Stateless Palestinians like Aaed Al-Shalabi have been stuck in a legal limbo in Sweden for 17 months without signs of a resolution. He fled his home in Baghdad, Iraq, together with his wife in 2011, leaving behind his life and job as a mechanical engineer.
Like the other 120 Palestinian refugees from Iraq and Gaza currently in a makeshift protest camp outside the immigration authorities in southern Sweden, he has grown tired of his isolated and stagnant situation.
The Swedish government has so far been unable to deport many of these Palestinians to Iraq and Gaza because of the apparent intransience of the Iraqi and Egyptian authorities without whom deportation is impossible. For others, they await the final decision from the immigration authorities.
‘Where is the humanity?’
“Normally, convicted criminals are released after a prison sentence of three or four years,” Aaed exclaims, “yet we have been waiting for years in what feels like a big prison, without an end in sight.”
“Our only crime is being Palestinian in search of a sanctuary for ourselves and our children. Where is the humanity for refugees?”
Born out of Aaed’s desperation, the one-man tent protest quickly gained tract on social media and became a focal point for Palestinian refugees in Sweden. Like him, people have travelled hundreds of kilometres to join the protest with a whole host of complaints.
At first he was joined by his fellow refugees from Iraq, however the camp quickly grew into an all-Palestinian protest camp after the arrival of over 60 Gazan asylum seekers.
They are all frustrated at the lack of progress and information which has characterised their asylum requests. For many, they await imminent deportation to either Iraq or Gaza via Egypt.
This wait can feel eternal, as 51-year-old English teacher Manal Al-Hamoodi knows all too well.
With a warm smile she hands me an official rejection letter from the Iraqi embassy. She has been refused travel documents because – like the rest of the 56 refugees from Iraq – she is not a citizen of the country she was born in. She now feels unwelcome in the only two countries she has ever called home.
‘They are killing us and our future’
The desperation of the Palestinians from Iraq has prompted four protestors to start an indefinite hunger strike, although at the time of writing two have been forced to stop due to health reasons.
Ahmed Salih Al-Abbas, however, remains undeterred.
A visibly exhausted, sombre young man, he calmly explains his reasons for refusing food: “We need a solution to our cases and the never ending wait. All we do is sleep and eat and wait. For three years I’ve not been allowed to work or study.”
Ahmed stresses: “They are killing us without a solution, killing our lives and our future. I have been a refugee all my life, first in Iraq and now in Sweden. I can’t return to Palestine or Iraq, what should I do? I need a solution.”
Like many of the other young people in the camp, his youth has been spent chasing an evasive dream of stability and freedom.
The experience of the predominantly young camp of refugees from Gaza has been remarkably similar.
Mahmood Hamalawy from Gaza has come to protest his legal uncertainty. He tells me he has been waiting for an Egyptian visa for nine months in order to be sent back to Gaza but has heard nothing.
“What am I meant to do in Gaza? There are no jobs there, all we do is wait for the next [Israeli] attack,” he says in perfect Swedish. “I have spent a lot of my youth in Sweden, I want to stay and work and contribute to society here.”
‘Iraq and Gaza are safe for Palestinians’
Although the legal cases of the protestors are different in their detail, their political aspirations are identical. They want the authorities to designate Gaza and Baghdad as unsafe for Palestinians, to allow them to stay in Sweden. The refugees interviewed for this article all reported personal threats of violence and considered their journey to Sweden a last resort.
The Swedish immigration authorities however consider Gaza and Iraq to be legally “safe” for Palestinians, which means individuals have to demonstrate an imminent threat to their safety on a case-by-case basis.
For those who have their asylum requests and appeals rejected, reportedly all of the Iraqis and many of the Gazans in question, they embark on the unclear wait to be deported. The intransience of the Egyptian and Iraqi authorities has meant many have been waiting for years.
According to Swedish immigration law, asylum-seekers can receive residency permits if they prove that all attempts at returning have been exhausted. Those caught in legal limbo are encouraged to try other options, though it is not clear what these alternatives are.
Authorities will not clarify how they intend to send these refugees back as they said they are unable to discuss individual cases due to confidentiality laws.
The Iraqi embassy also declined to comment, whilst the Egyptian embassy said visas will be issued to anyone who does not have any “security precautions” on them. It failed to clarify why many Gazans reported waiting several months without a reply from the embassy.
What is certain for those stuck between residency permits and deportation is their shared perception of abandonment, waiting for a final resolution.
Many from the Palestinian community in Sweden have joined the protest to support their Iraqi peers and raise their own grievances with the immigration system. As new arrivals come every day, they tell me how they are fed up with the constant uncertainty and the threat of deportation to Gaza.
Despite the fact that many of the Gazans have not yet received deportation orders, they remain committed to asserting their own humanity in what they call a “dehumanising” immigration system.
For most Gazans, they know that their asylum requests will be denied despite the “unliveable” situation at home. Rather than wait in silence, they have decided to fight for a political resolution for all Palestinian refugees.
Some 4,000 protestors are expected to join the demonstration in Malmö on the eve of a cross-European day of action for refugee rights on 12 September; they feel that the tide is turning.
Authorities however insist the demonstrations cannot influence immigration decisions.
Adriano Mérola Marotta is a Uruguayan-Swedish freelance writer who blogs for the Huffington Post. An MA graduate in Global Political Economy from the University of Sussex, his areas of speciality include Latin America and the Middle East. Follow him @AdrianoMerola