Seeking Belonging through Religious Conversion: The Plight of the Undocumented in Sweden

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Why is belonging so important? How far is one willing to go to gain a sense of belonging, and what does it cost? How do those uprooted from their homeland find a sense of belonging in exile, and what sacrifices do they have to make?

For many, religion provides a sence of belonging. Consider the case of those who seek refuge in Sweden. Since arriving in Sweden during the so-called ‘Refugee Crisis’, many of the thousands of unaccompanied minors have converted to Christianity. Most of these unaccompanied youth are ethnic Hazaras with roots in Afghanistan although they were brought up in Iran and not in their native country Afghanistan, from where parents once fled to escape the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. By converting to Christianity, what did these young Afghans gain? What did they loose?

For these Afghans, conversion to Christianity did not provide any guarantee that they would be granted refuge in Sweden. Indeed, many have been deported to Afghanistan — a country where they had never set foot before — before Sweden introduced a temporary lull in deportation after the Taliban seized power. This lull, however, did not impede the Swedish migration agency from issuing deportation orders to Afghans. It is a tragic irony that the Swedish state accepts quota refugees from Afghanistan while handing out deportation orders to Afghans residing within its territory.[1]  Those who have been denied refuge aren’t entitled to the benefits asylum seekers typically receive: housing in some remote area and a paltry daily allowance that hasn’t been raised in almost three decades. At the same time, if you are an Afghan refugee, you can’t afford to return to neither Afghanistan nor Iran. Had you been a refugee from Ukraine, however, you might have appealed to European solidarity; had you shared the skin phenotype, the image of Swedes walking in your shoes would not seem so far-fetched. With the Swedish state turning its back on asylum seekers such as Afghans, it is primarily human rights NGOs and religious organisations that come to the aid of this vulnerable group.

For those who live in exile, a sense of belonging is crucial to maintaining their ontological security: a continuation of the psychological self. Those who grant refuge to outsiders often think in terms of physical security, where they mistakenly believe that giving protection from physical harm is enough. Physical security is, of course, important. But the damage wrought to the sense of personal continuity by the trauma of exile cannot be healed by mere physical security. In the absence of any viable networks for belonging, Swedish churches have provided these vulnerable people with the support that speaks to their ontological security — something that the mainstream Swedish society has failed to deliver. Furthermore, the state-affiliated Lutheran Church has vigorously protested the amendments brought to the Swedish migration policy by the Swedish government in 2015, which has made it hard for refugees to receive permanent residence in Sweden. It has often created safe zones within its establishments to protect those hiding from state authorities seeking to enforce their deportation. The Swedish Church has tried to create both sanctuary and a sense of belonging for these refugees.

Through their participation in Church activities, these unaccompanied minors have gained access to a safe space where they can interact with one another and with people from a Christian background. Led by these interactions, many of these unaccompanied youth have converted to Christianity. Even though there is no guarantee that conversion to Christianity would lead the Swedish migration agency to grant them refugee status, this has at least helped them gain a foothold in Swedish society.[2] Importantly, these conversions have given these migrants a sense of belonging.

Critics, however, claim that the Swedish Church’s support of these refugees is self-serving and conditional. Given the lack of religiosity of a vast number of Swedes and the dwindling number of their registered members and active church-goers, Swedish Churches are in desperate need of new blood. Helping these vulnerable people not only enables them to perform an essential religious duty — aiding the helpless and destitute — but also to attract new members. Claims are made that those who seek help will eventually have to convert to Christianity to retain access to that support. Whether these accusations are based on reality, the answer to this question is beyond the scope of this essay.

What is more important, however, is to point out the challenges these converts face. Those who convert to a new religion typically encounter a host of challenges — often posed by the religious community they have left behind. One challenge these new converts face is that of ostracism. Some are abandoned by their families and cut off from all relationships. Some are threatened with violence. Thus, the social capital these converts gain by switching religion is bought at the expense of another type of social capital. Gaining a foothold in the host society is purchased at the loss of the social network of one’s own community. Needless to say that this hardly bodes well for their ontological security. A continuation of the sense of the self becomes a daunting task when you are abandoned by your family members.

Furthermore, while conversion does not guarantee refuge, it may even make refuge more difficult to attain. The Swedish migration agency is often sceptical when it comes to assessing the cases of religious converts. Instead of bolstering the grounds for protection, a conversion often yields the opposite effect: those who present their conversion to Christianity as a reason for seeking protection are deemed desperate opportunity-seekers with no legitimate grounds for refuge. The converts are sometimes tested on their knowledge of Christianity in their asylum interviews; their religious convictions are put to the test by case officers who perhaps aren’t believers themselves or retain little knowledge of Christianity.

Converts who fail to prove their case are deported to Afghanistan, where they suddenly find themselves in a country that is hostile to their religion. In this new context, the support network provided by the Swedish Church can no longer be accessed. The familial support network lost due to the conversion to another religion can no longer be regained. The faith that helped them secure a sense of belonging in their host country becomes a reason to be hounded down. In the end, any sense of belonging remains beyond the grasp of these undocumented Afghans.

 

 

 

[1] Tomas Fridh, Nina Pirooz, and Jasmine Qazbegi, ‘DN Debatt. ”Afghanska Kvinnor Borde Inte Vägras Skydd i Sverige”’, DN.SE, July 2022, www.dn.se/debatt/afghanska-kvinnor-borde-inte-vagras-skydd-i-sverige/.

[2] Jonathan Morgan, ‘Finding Belonging, Finding Agency: Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Converting to Christianity in the Church of Sweden’, The Review of Faith & International Affairs 18, no. 3 (July 2020): 40–52, doi:10.1080/15570274.2020.1795410.

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