The increased refugee influx into Europe is testing cooperation within the European Union, has led to attempts to close borders and is affecting domestic politics. AAN advisory board member Ann Wilkens looks at the Swedish example. Sweden has seen more asylum seekers per head of population than any other European country and liberal asylum policies have come under great pressure. During the last six months there has been a dramatic increase in migrants in general and unaccompanied minors in particular. Two thirds of them are Afghan boys. Travelling alone, she says, they have been exposed to the dangers of a long and perilous journey and are now facing the challenge of adapting to vastly different cultures.Screenshot of a Svenska Dagbladet newspaper article picture: "Refugees from Afghanistan coming ashore on Lesbos in Greece..." (Photo Credit: YANNIS BEHRAKIS / Reuters)
During the last two years, Sweden received an unprecedented number of asylum-seekers – around 250,000. Out of these, around 163,000 arrived during the course of 2015, with numbers peaking during the autumn months of October and November. More specifically, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in Sweden. By the end of 2015, a total of 35,369 had sought asylum, as compared to 1,501 during 2014. Out of those who arrived last year, 66 per cent (23,480 individuals) were Afghan teenage boys. (1)
Unlike some other European countries, unaccompanied minors have generally been granted asylum in Sweden. Moreover, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in Sweden, they have had an automatic right to family reunification – to bring younger siblings and parents to the country. These policies seem to be having an impact on the demographics of asylum-seekers. A spike is evident in the number of Afghans who say they are 16 years old on arrival – 10,000 in 2015, compared with 1,400 18 year olds. Comparing these numbers with Syrians who generally get asylum in Sweden whatever their age, there were also 1,400 Syrian 18 year olds, but only 1,300 Syrian 16 year olds.
The reception system for unaccompanied minors is elaborate, especially for the younger age groups. Unlike adult asylum-seekers or families (whose arrival and integration are administered by the central migration authority), minors are distributed among local authorities for care. The municipalities are responsible for lodging them in homes or home-like reception centres and placing them in schools. Swedish adults are appointed as proxies, to ensure that their judicial, economic and social rights are met. However, with the recent influx, this system has been crumbling and so have Sweden´s hitherto liberal migration policies. Young Afghans in Sweden already have to cope with a number of difficulties and for those who arrive this year, the transition is likely to be even tougher.
The influx into Sweden and the political U-turn
Initially, on 16 August 2014, Fredrik Reinfeldt, then Swedish prime minister, urged Swedes to “open their hearts” in response to the growing, global refugee crisis (see here). Although the appeal resonated with many, in the following election on 14 September 2014, Reinfeldt´s government lost power and the socialist bloc took over. More specifically, his conservative party lost around 10 per cent of its voters to the Swedish Democrats (SD), an upcoming populist party with an anti-Muslim edge, which thrives on anti-immigration feelings. With the continuing increase of immigrants coming to Sweden from various war zones, the Swedish Democrats has kept growing and is now the third biggest political party in Sweden, after the conservatives (Moderaterna) and the Social Democrats, which are more or less equally strong.
While the established parties strived to keep the Swedish Democrats from wielding political influence in the parliament, their positions on the migration issue have also radically shifted from welcoming refugees to, in practice, seeking to close the borders to anyone without an official identity document. The objective is to discourage potential asylum-seekers from choosing Sweden as a destination, and thereby create a ‘breathing space’ in which the whole reception system can be revised, integration measures improved and policies realigned to cope with the continuing, global migration flows.
From having been one of the most open European countries, with a proportion of immigrants (understood as individuals born outside Sweden) of over 15 per cent, Sweden seems to have joined the ‘race to the bottom’ which is turning Europe into a well-guarded fortress in a surrounding world engulfed in bloody conflict. Under its new party leader, Anna Kinberg Batra, the conservative party, is now at the forefront of those pushing for tough measures to curb the flow of asylum-seekers. The party appears to have been rewarded for its U-turn by voters who seem to be returning to the fold, while defections to the radical right seem to have stalled.
