Alone, Iraq's teenage migrants head for Sweden

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STOCKHOLM, Oct 17 (Reuters) Alone and vulnerable, teenage boys such as Said Karim and Muddher Mahmod are among the 4 million people who have fled their homes in Iraq.

Like many other refugees, they made the long and dangerous journey to seek sanctuary in Sweden, the only country in Europe that could be described as welcoming for Iraq's displaced.

''I want to achieve things I would not be able to achieve in Iraq,'' 16-year-old Said told Reuters through a translator at a centre for Iraqi underage refugees on the outskirts of Stockholm.

''I last saw my family two years ago. They are happy because I am away from death.'' Sitting in the centre's spotless kitchen with two other boys recently arrived from Iraq, Said said he left his family in Baghdad two years ago at the age of 14 as sectarian violence between his Sunni Arab community and Shi'ites began to rise.

He fled to Iraq's more peaceful northern Kurdistan region, where he worked for his keep in a garage.

But he decided to flee again when the Kurdish government, unable to cope with rising numbers of Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs fleeing the rest of Iraq, began refusing access to new arrivals.

Like many others, he crossed into Turkey with a small group before making his way to Sweden.

Now he wants to concentrate on basketball and computing. The boys will go to a Swedish school while their case is considered.

Refugees fleeing Iraq have long seen Sweden as the friendliest alternative to closed states in Europe and the Middle East. Even before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Sweden had a large Iraqi expatriate community and a tradition of taking in refugees. It also has a generous welfare system.

In 2006, official figures showed nearly half of all Iraqis who came to Europe ended up in Sweden, a country of 9 million people that also gave asylum to tens of thousands of refugees from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Ethnic violence has soared in Iraq since February 2006, creating what aid workers call the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis.

Some 2 million people have left their homes but remain within the country and another 2 million have left, mainly to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

Fewer have escaped into an increasingly unwelcoming Europe.

Aid workers say some 20,000 Iraqis have entered Sweden in the last year, including dozens of unaccompanied boys under 18, swelling the Iraqi diaspora to some 100,000.

BEATEN, EXPLOITED Some come hidden in trucks, some fly. Most remain deliberately vague about their route. Social workers say most have paid -- usually thousands of dollars -- to people smugglers who frequently beat, steal from or exploit them.

One immigration lawyer said some of her clients had no firm aim of going to Sweden when they left Iraq but were encouraged there by smugglers who often charge 10,000 dollars a person.

Many have been given the money by their families, desperate to get them out of the conflict area.

One boy says the man who helped him get his ticket to Sweden then stole several thousand dollars from him on arrival.

''There are a lot of minors coming from Iraq to Sweden now,'' said Swedish Red Cross refugee expert Dick Clomen. ''A lot of them are not truly unaccompanied -- they travel with other people -- but they have no legal guardians. They suffer from being away from their families, lack of role models, psychological trauma which must be dealt with.'' Many European countries were reluctant to interfere with Iraqi refugees or check papers in the hope they would pass through to another country such as Sweden, he said. Tracking of underage migrants in particular is almost non-existent.

Muddher, 17, fled Baghdad in July shortly after he and his father -- a former official in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party -- were forced to move back there from the United Arab Emirates after their visas ran out. They soon received threats.

Like the other boys, he is dressed in warm new clothes and speaks hesitantly.

He says his father paid for him to be taken by taxi to Kurdistan from where he crossed into Turkey before walking into Greece with a group of about 10 Kurds, leaving him isolated.

''We slept under the trees,'' he said. ''One person hit me and took my money. He beat me and sometimes pulled my hair. The other people in the group knew it was happening and they actually helped him. I was the only Arab.'' Muddher took a ferry to Italy before flying to Stockholm. He says he is in contact with his father, now living underground in the UAE, but has lost touch with his mother and brother in Baghdad.

He does not know what advice to give those left behind.

''I don't know but they shouldn't take my trip,'' he says. ''I would not wish my trip on anyone in my family.'' Reuters RN DB1231

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