Iraq War Refugees Turn to Sweden, Not U.S.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, March 15, 2007 — -- One of the more unfortunate byproducts of the Iraq War is the massive exodus of refugees.

In what may be the biggest refugee crisis since 1948, more than 2 million people have fled the violence in Iraq. But finding a safe haven can be costly and difficult.

Watch David Wright's report on Iraqi refugees -- and where they're headed -- tonight on "World News With Charles Gibson."

Where do Iraqis seek sanctuary? Not in the United States, it seems. Last year, only 202 Iraqis were granted asylum in America.

But tiny Sweden took in more than 9,000 Iraqi asylum-seekers last year.

President Bush recently offered to expand the U.S. pool to 7,000 this year. Sweden expects to take in three times that many.

Keep in mind, Sweden was never part of the so-called "Coalition of the Willing." This country deeply opposed the Iraq War. But it has been more willing than any Western country to deal with the steady stream of refugees from Iraq.

In culture and climate, Sweden is a world away from the Middle East. This time of year, Swedes contend with snowdrifts, not sandstorms. The Iraqis are far from home.

Most pay a small fortune to get here. On average, a ticket costs $10,000, which is paid to smugglers.

It's a difficult and dangerous journey. Almost everyone ABC News spoke with said they had been hidden in the back of a truck. Most had been robbed along the way. One man paid for his journey with money he earned from selling one of his kidneys.

Many are educated, middle-class people. Dr. Ali (he would not give his last name) was a doctor at Baghdad Hospital. He said most of his graduating class from medical school had already left the country. As of January, there were only four residents left in a program that had 14 last year.

He had received a death threat from Sunni militia members.

"How can I stay in my country," he asked, "when it means I can be killed at any time?"

Another doctor, an ophthalmologist, said he had to leave his wife and daughter behind. He simply could not afford to smuggle them out. But he is hoping they will be able to join him soon. Asylum-seekers whose applications are approved are allowed to bring over their whole families.

"I worry about them every day I am here," said the ophthalmologist.

Asked how he was adjusting to the cold climate, he said simply, "It is better to be cold than dead."

Sweden is proud of its generosity. During the Gulf War, the country took in thousands of refugees from Saddam. Now the Iraqi community, already large, is overflowing.

New arrivals have access to shelter, job training, language classes and even receive a modest allowance.

But many Swedes worry that the Iraq War could soon overwhelm them. And they wonder why the United States and Britain are not doing more.

"The Americans went to war and in large part created the situation that people are fleeing," said immigration reform advocate Merit Wager.

"But," she said, "they seem to be dumping this problem on Sweden."