they offered new guidelines that would affect many of the 10,000 cases currently awaiting decisions.
The court's "interpretation of the migration law, which guides us, means that the general situation (in Iraq) does not automatically lead to asylum, but the applicant must cite individual reasons," Eliasson said.
Iraqi refugees in Europe are a fraction of the nearly 4 million people displaced since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Half of those remain inside Iraq, having fled their homes and possessions to avoid suicide bombings, death squads, abductions and other violence. The other 2 million have found refuge in neighboring countries, mainly in Syria and Jordan, making Iraqis the largest group of asylum seekers worldwide.