Sweden launches second wave of controversial Afghan deportations
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At the beginning of 2017, Josef Moradi was arrested and placed in a detention facility near Gothenburg. Moradi, a talented soccer player, is one of thousands of young Afghans who are about to be deported to a country they left as children and can hardly remember.
A lot was at stake when Josef Moradi put on his soccer jersey that October night in 2016. His team, IF Viken, had drawn one of the toughest opponents in the first round of the Swedish Soccer Cup and had to face them on their own turf. But Josef and his teammates were determined to win so that they could advance to the highest division and play the next match on IF Viken’s home field.
As a soccer player, Josef’s best asset was his enthusiasm. The coach described him as “effective and energetic,” and his teammates said Josef never stopped chasing the ball, barreling through anybody who stood in his way. In one of his first games, Josef ran over the opponent’s goalie — twice.
During the 2016 season, Josef had switched from a back position to a defensive midfielder, a change that paid off immensely. He excelled at midfielder and was awarded with the title of “Best Player” in a ceremony that he still fondly remembers. To everyone on his team, Josef was more than a soccer player; he was the kind of charismatic person whose positive energy touched people on the field as well as off. So in October, when IF Viken was reeling from injuries, Josef, a junior who normally played in a lower division, was tapped to play in the Swedish Soccer Cup.
Josef was among the first Afghan refugees to arrive in Åmål, a community of about 10,000 people in western Sweden, near the Norwegian border. With more Afghanis spilling into the area almost daily, Josef stepped in to act as a translator and introduce the newcomers to the world of Swedish soccer.
Josef wanted to learn how to play like Lionel Messi. Messi, Josef says, is unrivaled at passing and knows how to spot and exploit opportunities on the field. Before his crucial game on that October evening began, Josef thought about Messi again. If he could get asylum and stay in Sweden, maybe he would learn how to kick the ball like his idol. He could save his money and buy a trip to Spain to watch Barcelona FC play at Camp Nou. He could fly over the European continent that he once crossed precariously on foot. It would be the first journey where dying of hunger wasn’t Josef’s foremost fear.
Josef was confident that the Swedish Migration Agency would let him stay. As Afghanistan slipped further into turmoil, the agency had granted asylum to several of Josef’s friends. The one problem for Josef was that the agency didn’t believe he was who he said he was.
On the field Josef wore a jersey with the number “5” stitched on the back. That number gave him something of an identity, a sense of purpose. He was a midfielder. Nobody questioned who he was or what he could do with a soccer ball.
A chilly wind blew as Josef and his 10 teammates ran out on the field. Game time. The referee blew his whistle and the thud of soccer shoes kicking a leather ball filled the air. His teammates shouted. Josef got a whiff of the freshly cut grass. The lights warmed his face. Josef’s heart pounded; his adrenaline surged. Afghanistan became afterthought as he concentrated on the ball.
“When I play soccer and run out on the field, I forget my trouble instantly and completely. All I focus on is how to kick the next pass,” says Josef, fondly staring out the detention facility window.
Three years have passed since Josef came to Åmål as an unaccompanied minor. Now, he can be sent back to Kabul at any moment. As he looks out the window, it’s like he sees his dream of being a star soccer player slipping away.
Moradi, a talented soccer player, is one of thousands of young Afghans who are about to be deported to a country they left as children and can hardly remember.
Afghanistan has been battered by war for nearly 40 years. The country battled the Soviets in the 1980s, fought a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, and was invaded by U.S.- and NATO-led forces in the early 2000s, sparking a grinding conflict that continues today.
The fighting prompted an estimated 2 million refugees to seek haven in Iran. The majority of those refugees are Shia Muslim Hazaras from the western part of Afghanistan. Refugees in Iran who manage to register as such can take advantage of the country’s social service net. Josef was never able to register, however. He and his family were living in Iran illegally, so Josef couldn’t go to school and learn how to read and write.
“I couldn’t leave home without risking arrest,” Josef says.
