At another time or place, the unknown gunmen who smashed Alaa's front door and ransacked his home in January might have been armed burglars. But this was Baghdad, a few days after Saddam Hussein was hanged. "They were aiming to kill me," says Alaa, a television producer who was at work at the time. "I covered every day of Saddam's trial and his execution. Of course people wanted me dead. I ran." Three weeks later, Alaa, 29 like many interviewed for this article, he did not want his last name to be used peers out of a high-rise apartment building in Stockholm at sidewalks carpeted with fresh snow, a disorienting contrast with the carnage he has left behind.
Alaa's escape is hardly rare. As Iraq's bloodletting crystallizes into a civil war, the stampede of Iraqis fleeing their homes has accelerated so fast that U.N. officials now rank it as the region's biggest exodus in nearly 60 years. Since the war began nearly four years ago, about 2 million Iraqis have left the country and more than 1.6 million others have been displaced inside it, according to U.N. estimates. Tens of thousands more who fled just before the U.S. invasion in 2003 figuring they would sit out what many anticipated would be a short war also find themselves in limbo. "As time has gone by, almost none have gone back, and people are beginning to run out of resources," says Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.
Most of the Iraqis, some 1.8 million, only made it as far as a neighboring country. They have flooded into Syria and Jordan. The 20,000 or so Iraqis who have fled to Sweden amount to a handful compared to the numbers in the Middle East. Yet Sweden provides perhaps the finest glimpse into how the war is driving the country's large middle class out of Iraq, devastating entire professions. It takes good connections and lots of money $8,000 to $15,000 to get to Stockholm from Baghdad, but now it is not just the élite who are willing to pay the price. "At first we saw the really wealthy people arrive here," says Paal Aarsaether, unhcr spokesman in Stockholm. "But over the last year we're seeing a lot of middle-class people as well." Having granted asylum to 2,330 Iraqis in 2005, Sweden received nearly four times that many last year, and officials say they are bracing for a possible 35,000 this year. This winter's spectacular violence in Baghdad has sent the numbers of Iraqis arriving in Sweden rocketing, according to the Swedish Migration Board. In December, 1,566 Iraqis arrived, nearly five times last February's figure. Iraqis typically use forged passports to fly to Europe; their own passports usually have no entry visa to the Continent. The Iraqis claim refugee status shortly after arriving in the E.U.
Sweden is rare in allowing entry to any Iraqis who can prove they have just fled central and southern Iraq, no matter what their political involvement or how they reached Scandinavia, according to Swedish Migration officials. (Some Iraqis have been returned to other countries under European rules requiring refugees to claim asylum in the first E.U. country in which they arrive.) As a consequence, Iraqis in Sweden range from Shi'ites like Alaa, who are fleeing Sunni militia, to Sunnis who for decades belonged to the Baath Party and supported Saddam's regime. Until the volume of Iraqis began to overwhelm Sweden's bureaucracy, most Iraqi refugees received Swedish residence rights within a year, allowing them to bring other family members into the country. But Swedish immigration officials now say that the huge numbers of Iraqis and their use of forged documents have slowed the processing of residence applications. Sweden is still far more welcoming than most countries; Jordan allows Iraqis to stay legally for only six months, while Agence France Presse reports that Germany, which received 1,918 Iraqi applicants for asylum in the first six months of 2006, grants asylum to only about 2%. The U.S. has closed its doors to most Iraqis; many have been killed for working with the U.S. military and its contractors, but the U.S. granted asylum to just 202 Iraqis in 2006, the deadliest year of the war so far for civilians. U.S. officials have said that lengthy security procedures hamper their ability to let in more Iraqis as refugees. The new Democratic-controlled Congress last month held hearings to try to pressure the Administration to let in more fleeing Iraqis, especially those who have worked with the U.S. military or Western contractors.