However, the core reasons for the policy changes in Sweden go beyond domestic politicking. Most importantly, the European Union has, so far, failed to live up to any kind of unified response to the migration challenge. Only a handful of member states, led by Germany, have stuck to international asylum rules. The outward boundaries of the Schengen area are not controlled, the ‘Dublin regulation’ which establishes EU rules for the processing of asylum applications (for an explanation, see here), has broken down and the decision, in September 2015, to relocate 160,000 people in need of international protection from Greece and Italy to other member states has had very little effect. (According to a press release from the European Commission on 10 February 2016, only 497 of the envisaged 160,000 asylum-seekers had, by then, been relocated.) In October and November 2015, Sweden, with a population of 9.8 million, received well over half of all the asylum-seekers reaching the EU. According to a calculation by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Swedish public expenses for asylum-seekers, as a proportion of the GDP, will be almost double those of any other EU member state during the period 2014-2016. (2)
An overburdened system
For Sweden, the influx of unaccompanied minors is an important factor behind the rising costs and has also had dramatic, demographic effects: around 20 per cent of Swedish 16 year old boys are now refugees who have arrived without their families, most of them Afghan. The current gender ratio for 16 year olds is 123 boys to 100 girls, significantly more than even in countries where boys are systematically favoured (as described here).
While the official position of welcoming all asylum-seekers was long upheld, political panic was spreading behind the scene. Sweden, it was felt by a growing number of Swedes, could not alone cope with the refugee crisis in Europe. While the right to asylum should be upheld, many Swedes reasoned, this did not necessarily imply the right to seek asylum in an EU country of choice. However, Swedish calls for European burden-sharing went largely unheeded and a number of member states continued to flatly refuse to receive any refugees at all.
Another important reason for the political U-turn was the fact that the Swedish reception system gradually became so over-burdened that it could no longer meet the standards set for it. Reception centres were overflowing and, in a few instances, asylum-seekers were literally left out in the cold. Civil society stepped in to fill the gaps; a movement calling itself “Refugees, Welcome!” formed and offered food, blankets, emergency medical care, etc at the main points of arrival in Sweden. But volunteers cannot deal with the administrative side of the reception system, which has been overstretched to the point where it can take six months before an application for asylum is even looked at and two years before a decision is reached (see here). In the meantime, asylum-seekers are left in limbo, with no possibility to either work or learn Swedish in any organised way.
The frustration created by imposed passivity during a long wait combines with the generally difficult integration process which has long characterised Sweden; the language is hard to learn for most foreigners, the system to validate foreign academic qualifications has been slow, and relatively high entry salaries discourage employers from hiring. Around 20 per cent of the population born outside Sweden remains unemployed, as compared to an overall ratio of six to seven per cent.
For unaccompanied minors, the reception crisis has had the effect that municipalities, where places in homes and schools are scarce, sometimes refuse to take on allotted minors, who are then left in provisional centres for a longer period than the system envisaged, and in greater numbers. While homes for newly arrived minors are created at a rate of 50 per week, with the number rising from 525 to 1,209 a week during the past year, the authorities have difficulties supervising them and ensuring they meet the standards set for them. During a public session in the Swedish parliament on 9 February 2016, several officials testified that they were deeply worried and lacked control over the situation. Additionally, high demand and scarce supply have forced local authorities to pay more and more to people who are running the homes and there are signs that some of them are run for profit, rather than care. For instance, on 17 February 2016, it was reported that a man with a serious criminal record and links to a band of hooligans had received large sums of public money to run a home for unaccompanied minors in southern Sweden.
There is also suspicion that quite a few of the unaccompanied minors are, in fact, older than their registered age and should not be mixing with children. These problems appear at a time when a particularly worrying trend is that those arriving tend to be younger than before. While the average age remains around 16, the proportion of 14 and 15 year olds among arriving unaccompanied asylum-seekers has been on the increase (see here).
As a consequence of the overloaded system, tougher policies were gradually – and reluctantly – introduced. While Sweden still wanted to be, as often expressed by various politicians, a “great power” in the humanitarian arena, it also had to submit to its limitations. Local authorities in municipalities, where the influx had been particularly large, were crumbling under the pressure and public support for the government´s open-armed policy was dwindling.