Many of Josef’s friends joined the army and left for the war in Syria. Lonely, Josef wanted to go back to Afghanistan and tried to convince his parents to return. But they refused, saying they could be killed if they left Iran. Josef tried to get over his frustration and make the best of his life in Iran. But then, one night while Josef and his sister walked down the street, a group of Iranian men tried to rape her.
“They punched me in my teeth,” Josef recalls. “After that I told myself, ‘I can’t go on living like this. I can’t live here. I am worth something better.’”
In the days after the assault, Josef asked his family for their advice. “My mother told me: ‘If you want a good life you have to try really hard. So I said, ‘I will try to make it to Europe.’”
Josef’s mother hugged him farewell. He left Iran with plans to make it to Sweden. But he hit several setbacks. He was arrested Turkey and held for months. He was jailed again in Greece and Bulgaria. The toughest part, however, was surviving the brutal winter months on the border between Serbia and Hungary. Josef cobbled together scraps of wood and built small fires to stay warm at night. But the cold was almost unbearable.
Josef learned that many refugees were able to bypass border patrols by paying traffickers to ferry them through surreptitious routes. Josef didn’t have enough money, however, and was repeatedly stopped and fingerprinted, leaving behind a paper trail of his illegal journey.
In January 2014, he arrived at the train station in Malmö, Sweden. From there, he traveled to the refugee camp in Åmål.
“I thought that this was when my new life would start, and I tried to forget about my family back in Iran,” Josef says. “It was too painful. But they were there, of course, deep in my heart.”
Outside of the detention center in Gothenburg, the sun sets. The one lamp in the visitation is broken; the room is quickly growing dark.
Josef tells his story, collected and calm, but his stress is palatable. Only a couple of days have passed since Josef was arrested. Josef used to love looking at other Afghan immigrants had posted on Facebook. But tips on Swedish language skills had been replaced by pictures of immigrants who had killed themselves. Some wrote about killing themselves. “Who wants to kill themselves; we can do it together,” read one post. “It is my turn next,” read another.
One of the immigrants who succeeded in taking his life was from a community not far from Åmål. Josef says he understands why they do it: They are tired and misunderstood, and have to live every day with the nagging feeling that they are being hunted.
“I got a visit from a doctor, and I told him I can’t do this any longer,” Josef says. “I asked him for medicine so I wouldn’t have to wake up, ever again. It is better that I die here in Sweden than am forgotten in some cell in Kabul.”
He goes silent for a moment.
“Maybe the time for that is tomorrow.”
Dozens of Afghans uprooted from Germany, Sweden and Norway as EU accord allowing deportation of Afghan asylum seekers comes into play.
Outside the visitation room an alarm beeps. A door slams shut. The jangling of keys echoes through the corridor as a guard passes the visitation room. The facility where Josef is detained was built like a prison. Josef doesn’t understand why he is being held inside a cell. His only crime, he argues, is trying to seek asylum in what he presumed was a country friendly toward refugees.
“Is it a crime to seek political asylum?” he asks. “I did what my mother told me. I tried really hard and made my way here to get a better life.”
Before immigration authorities started looking for Josef, he was thinking about enrolling at a trade school or a junior college to learn how to weld or to study industrial maintenance. Josef likes working with his hands and feels like after two years he has assimilated well enough in Swedish society to land a good job. But those hopes were dashed after police, came to question him at his high school. The encounter prompted Josef to stop attending classes. He was not only afraid of being arrested but was also worried about what his classmates would think if police hauled him away.
“If the police arrested me at school, my friends may have thought that there was a reason, that I was a criminal,” he says.
His worries would prove unfounded. Since his detention, a large number of students have rallied behind him, making videos in which they talk about Josef and how much means to them.
Josef’s biggest problem with obtaining asylum is that he has no documents proving his identity. The Swedish Migration Agency and the Immigration Court believe that Josef is older than he says he is. In an attempt to refute that, Josef’s soccer coach wrote a letter to the agency saying that Josef does not appear to be older than the other boys on his team.
Josef submitted to an age test in 2014 in which his teeth were X-rayed. The results were far from conclusive. Still, the Immigration Court chose to set Josef’s age at 18.3 years, on the upper end of the test results, instead at 16, which is how old Josef claims to be.
