“I only have one dream now – to die.”
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In northern Sweden on Jan. 27, a 16-year-old Afghan immigrant who had been seeking asylum killed himself. The next day, two other teenage refugees attempted suicide. The thought of being deported to a country that they hardly know has created fear among many young asylum seekers. One of those immigrants is Hamed Ramezani, who met with Blankspot. Hamed is girding at the prospect that deportation orders could arrive any day.
Hamed Ramezani somberly gazes down at his wrist and massages it with his thumb. His gashes have yet to heal; they itch. The 16-year-old is dressed in a gray hoodie. On the coffee table in front of him lies a cup of coffee.
“I am scared. They can send me back to a country I’ve never really lived in at any moment now, a country that is at war,” Hamed says. “How am I going to survive there?”
He twists his watch so the armband covers the gashes on his wrist. Fresh snow is visible through the visitation room window.
Hamed had been detained a week prior, after the Swedish Migration Agency in Umeå, a city 30 kilometers from Vännäs, summoned him to a meeting to discuss his immigration status. Hamed was suspect. News that Sweden had resumed deportations to Afghanistan had circulated through the tightknit Afghan diaspora here, and Hamed was worried that immigration authorities would revisit his case and decide to deport him.
He didn’t want his life in Sweden to end, but he also knew that going into hiding – as so many other immigrants have done — was fraught with its own perils and could ultimately result in the same outcome. Besides, Hamed had grown up in a Sweden where custom dictated that the authorities were to be respected, so the thought of him skipping a meeting with the Swedish Migration Agency and explicitly violating the law was difficult to grasp unto itself.
Hamed asked agency officials if a friend could accompany him to the meeting, but they refused. At the meeting, Hamed was detained.
“When I walked into the meeting room, I saw two police officers out of the corner of my eye,” Hamed recalls. “They didn’t even let me say goodbye to my family — or pack a bag.”
With only the clothes he was wearing, authorities transported Hamed to a police station in Umeå. Inside his cell, Hamed, fearful and depressed, started stabbing himself in his wrists with a broken plastic spoon.
“I was angry and when I get angry, I want to hurt myself,” Hamed says.
As Hamed sliced into his veins, the jail guards heard the commotion and rushed over to stop him.
“They prevented me from dying, but they beat me,” Hamed says. “And since then they’ve had me on suicide watch.”
The deportation center in the Swedish city Gävle.
The story of how Hamed become one of tens of thousands Afghan immigrants facing the specter of deportation began when his family fled to Iran to escape the conflicts roiling Afghanistan. Hamed was born a refugee in Iran and grew up without a birth certificate or identification documents. Life as a refugee was difficult in Iran, so when he got older Hamed’s mother decided to take him, his sister and his brother to Sweden.
“I learned from other boys in my situation that Sweden was a good country where refugees like us could build a future,” Hamed says.
At the border between Iran and Turkey, guards opened fire on Hamed and his family, along with a group of other migrants who were attempting to make the crossing.
“I ran for my life,” Hamed recalls. “Around me children fell wounded and dead, because they couldn’t run fast enough. I still see them, laying there bloody and lifeless on the ground.”
In the commotion, Hamed was separated from his mother and siblings.
“When I turned around they were gone,” Hamed says. “It was chaos, and I couldn’t see them anywhere. Once we were at a safe distance, nobody dared to go back to claim their dead.”
Despite losing his family, Hamed decided to push forward, crossing the European continent by foot. It took him two years to reach Sweden, where he was placed in a refugee camp for unaccompanied children in a northern village called Sorsele.
“I liked it fine and had friends even though my memories and flashbacks tormented me night and day, both at school and when I was trying to go to sleep,” Hamed says. “But I loved the school and the teachers in Sorsele, despite all of that.”