In October 2015, an agreement was reached across political bloc lines that will make it possible for the government to issue temporary residence permits for refugees, valid for three years at a time. According to the plan, the decision will take effect from 1 May 2016 and will apply to everyone except families with children and unaccompanied minors, who have, by then, not been granted asylum. The rules for family reunification will also become more restrictive.
On 12 November 2015, border controls were tightened in order to stop refugees who do not want to seek asylum in Sweden from entering the country. Furthermore, since 4 January 2016, companies selling tickets for trains, buses and ferries heading for Sweden are required to check that all passengers (except children travelling with parents) have valid passports or ID documents, before issuing tickets. This law is valid for three years and every six months the measures will be reviewed and possibly revised.
At the moment, these policy changes have indeed curbed the influx of asylum-seekers. In December 2015, the number of those registered as seeking asylum in Sweden fell by two thirds compared to the previous month (13,872 in December 2015 compared to 36,726 in November 2015 ) and in January 2016 the number was 4,172 (out of which 1,838 – or 44 per cent – were unaccompanied minors). This reduction goes well beyond the seasonal variation expected during the winter.
Those who still manage to get to Sweden may be affected by proposals to limit welfare services for asylum-seekers that are now circulating in the political debate. If the recent past is anything to go by, there will initially be considerable reluctance to introduce such measures, but resistance is likely to melt away if the influx of asylum-seekers takes another upturn. At the same time, more effective measures to establish the actual age of unaccompanied minors are demanded and, in the government´s directive to the migration authority for 2016, the Minister for Migration has called for a “higher level of ambition” regarding this sensitive issue. It is something which divides physicians; some refuse to carry out such investigations, seeing them as either too unreliable or too invasive.
The discussion was further complicated by a few high profile incidents involving asylum-seekers. On 25 January 2016, a 22 year old woman working in a home for unaccompanied minors outside Gothenburg, Sweden´s second biggest city, was attacked with a knife. The perpetrator was stopped by other youngsters living in the home, but the woman later died from her wounds. One of the inhabitants of the home, an Afghan asylum-seeker, was charged with the murder, as well as an earlier attempted murder. It was later reported, based on interviews by the Migration Authority, that he was, in fact, over 18 years old and should never have been housed at this home.
The killing came at a time when the debate over sexual harassment in public libraries and swimming pools was already running high in Sweden. In a particular twist of this debate, right-wing media speculated that Swedish authorities were playing down criminal incidents involving asylum-seekers in order not to feed the radical right represented by the Swedish Democrats. They pointed to the fact that, in the aftermath of the publicity on sexual harassment on New Year´s Eve in Cologne, Germany, it was revealed that similar incidents had taken place during music festivals organised by the city of Stockholm where many young teenagers had gathered before the start of the autumn school semester. Gangs hiding in the crowd had organised attacks on young girls that roughly followed the pattern reported from Cologne, ie suddenly surrounding girls and separating them from their friends in order to attack them. While the Stockholm police had initially reported that all went well during these festivals, in January 2016 it was forced to go public with all its information, including a number of incident reports it had not acted upon (see here ). AAN talked to a police officer involved in both the 2015 Stockholm festival and the reception of unaccompanied minors who confirmed the rumours already circulating that the perpetrators had been young, Afghan asylum-seekers. He said they had organised themselves via Facebook groups.
Subsequently, reports on sexual and other violence in homes for unaccompanied minors started emerging. On 20 January 2015, media reports revealed that the police authority had classified the fact that disturbances involving asylum-seekers – in homes for minors, as well as in reception centres for families and adults – had required an unprecedented number of police interventions during the preceding months. On 4 February 2016, the rape of a 15 year old Afghan boy by three 16 year old compatriots was given a great deal of coverage in Sweden´s largest morning daily, Dagens Nyheter.
For those who continue to fight for a generous asylum policy, making their case is becoming an increasingly uphill battle. For instance, on 4 February 2016, local authorities in a Stockholm suburb, had to call in the police to handle the uproar in the audience during a meeting to inform citizens about a new home for unaccompanied minors in their area. (3)
There is still considerable understanding for the hardship suffered by minors who have been forced to fend for themselves during an utterly dangerous and complicated journey. However, this is unlikely to stop the reports of violent incidents from transforming the public mood, still divided between those who want to welcome refugees and those who want to stop them from coming, into more clear-cut support for a tough, perhaps even tougher migration policy. Moreover, the radical right is jumping onto the bandwagon, sometimes in what looks like collusion with criminal elements and hooligans. On 29 January 2016, a band of masked young men started a hunt for young, non-European immigrants in central Stockholm, causing authorities to advise unaccompanied minors to stay at home. On the following day, the polarising effect of the migration issue on Swedish society was graphically illustrated when Stockholm police had to separate a demonstration against the government´s immigration policy from a counter-demonstration wanting to “crush racism.”
