Sweden is experiencing a rapid rise in the numbers of unaccompanied refugee children seeking asylum there. In the first two weeks of October alone, well over 4,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the country, bringing the total this year to 18,000, more than two and a half times the 7,000 that came during the whole of 2014.
Most enter via the central train station in Malmö, a half-hour train ride from Copenhagen. At least 100 unaccompanied minors are arriving every day in this southern Swedish city, the majority having fled the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan.
“Sweden has a well-organised system for asylum seekers and is renowned for its treatment of refugees during the asylum process,” explained Ida Holmgren, a migration expert at the Swedish Red Cross. “There is also a more generous interpretation of the European family reunification laws.”
Sweden is the most popular destination for refugee children travelling alone to Europe: it receives nearly a third of all unaccompanied minors. But it is a growing phenomenon too in several other EU countries. Last year, their numbers totalled 24,000, nearly 80 percent more than in 2013. And this year, nearly 40,000 unaccompanied minors – mainly boys aged between 13 and 18 – are expected to apply for asylum in Europe, according to a recent report by the Swedish Migration Agency.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has also noted the “worrying” trend. Estimates by international aid agencies suggest that between four and seven percent of all asylum seekers in the EU are unaccompanied minors. Most arrive by sea to Italy and Greece, but, according to the OECD, only a quarter of all unaccompanied minors in Italy apply for asylum there, and in Greece almost none do. Instead, most follow in the footsteps of adult refugees and head north towards countries such as Sweden, Germany, Austria and the UK.
Although the journey to and through Europe is becoming more difficult and more dangerous, young people appear to be increasingly willing to take the risk. “That is not to say that these young refugees are daredevils or risk takers,” Holmgren, of the Swedish Red Cross, told IRIN. “It is the extreme situation in their home countries that forces them to make the perilous journey to Europe.”
She added that many families could only afford to pay smugglers for one family member. “Women and young children are considered least likely to survive the journey. It is often an older child or teenage boy who is sent first.”
For Amjad Ibrahim, who already had friends and relatives living in Sweden, the choice was easy. Ibrahim was only 13 years old when he left his family’s home in war-torn Damascus and travelled alone to Sweden in early 2014. His story is a typical one.
“There wasn’t enough money for all of us to travel, so I left by myself. My older brothers were not willing,” he told IRIN.
The family agreed it would be easier for them to reunite once the youngest son had arrived safely in Sweden.
The 13-year-old travelled to Turkey in a car and then paid a smuggler to take a boat to the coast of Italy. “I was very scared. We were 200 people in a small boat. I got very seasick and threw up,” he said.
After surviving an eight-day journey across the Mediterranean, he flew to Copenhagen, and then took a train to Malmö. Three of his brothers have now joined him in Sweden, but their parents are in Turkey, waiting for an interview at the Swedish embassy in Ankara.
EU countries unprepared
NGOs warn that many countries are ill prepared to handle the rapid increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children. Responsibility usually falls on local municipalities that struggle to provide adequate support and schooling. In Kent, southeast England, authorities have run out of foster placements and lack enough social workers to deal with the recent influx of young asylum seekers coming to the UK on their own.
In Austria, a country that currently has one of the highest numbers of asylum seekers per capita in Europe, there is an acute lack of reception centres for unaccompanied children. Emergency centres for new arrivals were opened in military barracks at the end of last year with many children referred to the same buildings as adults, according to Asylkoordination Österreich, a local NGO.
And on the Greek island of Kos, unaccompanied children are reportedly being kept in police cells with adult criminals while they wait for authorities to place them in care facilities on the mainland.
Malmö has seen such a rapid increase in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving since last year that local authorities recently declared a humanitarian emergency.
Social workers and bed spaces are in very short supply, and since the end of September newly arrived unaccompanied children have had to be accommodated in local sports halls, hotels and care homes for the elderly.
Vladana Andersson, a social services section manager who has worked with newly arrived youngsters for the past four years, said the pressure on services is taking a toll on staff and the children they care for. “Our work is all about logistics. We can no longer offer the same level of attention, such as relationship-building, taking the children to a gym or other activities, or just sitting down with them.”
Holmgren said things like access to education and the appointment of a qualified legal guardian to support minors in their asylum applications and help them get bank accounts and ID documents were “critical”. If guardians are not appointed quickly, or heavy workloads prevent them from being effective, children often struggle to get legal assistance.
Guardianship standards vary across the EU.
In the Netherlands, there is mandatory training and certification of legal guardians for unaccompanied refugee children, Holmgren said. Belgium also offers “adequate legal support” for minors during the asylum process and family reunifications. “In Sweden, all minors have a right to a legal guardian, but there are less clear requirements for these guardians.”
Delays in the asylum application process have a major effect on children’s wellbeing, said Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman with UNICEF.
“Many children are left in legal limbo. It is not unusual that the processing time is 16 or 18 months, which is an eternity in a child’s life,” she said. “Children need to get settled as quickly as they can, and get access to health and education systems.”
Asylum applications take an average of seven months to be processed in Sweden, shorter than many other EU countries. But applications for children to be reunited with their families often take much longer.
Ibrahim had to wait more than a year for permanent residency in Sweden, but he was able to start school after four months. Now he is in Grade 9 at an inner-city school in Malmö.
“I like it here,” he said with a shy smile. “All my classmates are Swedish, and I also have a Swedish girlfriend. But I miss my parents. It’s been nearly two years since I saw them.”