‘I’m just a ghost here in Sweden,’ says rejected asylum-seeker

‘I’m just a ghost here in Sweden,’ says rejected asylum-seeker

Elmira, during a recent protest with the “I am a Christian Too” group in Stockholm, holding up a poster highlighting the recent mass arrests of Christians in Iran.

Elmira Torabi says becoming a refugee was the last thing on her mind when she left Iran in early 2021 to begin a master’s degree in nanotechnological engineering in Rome.

But within four months, Elmira had not only discontinued her studies, but had left Italy for Sweden, and later that year had filed an asylum claim.

The reason? 

Elmira says that her family had discovered that she had become a Christian, and had threatened that they would come to Italy to take her back home with them.

“First of all I removed my hijab, and then I took pictures while being in the church, and I put them on Facebook,” she told Article18. “So my family found out about it and so they knew that, well, I’m pretty serious about my faith.

“And when I actually told them about my faith, they didn’t want to accept that I am a Christian. And I knew that I had no possibility to go back to Iran, but I also knew that I could not stay like that in Italy, because it would be not impossible for my family to come and take me with them back to Iran.”

And so Elmira travelled to Sweden, where an uncle lives who was also the person who first introduced her to Christianity – back when she was still in Iran.

But now in Sweden, Elmira says she was suddenly confronted with a reality for which she had never prepared. 

“When I arrived in Sweden, I didn’t know anything about the asylum procedure because the reason I left Iran was not to become a refugee,” she says, “so I just took any advice that people would give me.”

And that included being advised to ensure she had a baptism certificate before applying for asylum.

“As my visa expired, I was told by others that I should wait for six months, and also that I should consider baptism,” she explains, “because there were people who were Christians but hadn’t been baptised and, when they applied for asylum, the Swedish government would reject their requests to accept them as refugees just because they didn’t have a baptism certificate.” 

And so Elmira followed the advice, but her claim was still rejected.

After two interviews with the Swedish immigration authorities in early 2022, Elmira says she was told that “the answers you gave showed that you’re not a Muslim anymore and that you know the Bible quite well, but this is not enough evidence to show that you’re a real Christian”.

Elmira says her lawyer was “very disappointed and dissatisfied with the answer of the government”, and appealed, but a further hearing in the summer of 2022 only came to the same conclusion.

It’s now more than a year since Elmira’s claim was rejected, and the 27-year-old has been told she should return to Iran.

But with no intention of doing so, Elmira now describes her position – with no recognition, nor any prospects in Sweden – as living like a ghost.

“This country, they will not force you to leave,” she says. “But you are just a ghost; you’re living here with no particular rights. You can’t do anything; you can’t travel, work, or do any other activities, so it’s like living like a ghost.”

With other avenues cut off, Elmira has devoted her time to becoming more involved with two local churches – one Swedish, the other international – and has taken part in theological training and now even been accepted onto a leadership training course.

She has also joined in with protests alongside fellow Iranians from the “I Am a Christian Too” group, including on World Refugee Day this year, when the group protested about refugees’ rights in Sweden.

Elmira (bottom row, second from left), at the World Refugee Day protest.

Because Elmira is not alone. 

As Article18 reported earlier this year, several other Iranian Christian converts are in a similar position in Sweden, having seen their asylum applications rejected and been told they must return to Iran.

But, as with Elmira, these unrecognised refugees have no intention to do so, and therefore end up in a state of limbo – like “ghosts”, as Elmira put it.

Some of the other unrecognised refugees have been in Sweden for many years, like Arash Mirzaee, who arrived more than a decade ago.

“It’s very difficult to live in Sweden without residency,” he explained. “I don’t have the permission to have a bank account, or any other right that a human being needs to live here – like getting a driver’s license, a bank card, attending classes, or getting a work permit.” 

Milad Motamedi, who has been in Sweden for eight years, added: “We are dealing with many problems – not having a work permit, and also not being able to study and participate in society.

“We don’t even have the possibility to go on a trip and book a hotel or plane ticket, which is actually a normal thing in the life of every person. 

“In some cases it has not been possible for my child to see a doctor; it is not possible to shop online; and the combination of all these things causes stress and problems.”

“My whole life – days and nights – is spent in stress and anxiety about the future and what will happen to me,” Arash added. “For these 12 years, I could have studied, had a good job, and peace, but I haven’t had any of these things; only stress and anxiety.”

The Swedish newspaper Dagen recently visited the country’s largest asylum accommodation, and met with around 20 Iranian asylum-seekers, all of whose cases were based on their professed conversions to Christianity, and all of whose claims had been rejected.

Dagen reported that they had all received the same response from the authorities: that “their Christian faith is not considered genuine, and therefore does not constitute a basis for protection”.

According to the judgments that Dagen viewed, the converts’ stories were considered “vague”, unreliable and lacking “deeper reflections”, leading the judges to conclude that their conversions were “not because of a genuine religious conviction”.

But the asylum-seekers told Dagen they didn’t know what more they could do to prove the genuineness of their faith.

And Elmira said much the same to Article18.

“I don’t know how they want to judge us, but I really want this country to understand that we aren’t acting, but this is our belief,” she said. “I can’t deny it, and if I deny my God, if I say that ‘OK, this is not true’, it means that I have to lose part of my heart! 

“Everything changed for me [after becoming a Christian], but how can I prove to them that I’m a Christian? Is it with a document? Is it my words? I don’t know how they judge, but I really want to say that I’m not acting; this is me and this is my belief, and I can’t deny it. If they say that ‘this is not true’, OK, you say that, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t in my heart. I know my mind, even if I can’t do anything to change your belief and your mindset.”