As part of this development, calls for more effective deportation of rejected asylum-seekers and convicted criminals without Swedish citizenship, who are staying illegally in the country, have become part of the Swedish debate. One stumbling block for deportations, however, has been the reluctance of countries of origin to take back rejected asylum-seekers. This issue was thus high on the agenda when President Ashraf Ghani met with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in Stockholm on 4 December 2015, even if the communiqué issued after the meeting did not go beyond a general commitment:
It was agreed to improve cooperation and to enter into negotiations on an agreement on re-admission in accordance with Swedish and international law, including the right of asylum within the established due processes.
(For the entire communiqué, see here)
Subsequently, on 28 January 2016, Swedish Minister of Interior Anders Ygeman declared that efforts to expel rejected asylum-seekers who are unwilling to leave the country on a voluntary basis would be stepped up. The potential overall number of rejected asylum-seekers to be returned was estimated at somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 and the declaration made headlines around the world (see for instance here, and here).
A difficult transition after a hazardous journey
For this dispatch, AAN interviewed two young Afghan men who arrived in Sweden over five years ago as unaccompanied minors. They spoke about what happened during their journey from central Afghanistan to northern Europe and how they felt about living in Sweden. Here is, in summary, what they said (the names of the two interviewees have been changed for privacy reasons):
Jawad arrived in Sweden in the autumn of 2010, after a journey that took a year or more; the period remains blurred in his mind. He said he was uncertain of his real age, but estimates he was 15 years old when he started out from Wardak province, after his father had been killed in clashes between Hazaras and Kuchis (for background, see here). He said his mother had died when he was born and his step-mother had abandoned the home. He left together with his older brother (and only sibling) but they were separated at an early stage, so he continued by himself. He had no plan to go to Europe then: “It was like being inside a river that could take you anywhere.”
Via Iran, he eventually worked his way to Turkey where a group of twelve Afghans bought a rubber boat, with the intention of paddling across the sea to Greece. “If you paddled at night,” he explains, “you could see the lights on the other side.” The boat was not sea-worthy and sank, fortunately still close enough to the shore that nobody drowned. The same thing happened with a second boat, but for the third attempt, the group invested more money, got a better boat and managed to get across the strait. The following period in Greece stands out as the most difficult part of the journey. There were many migrants but hardly any provisions. Jawad stayed in a tent or lived under the skies, doing what it took to survive: “The person who did the things that I did then was not the real me.”
After a great many attempts to hide inside trucks heading for Germany, he finally succeeded. The hiding space was extremely cramped and the air inside the truck was stuffy and hot. The group of five did not have enough water to last them through the long trip. Finally, Jawad and one of his companions passed out. In panic, the other three banged the walls of the truck, until they were discovered. Jawad and his companion were taken to a hospital. Because they did not know where they were, they fled the hospital as soon as possible. Later they found out the truck had, indeed, reached Germany. Following the advice of an Afghan compatriot, Jawad continued to Sweden, mostly hiding in trains. He ended up in a wealthy Stockholm suburb, where reception facilities were, at that time, trying their best to help migrants like him.
In Sweden, Jawad has done exceptionally well: he has learned the language and graduated from high school with good marks. But he still thinks his life is tough, albeit in a manner different from before. He misses his country, its nature and his home. He has not applied for his brother to join him in Sweden, assuming that it would not work – his brother is too old. He is not used to living alone and feels psychologically vulnerable: “In Afghanistan we had no money but we were together and we were happy inside. Here it is the other way around: we have money, but inside we are alone.”
