EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini agreed Thursday to a Swedish demand to put the issue of Iraqi refugees on the European Union's agenda and promised to make proposals to address the growing problem.
Frattini said the number of Iraqi refugees is "a particular problem now for Sweden, but I don't exclude that in the future it will become a problem for other member states."
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said he planned to make "specific proposals, including the Swedish problem" at the bloc's next meeting of interior and justice ministers in April.
Humanitarian situation deteriorating
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that some 2 million people out of a population of 26 million have left Iraq since the US-led war in 2003 while another 1.7 million have fled their homes to safer areas inside the country.
While the number of refugees who reach Europe has been comparatively small, some 20,000 applied for asylum in the EU last year, the number is quickly growing as bloodshed and instability in Iraq continues.
"The humanitarian situation is grave and deteriorating," said Madeline Garlick, a UNHCR official. "States should respond to the protection needs of Iraqi asylum-seekers on their own territory."
Sweden receives most Iraqi refugees in Europe
Sweden currently takes in more than half of all Iraqi asylum seekers to Europe. They are drawn to the Nordic country by a large Iraqi population that fled there during the 1990s.
A total of 9,065 Iraqis sought asylum in the Scandinavian country last year -- with 3,000 coming in November and December alone -- compared to 2,330 the previous year, according to official figures. More than 80 percent of Iraqi asylum requests since January 2006 have been approved.
Stockholm now wants its EU partners to share the burden and help provide funds to states neighboring Iraq, such as Jordan, Syria and Iran which have offered shelter to thousands of Iraqis.
"I think it is an excellent step forward that the question of Iraqi refugees is finally brought up onto the European agenda," Swedish Migration Minister Tobias Billström said after the meeting in Brussels. "I think the commission should now be given some time and space to come forward with concrete proposals."
He said Jordan, Syria and Iran "are now seriously destabilized by the amount of people coming out of Iraq, and we need to help those countries unless they are going to crack."
On Wednesday, the United States announced plans to take in some 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year, more than 10 times the number of Iraqi asylum seekers it has admitted since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
"Well, Rome wasn't built in a day," said Billström. "I think we have to be thankful for the fact that they do increase their quota."
Human trafficking booming
The growing number of people looking to leave Iraq has also led to an increase in cases of human trafficking to Sweden, according to a recent report in the International Herald Tribune.
The people smuggling operations are run like a travel agency where refugees are told where to bring money and receive a package of forged documents, whose quality varies in line with the amount they pay.
"It is very difficult to come to the European Union legally, so people who want to flee are forced to turn to smugglers," Magnus Berggren, who is prosecuting a court case in Sweden against alleged human smugglers, told the IHT.
"But while I have full understanding that people want to leave Iraq," Berggren said, "what bothers me is that some people are making big money on the misfortune of others."
More refugees expected
Outnumbered only by 181,600 Finns, some 79,200 Iraqis make up the second-largest group of foreigners living in Sweden, though it is impossible to estimate how many Iraqis entered the country illegally.
Billström said he did not expect the number of asylum seekers to drop off as long as sectarian violence in Iraq persists.
"We must therefore expect further disturbances and a continued exodus of people," he said. "There must be solidarity between EU member states so that more of us share the responsibility for offering protection to refugees."
Though the EU hopes to institute a common agreement for asylum seekers across the 27-member bloc by 2010, current directives require the country that receives an asylum request to handle it.