Swedish doctors soon diagnosed Hamed as “multi-traumatized” because of his long and horrendous journey through Europe. He was admitted for acute psychiatric care several times and made several suicide attempts. Doctors said Hamed needed trauma therapy, but he has not received that treatment in immigration detention and would almost surely never receive it if he returned to Afghanistan.
When Hamed turned 18 years old, he was moved from Sorsele to Umeå, where authorities denied him continued schooling. Hamed was, however, able to get an internship at a car dealership.
“I liked it there, and it was nice to have a few hours a day when I could think about something other than my situation,” Hamed says.
Hamed did so well during his internship that the dealership offered him a paying job. But Hamed had to turn the offer down because without a passport, he couldn’t get a work permit.
“I wanted to work and pay my way, so yes, it was a devastating disappointment,” he says.
After Umea, authorities moved Hamed to a detention center in Gävle, a mid-sized city just north of Stockholm. Hamed has been waiting there ever since to find out if immigration officials will grant him asylum. He has access to both phone and the internet, but he’s too depressed to use them to reach out to friends.
“I wish someone would talk to me about Afghanistan, teach me things about the country I know nothing about since I’ve never been there,” Hamed says. “I do read the news, and nobody can miss that there is a war going on there.”
A few days before my visit with Hamed, the Afghan capitol, Kabul, was shook by twin suicide attacks close to parliament. The UN cautioned that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was growing increasingly fragile.
Sweden will deport a second batch of Afghan refugees to Kabul on Tuesday under a disputed Afghan-EU deal signed last October.
The Taliban controls an area with 8.1 million people—5.4 million of those are children. Many of them are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. In 2016 alone, 551,000 Afghanis have fled their homes due to armed conflict. But perhaps more troubling is that as many as 1 million refugees have been forced to return to Afghanistan from countries such as Iran and Pakistan in recent years. The influx has overwhelmed already strained social services, and prompted the Afghan parliament to ask Sweden to stop deportations.
“I fled to get a better life and turned myself into the Swedish Migration Agency to seek asylum in a proper and legal fashion,” Hamed says. “How can they treat me like a criminal?”
In 2016 and 2017, at least 800 refugees have voluntarily left Sweden and returned to Afghanistan, while thirteen have been deported. As of March, another 24,000 Afghan refugees in Sweden were waiting to learn whether they would get asylum.
I ask Hamed what he thinks might happen to him if he returns to Kabul. “What do you think?” Hamed says. “You are a journalist; you know that two months ago a group was sent back, and you know that some go them disappeared.”
Hamed wonders every day if this will be his last day in Sweden. He thinks about how he will fare in a religious country like Afghanistan given that he is not a practicing Muslim — “I don’t fast or live life like I should” – and identifies more with secular Western culture.
Hamed’s arms are covered in tattoos. One of them is an “H,” which stands for “Hazara.” The Hazara are an ethnic minority group that makes up about 20 percent of the Afghan population. Hazaras have been persecuted both by the Taliban and ISIS and continue to be abducted, tortured and murdered. Being Hazara makes Hamed particularly vulnerable, according the Swedish Migration Agency’s latest advisory. And his judicial representative says Hamed’s tattoos increase his risk of religious persecution should he be sent back to Afghanistan.
Hamed hopes that these issues result in him winning asylum. But the process has taken so long that he is losing hope.
“When I came to Sweden I dreamed of becoming a policeman,” Hamed says.
“I liked the Swedish police officers and wanted to become a colleague of theirs one day, but now they have taken that dream away from me too.
“I only have one dream now—to die.”
This article is part of a series about unaccompanied Afghan minors who immigrated to Sweden but are now at risk of deportation. They are detained in prison-like complexes while they wait for the Swedish Migration Agency to decide the time for their departure.
In 2016 and 2017, at least 800 Afghanis voluntarily left Sweden and returned to their countries of origin; 13 were deported. The latter figure is likely to rise. As of the beginning of 2017, about 24,000 Afghan immigrants are undergoing proceedings to determine whether they will be allowed to stay in Sweden.