Their Asylum Requests Denied, Thousands Stay in Sweden (Some for Years)

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Though it takes pride in its humanitarian heritage and its generous social protections, Sweden is rethinking some of its policies.

It is not easy to get asylum in Sweden — but it is easy to stay if one has been turned down.

Ms. Kernaja says her father died 16 years ago when the taxi he was driving was involved in a crash that killed three passengers. The passengers’ relatives want revenge, she said, and have threatened Ms. Kernaja’s family.

She says they are too frightened to go home, and for now they are trying to lie low. But her 19-year-old brother was picked up in February during an identification check and sent home in March. Ms. Kernaja worries that she could be next.

The Albanian government acknowledges that dozens of families live in virtual seclusion, fearful of being killed if they leave their homes because of this ancient custom, which survives in a country where the rule of law is weak.

“Some of the most fundamental human rights and freedoms are violated, threatened or not implemented in our country due to the blood feud phenomenon,” a government report found.

However, asylum claims based on blood feuds are common and are difficult to prove.

Out of 18,000 failed asylum seekers in Sweden, 12,500 have gone underground, according to Patrik Engstrom, head of the Swedish Border Police.

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Swedish police officers checked passports at the Hyllie train station in 2015. Credit Asger Ladefoged/Scanpix, via Reuters

“We have the capacity to deport at most 5,000 rejected applicants a year,” he said. “We’re a smallish law enforcement agency.”

The workload is increasing as Sweden continues to move through the 191,000 asylum applications it received in the last two years. Fifty thousand rejections are anticipated, according to government figures.

The police tried to track down Mr. Akilov, the suspect in the Stockholm rampage, without success, but even if they had found him, deporting him would have been difficult.

Six Uzbeks whose asylum applications were rejected in Norway were prosecuted and given long prison sentences when they were returned to Uzbekistan in 2014, according to Memorial, a human rights group.

“This is a very hard-core government that controls citizens very thoroughly, even abroad,” said Madelaine Seidlitz, a senior legal adviser with Amnesty International’s Sweden office. “We know that most probably there are Uzbeks in Sweden who are reporting back to the regime.”

Maruf, 48, an Uzbek who has been living in Sweden since 2004, was approved for asylum last summer after seven and a half years living underground.

Under a European Union policy known as the Dublin Regulation, a migrant is supposed to stay — and apply for asylum — in the first European Union country that she or he reaches and to wait there while the application is processed.

For Maruf, a slim, agile man of medium height with short hair and alert brown eyes, that country was Germany. He overstayed a tourist visa in Frankfurt in 2004 and eventually took a train to Sweden, where he lived underground until he could no longer be sent back to Germany under the Dublin Regulation.

Maruf asked that his surname not be used because he has two adult children still in Uzbekistan and fears for their safety.

Eventually, Maruf applied for asylum in Sweden, but when his claim was denied, he went underground again, this time for four years.

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A memorial for the victims of an attack on April 7 in Stockholm, in which Rakhmat Akilov, a failed asylum seeker from Uzbekistan, drove a truck into a pedestrian shopping street. Credit Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

But during that period, the European Court of Human Rights said in 2012 that involuntary returns to Uzbekistan should be exercised only with extreme caution, given the country’s human rights record.

At that point, Maruf emerged from hiding and filed a new application for asylum. This time it was granted, because he been able to demonstrate that he was active in an Uzbek opposition party, he said.

John Stauffer, legal director for Civil Rights Defenders, a group in Stockholm, said that after the Stockholm attack, many Swedes were calling for stronger measures against rejected asylum seekers.

“Of course, many of these people don’t have the right to be here,” he said. “But our concern is that in finding these people, the police will use methods that will lead to ethnic profiling and discrimination.”

Fear of a crackdown has been coursing through the Uzbek community, said Fadi Al-Aieshy, an asylum lawyer in Stockholm. Almost 6,000 Uzbeks applied for asylum between 2000 and 2015, he said.

“Generally, Uzbeks are extremely scared because they run into problems when they go back to Uzbekistan,” he said. “It’s considered treason to apply for asylum.”

He added: “It’s quite easy to disappear in Sweden.”

Swedish employers often look the other way when it comes to undocumented workers. Maruf said he supported himself by working off the books in construction.

On Thursday, the government unveiled a plan to allow the police to raid businesses if they think there is a chance that people are working there without immigration papers — not only if they have reason to suspect a crime. The proposal would also double fines for those who employ people without the proper work permits.

The system also gives rejected asylum seekers an incentive to try again. Imad al-Tamimi, a Palestinian from the West Bank, had his asylum application rejected in 2010 and cooperated with the police, who wanted to deport him. But in spite of multiple efforts, the Palestinian Embassy was unable or unwilling to issue a passport to travel.

Anyone who is rejected and manages to stay in Sweden for four years earns the right to file a new asylum claim. Recently, Mr. Tamimi was again rejected. But after eight years, he says, “I cannot imagine myself going back.”

Sofie Rudh, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Migration Ministry, said the ministry was not disbursing welfare payments for families — like the Kernajas — whose asylum claims had been denied. But such payments from other branches of government are not prohibited. Asked why, she replied, “Swedish people are asking themselves this question, too.”

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