KARLSHAMN, Sweden, (Reuters) - Mohsen Naghawi says he is 18. At some point in the future, he fears, a plane will fly him to a violent country where he has never lived and has no family. If that happens, he will immediately look to escape.
Naghawi is worried about his future due to Sweden’s new tough line on immigration. The country was once Europe’s most welcoming state for refugees and migrants, but since late 2015 it has made a sharp U-turn. Naghawi and thousands of others are now listed for deportation.
He was born in Iran, but his parents were Afghans living there without papers. That’s why when he is deported, Afghanistan will be his destination.
He has been in Sweden for two years. While he says he was a minor when he arrived, the government ruled he was over 18 and not eligible for asylum. His third appeal was rejected in May.
“I am an unlucky one,” said the gaunt-looking young man in a cafe in Karlshamn, where he often sleeps on the streets. Invited to lunch, he wolfed down chicken and pizzas stacked into a huge pyramid on his plate.
Sweden says Afghan citizens who do not qualify for asylum - including people like Naghawi - should be sent back to Afghanistan.
“These are actually Afghan citizens, who for various reasons have been in Iran,” Migration Minister Morgan Johansson told Reuters.
Naghawi is a member of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite community, hundreds of thousands of whom were persecuted by the Taliban in the 1990s and fled to Iran. More recently young Afghans there have reportedly been pressured to fight in Syria.
That fear led at least one of Naghawi's friends to Sweden last year. The boy committed suicide in a migrant center. (See: here)
Magnus Arvidsson, who works on refugee issues for the Swedish Church and has been helping Naghawi, said sending him to Afghanistan “could be a death sentence.” He plans to appeal the case at the European Court of Human Rights.
Earlier this week, 300 teachers wrote an open letter in daily Svenska Dagbladet saying their Afghan pupils could end up as soldiers in a country they had never been to.
In 2014, Australia deported an Afghan to Kabul even though the authorities knew he risked being harmed on his route to Ghazni, his home province. The man, Zainullah Naseri, was reportedly seized and tortured by six Taliban.
Last year, 163,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Sweden – more per head than anywhere in Europe – and the political climate cooled sharply.
An immigration backlash boosted support for the far right Sweden Democrats, now the third biggest party in parliament. Reports have abounded of violence in migrant centers, sexual assaults by migrants at music festivals and increased gang crime in immigrant-heavy cities.
The government, which has set aside 65 billion Swedish crowns ($7 billion) to take care of asylum-seekers and refugees, is cutting welfare payments and accommodation for asylum-seekers. It expects to deport around half of those who seek asylum and is spending about $10 million to expand deportation centers.
Thousands are already leaving voluntarily: In the year to Sept. 14 more than 14,000 asylum seekers had left the country. Of these, nearly 13,000 departures were voluntary – the government paid for flights and often gave those leaving a cash stipend of about $3,500 per adult.
Another 1,759 were forcibly deported.
“We must also reject more with force, and therefore we need more detention places,” Johansson said.
So far this year, Sweden has rejected four of five Afghans’ applications for asylum. In 2014, 60 percent were approved.
Earlier this month, the European Union and Afghanistan reached a deal which aims to speed up deportations of Afghans. It includes a proposed special airport to be built in Afghanistan to deal with newly arrived deportees.
But Sweden is so far finding it hard to round up people to deport. Police say there are some 12,000 people with deportation orders who they cannot find.
“The worry is that we don’t know how many actually remain in Sweden,” said Jonas Nimborn, a border police chief on the southern Swedish border.
“We don’t know whether they are working illegally in Sweden, have returned home, or traveled to another country.”
The government wants police to raid companies to catch illegal migrant workers, threaten those who employ them with jail and expand the police rights to test fingerprints and confiscate passports.
Naghawi is not hiding. He spends much of his time walking the streets, and at night dosses down with friends or sleeps in the forest in a sleeping bag given to him by someone in town.
Though he is homeless, he still receives around $35 a week in welfare payments: enough for a meal a day in a country where a typical lunch costs $10. He has friends at a migrant center who help him boil potatoes there, which he mixes with ketchup.
For warmth, he has found a radiator in a school toilet.
Scrutton reported from Karlshamn, Dickson from Stockholm. Additional reporting by Niklas Pollard in Stockholm, Mansoor Yosufzai in Kabul and Himanshu Ojha in London; Edited by Sara Ledwith