Egyptian asylum seekers in Sweden, facing deportation after their asylum claims were denied, are claiming the Swedish government is discriminating against them - and are fearful of what will happen if they are returned to Egypt.
The NGO Human Rights Watch has spoken out in support of three families who risk being sent back to Egypt.
While the Swedish agency in charge of processing asylum claims says it is bound by the laws set out in Swedish and EU courts, those fighting their deportation argue their cases haven’t been properly handled.
Arrested for political activities
“I am threatened with being arrested again, as I have already been charged by [the] court to be sentenced to two years in prison,” Maryam Elsherif told Euronews.
Elsherif arrived in Sweden in 2019 to seek asylum after fleeing Egypt.
She says she was arrested for her political activities in Azhar University, Egypt's oldest university, renowned for being the most prestigious university for Sunni Islamic learning.
She was also detained in connection to her kinship with Amr Farag - a cofounder of Rasd, a popular opposition online media outlet.
Elsherif, whose asylum claim was denied, says there’s discrimination by the Swedish government in terms of their decisions on who they will grant asylum.
She tells Euronews there are other Egyptians involved in her case, or other similar cases, that have been granted asylum in the country, but they are liberal or secular - “anything other than the Islamic ideology”, she claims.
“I am not in the Muslim Brotherhood or I don't belong to any Islamic ideology. But in the end, I was a student at Azhar University so I am involved with the Islamic political ideology,” she said.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) refused to comment on Elsherif’s claims. But the Swedish Migration Agency (SMA) said that its task is to implement law and policies decided by the government and parliament.
“We don’t ourselves make public policy. Every case is treated individually and if a person fills the criteria in the law and regulations, they will be granted a residence permit accordingly,” an SMA spokesperson said.
Elsherif said that in her case, the reasons for rejection were “illogical”. She said she was told that the Egyptian authorities had released her and she had spent time in Egypt before leaving, in which time she wasn’t arrested again.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released statements of support for Elsherif and two other Egyptian families facing the same fate as her.
Amr Magdi, a HRW Middle East researcher, said his organisation is against the extradition of any political dissident to a country where they could face grave risks including arrest, torture or unfair trial.
“I think this applies to those three families in Sweden,” he said.
“The evidence they have clearly shows that they could definitely be apprehended once they landed in Cairo.”
Magdi said Sweden had something of an open-door policy during the migration crisis in 2013 and 2014. After that numbers of migrants declined, with the Swedish government saying they didn’t have the resources or the capacity.
However, he said the issue here is not about mass migration or [the] mass flow of human beings coming from war zones.
“We are talking about a handful of political dissidents who will definitely face torture or trial if they are returned to their home country”, he says.
Exhausted legal means
Ahmed Samir is another of the asylum seekers, whose family have exhausted all legal means, and is facing the threat of deportation in the near future.
Samir says he has been sentenced to life imprisonment in Egypt, along with many others who are linked to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood in the country.
He says he is a founding member of the Freedom and Justice party (FJ), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and showed the SMA a newspaper that states that.
Samir, who left Egypt in September 2014 and arrived in Sweden in January 2018, also claims he showed them the case of Mohamed Shehab, another FJ founding member, who was granted refugee status in Sweden using the same document.
The SMA rejected this evidence, stating there was no photo in the newspaper to prove it was him.
He also brought letters from five former MPs who agreed to attest to him being a founding member of FJ but again, SMA refused to recognise that he belonged to the party, he added.
He gave the SMA court documents that he had translated, to prove his life sentence, but was told they were not sure of the accuracy of the documents.
“The case was published in seven media outlets, and it has my full name, and I even asked them to send it to the Swedish embassy in Cairo to ascertain the accuracy of that case, but they said they won’t send it”, he said.
He also says he showed the court cases involving two other people who were granted refugee status in the Netherlands for the same reason.
In Samir's case, there were credibility issues in the narrative that affected the evidential value of the documents, according to the SMA.
The SMA spokesperson said that Sweden doesn't deport asylum seekers who substantiate the claim that they are facing a real risk of persecution.
In Samir’s case, he added, he had not substantiated his claim.
The duty to substantiate the claim of risk is shared between the applicant and the migration authority, but the burden of proof lies on the applicant.
‘Three mistakes’ in asylum ruling
Ahmed Saad, another Egyptian asylum seeker in Sweden, said he was able to prove three mistakes from the immigration agency after it rejected his case.
He says the SMA translated a document using an uncertified translation office, which removed the sentence that he claims proves he was accused in Egypt.
Secondly, the SMA said he had applied for a Schengen visa when he was in Egypt - which takes some time - but Saad contests this, claiming he had Emirati and Qatari visas, which are quick to process.
Finally, the SMA said his children had gone back to Egypt for a visit, but Saad says he proved this wasn’t true.
The SMA has now acknowledged their mistakes and has requested the court to reexamine the case.
A spokesperson said as the case was being reevaluated they couldn’t comment on it.
Saad says that he and his family are living in a nightmare because they don’t know how much longer it will take.
“I feel that immigration deals with us as numbers, not as human beings who have feelings and rights, so they give approval to a specific number, and the rest are rejected regardless of their cases,” he added.
Nathalie Larsson, a Swedish solicitor who has volunteered to advocate for the three families, told Euronews the courts were shown video proof that her clients were all politically active against the regime in Egypt following the military coup in the country.
Larsson said the immigration agency argued that enough time had passed while her clients have waited on their asylum claims in Sweden to believe they won't face the same risk in Egypt again.
Of the three cases, Larsson said “there’s a misunderstanding of the circumstances by the SMA so they have to look at the whole atmosphere of the cases”.
She is now helping Samir take his case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Swedish Ministry of Justice said in a statement: “In general, it has been concluded on numerous occasions by different international bodies and organisations, such as the European Court of Human Rights, that the Swedish asylum system is of a high standard and in accordance with international law.”
“A person who is in need of protection will be granted asylum in Sweden,” it added.
Magdi of HRW explained that people like Saad, Maryam and Samir are among tens of thousands who have been arbitrarily arrested and sent to mass trials in Egypt, for belonging to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sometimes one trial has more than 700 defendants in a small courtroom, where they have no chance to speak to the judge or even to their lawyers.
The prisons in Egypt also have a decade-long bad reputation of being overcrowded, unhygienic and undermining basic prisoners’ rights.
In Egypt, pre-trial detention against political dissidents is used as a default. They can be remanded in custody for months or years without being sent to trial.