After his deportation, Mahmut T., who had been deported from Sweden, was arrested at the airport in Istanbul. Videos show him being taken to a white vehicle in handcuffs. From outside, people are knocking on the darkened windows, shouting something. But the car drives off. “Terrorist sent to prison,” headlined a Turkish television station. T. had applied for asylum in Sweden after proceedings had been opened against him in Türkiye following allegations of terrorism. He was sentenced to six years and three months in prison. According to him, he had only taken part in protests. Sweden rejected his asylum application. Most recently, the Kurd lived illegally in the country and fell ill with cancer. Nevertheless, he was deported at the end of last year.
“If it weren’t for the NATO application, T. wouldn’t have been deported,” says the Kurdish community in Stockholm. The Swedish authorities probably wanted to demonstrate toughness towards Türkiye. Up to 150,000 Kurds live in Sweden, and the country has long been considered a refuge for the minority. But ever since Sweden applied for NATO membership, many Kurds have lived in fear. “2022 was the toughest year so far for Kurds in Sweden”.
T.’s case shook the Kurdish community. From the point of view of many, he is an example of the current course of the Swedish government. In May last year, Sweden, along with Finland, applied for NATO membership in light of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. All but two of the NATO countries ratified the expansion of the alliance: Hungary promised to sign soon, but Türkiye refused. It demands concessions from Stockholm in the fight against terrorism. The neighboring country Finland, without a large community of organizations critical of Türkiye, has meanwhile become a member of the defense alliance. In Sweden, a country with a long democratic tradition, there are now concerns that their own country will bend, that it will violate the observance of human rights principles could exchange for an increase in security.
Sweden is behaving “submissively”, making concession after concession. But the more the country gives in, the more pressure Erdogan will exert, the daily newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” recently wrote. It likened Swedish ministers to “puppies” trying to please Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson clearly contradicted the accusation: Sweden is not bowing to Türkiye, the cooperation is to the advantage of both sides.
Together with Finland, Sweden has signed a memorandum with Türkiye in which the two states undertake, among other things, to step up action against the Kurdish “terrorist organization” PKK and to thoroughly examine Türkiye’s extradition requests. The Swedish parliament passed a constitutional amendment that should make it possible to pass stricter anti-terror laws. Furthermore, arms exports to Türkiye were allowed again. Shortly after his election as prime minister, Kristersson traveled to Ankara and said Sweden would honor all commitments it had made to Türkiye to counter the terrorist threat.
Erdogan has repeatedly accused Sweden of supporting terrorist organizations and called on it to extradite “terrorists”. Turkish pro-government newspapers published their names. Among them are alleged PKK supporters and members of the Gülen movement. The numbers vary, but around 40 names of people in Sweden are known. However, most of them are Swedish citizens or have permanent residence permits. This is probably one of the reasons why Kristersson said recently that Türkiye is making demands “that we cannot and do not want to meet”.
Finally, both sides moved apart. Ankara was outraged by an Erdogan doll in front of Stockholm City Hall. Sweden’s government strongly condemned the hanging of the doll, but shortly afterwards the head of the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats, who support the minority government, called Erdogan a dictator. Especially when it comes to deportations, there is no approximation. The Swedish government recently prohibited the extradition of four people. The basis were decisions of the Supreme Court, which the government must follow. The extradition of the journalist Bülent K., whom Erdogan had described as a terrorist, had previously been stopped in this way.
The Supreme Court also prohibited the extradition of the well-known Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu, whose name is also on the Turkish list. The 75-year-old Zarakolu has been campaigning for freedom of expression in Türkiye for decades. He had once published books on the Kurdish question and the genocide of the Armenians, for which he was jailed several times. Several lawsuits are still pending against him, says Zarakolu. “Erdogan probably thinks Sweden is like Türkiye: when you’re in the government, you can do anything.” He feels safe in Sweden, says Zarakolu, after all the courts are independent. But he worries that the government could go too far towards Ankara.
Extraditions are not the problem, the judiciary is opposed to them, say Swedish lawyers. Sweden has not extradited anyone with ties to the Gülen movement or the PKK to Türkiye since 2005. The real problem is the deportation of Turkish asylum seekers. They have existed for a long time, but now they are being exploited. The Turkish authorities wanted to present them as extraditions. In the case of T., for example, it was said that Sweden had finally delivered. And Sweden has little interest in counteracting this image in order to speed up the process of joining NATO. In addition, Sweden promised in the memorandum to take stronger action against the PKK. “There is therefore a great, well-founded concern among Kurds about more deportations.”
Sweden is considered a model democracy. Asylum seekers are given a lawyer right from the start and can challenge negative decisions in court. However, the reason for a refusal is often an assessment by the Swedish domestic secret service Säpo. If the latter says that a person poses a “security risk”, the application is usually rejected. The reasons for the assessment are secret, and the courts cannot review them either. So they usually have little choice but to follow the reasoning.
The fact that Säpo’s assessment could not be checked is problematic from a legal point of view. As a result, the process is neither safe nor reliable. The Swedish human rights organization “Civil Rights Defenders” makes a similar statement. It speaks of a “serious lack of legal verifiability, which is even more worrying in the current situation”. It is recalled that Sweden too must follow the principle of non-refoulement and must not bring people into a country where they are at risk of torture or other inhumane conditions. In Türkiye, “potentially anyone could be defined as a terrorist for any reason.”
Human rights activists are concerned that the legal weak point in the asylum system could lead to more deportations. On the one hand, to send a signal to Türkiye that they are currently moving in relation to the PKK. On the other hand, however, also in the context of the already tougher action against asylum seekers under the new government. A minority government, supported by the Sweden Democrats, has been in power in Sweden since last autumn. From their point of view, migration causes crime and must be stopped as far as possible. Plans include abolishing permanent residency rights, restricting the rights of asylum seekers and increasing the number of deportations.
Many of the Kurds came as asylum seekers and struggle from one extension of their residence permit to the next. The Kurdish woman, who doesn’t want to read her name in public, did the same for a long time. Her husband came to the country in 2002, in the “good times”, and was granted permanent residency. She followed in 2016. Together they have two sons, aged seven and five. At some point, the woman’s residence permit was no longer extended, and she unsuccessfully appealed against it. Police officers recently knocked on her door and asked her to leave the country, the woman says.
A letter from the migration authorities states that Säpo recommended rejecting the woman’s application for a residence permit. The reason: her husband supports “security-threatening activities”. The security authority assumes that the woman “possibly indirectly” supports the activities of the organization. It is not their behavior that is a threat, but their “presence in the country”. The husband says that he once approved of the activities of the PKK on the Internet. But the woman asks why does she have to go then? She is now in the country illegally, living in a different apartment to her family. The situation is very difficult, she says. She sees her children and her husband only irregularly. “We are paying the price for Sweden’s NATO bid,” says her husband.
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