“I have studied probability in calculus at school and if you take those four ages and calculate a median, you will get 16, but they didn’t do that,” Josef says.
After a lower court denied Josef’s asylum application, he appealed, but lost.
In an attempt to verify Josef’s age, one of his friends traveled to Afghanistan to seek out his identification documents. The friends found some documents, but they were misplaced at the Swedish Migration Agency. Josef had a bad feeling when he was called to the police station in Åmål on Jan. 26. This time, Josef’s fears proved true. At the meeting, authorities told Josef that he was going to be taken to a detention facility outside of Gothenburg.
“I felt deceived and said that I had filed for a halt of the execution of my deportation,” Josef says. “I told them I was protected until I had received a new decision.”
The police officers called the caseworker, who said the decision in Josef’s case was final. When Josef tried to show the officers proof of his identity, they called the documents a fake.
Applying for political asylum is difficult. Applicants have to show that their life or freedom would be in danger if they returned to their country of origin.
“It is hard to prove what would happen to me before it has happened,” Josef says.
Josef says he believes the asylum decision-making process is arbitrary. “It feels like a lottery. It appears very random.”
Hundreds of Swedish citizens expressed anger outside deportation centers, during the last deportation in December.
In his cell, Josef spends his days watching television and staring at the ceiling. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is falling deeper into chaos. In January, the UN reported that civilian casualties from the fighting were increasing. The bleak assessment prompted several provinces in Germany to halt deportations to Afghanistan and the Red Cross to move its personnel out of the country.
But the Swedish Migration Agency has taken a different tack. The agency’s director of legal affairs, Fredrik Beijner, decided that deportations should continue. Whether individual detainees will be granted political asylum is a question that will be answered on a case-by-case basis.
Josef has found solace in reading the Bible. Christians in Afghanistan face widespread persecution. Josef has already gotten in the habit of wrapping his Bible in a newspaper so nobody can see what he is reading.
“I want to tell people about God,” he says. “Maybe I’ll lose my life because of it, but maybe it will help others.”
Before going to church in Åmål, Josef had heard a lot of negative things about Christianity. But as he started to pore over the Scriptures, he came to love Christianity’s message of love and respect.
“Thanks to my beliefs, every day is a new day,” he says. “I pray every morning, not for myself, but for others, those who are coming after me.”
Josef knows that returning to Afghanistan as a Christian – or even talking about his conversion to a religion other than Islam — presents an enormous risk. But he wants the world to know about his newfound beliefs.
“I respect all religions, but I have chosen to become a Christian man — even though I have to hide the Bible under my pillow,” he says.
Last year, Josef was baptized and joined The Uniting Church of Sweden. The migration agency recognizes that Christians could face persecution in Afghanistan and takes that into account when considering asylum applications. But the agency also looks on conversion stories with a measure of suspicion, worried that applicants could use them as a ruse to gain asylum.
But Josef insists that his religious transformation is genuine. “If I am deported, my faith will give me strength,” he says. “I want to live the rest of my life as a Christian man.”
Josef hopes that he will be able to continue freely practicing his beliefs. He also looks forward to running across a soccer field again, catching the aroma of freshly cut grass, feeling the warmth of the lights on his face, maybe score a goal.
“I am praying and praying that it will end well for everyone,” Josef says. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for myself, too. I don’t want to die.”
Blankspots editor-in-chief meets with Josef Moradi at the deportation center in Kållered.
Twenty-three kilos. That’s all they tell him. His suitcase can weigh up to 23 kilos. And he has to pack—now. His heart is thumping; he’s having trouble breathing.
Two weeks have passed since Josef was arrested, and he is in a car with two corrections officers. The car is headed toward the airport. Josef thinks about all the challenges that await him in Kabul. He thinks about all the people who have already been deported and posted pleas for help on Facebook. He thinks about his family and his parents. He doesn’t know if any of them will be in Afghanistan waiting for him.
He thinks about the game that IF Viken won, then closes his eyes and smiles.
Read more: I only have one dream now – to die
This article is part of a Blankspot 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.