Jawad wants to be an engineer but, due to what he defines as “psychological weakness,” was unable to finish a preparatory course and has now taken on a job in a reception centre for more recently arrived, unaccompanied minors. Having lived with fear for so long, he says, it is now everywhere inside his body. He wants to return to Afghanistan as soon as possible, saying again: “In Afghanistan, we were free inside.”
Massud, now 20 years old, arrived in Sweden in August 2010. He tells AAN that his father was killed by a car bomb and his uncle, who had returned to their village to take care of the family, was murdered by the Taleban for having worked as an interpreter with United States troops. The family was then told they had better leave the area. As the eldest of six siblings he was sent to Ghazni city, around the time of Nowruz in 2009, to prepare for his family´s relocation there. But instead of having his family join him, he found himself in the hands of a smuggler and, together with three other boys, he was taken to Iran and later, by car and on foot, to Turkey. Here he spent several months locked up in a basement with a group of other youngsters, mostly Afghan but also Pakistanis and Iranians. There were no windows, the group received very little food and there was a lot of fighting, sometimes violent, among them.
Subsequently, handed over from one smuggler/guide to another, the group was taken to Istanbul, again partly by car, partly on foot, and again, found themselves locked up in a basement. When one of them tried to look out of the window by removing its cover, he was badly beaten. For several months, they waited for favourable weather conditions. When the right time came, they were taken to a forest and on the following day, Massud saw the sea for the first time in his life. “I was shocked,” he said. The smuggler pointed out the direction towards Greece and left them on the shore with a deflated rubber boat.
The boat´s engine did not last long – the propeller was stuck in a net – and no one in the group knew how to use the oars, so during the night they were drifting at sea. Some boys were crying, others praying, no telephones worked. By morning, one of them managed to get the engine started again and the Greek cliffs came into sight. Greek fishermen, who wanted to take the boat and engine, dropped them on the shore. Massud and two companions continued walking until they had to give up and were ultimately detained by the police. As he was a minor, he was released after a couple of weeks and managed to get on a boat to Athens. Sleeping in a park or in a tent, sometimes receiving food from a church, he got by for a couple of months.
Around a year after his departure from Ghazni, after many unsuccessful attempts, he finally managed to hide underneath a truck, in the narrow space between the coach and the wheels. In this manner he managed to reach Italy. He still remembers the stunned faces of those who saw the youngsters crawl out from underneath the truck. From then on, it was a tale of hiding in trains, being thrown off and hiding again in the next one, getting help from kind people and being abused by others. After some 18 months, the journey ended in a home for unaccompanied minors in central Stockholm and now, Massud lives in the same suburb as Jawad.
Unlike Jawad, Massud has been reunited with his family. After a couple of years, his mother and five siblings arrived in Sweden, but it was not a happy day for him. Massud felt overwhelmed by his feeling of responsibility for them all: “I cried and cried so much, I had to leave the house. My mother seemed so much older, and was no longer the competent person I thought she was.” He has not told his mother, or anyone else in his family, about his experiences on his way to Sweden: “They would never understand how difficult it was.” For his family, his journey was a big investment – they told Massud they had to sell a motorbike, a cow, some sheep and some land, and add cash on top of it to get him as far as Greece. His family estimates the corresponding sum to have been around 10,000 euros.
Massud says he has lost himself: “I miss myself and will never be able to find myself again.” He has seen a couple of therapists, but it has not helped him. As he sees it, he has sacrificed himself for his family: “It was not the intention but this is how it turned out.” He can see that, in theory, this could be a great thing, but normally he cannot feel that satisfaction inside, even though he does feel proud when he sees his siblings do well in Sweden. While he would like to return to Afghanistan, he thinks his three little sisters will stay and that they will find a better life in Sweden than would have been possible in Afghanistan. Under no circumstances would he submit himself to the same journey again. The worst parts of it keep coming back to him, in flashbacks.
Trying to cope in a heavily polarised country
Many unaccompanied Afghan minors who have made the strenuous and hazardous journey from Afghanistan to Sweden, in the hands of unreliable smugglers or left to their own devices, carry a heavy baggage in terms of traumatic experiences. One former employee at a reception centre told AAN that, according to his rough estimation, two or three out of every ten Afghan minors would need special psychiatric attention in order to deal with post-traumatic stress. Such care is only exceptionally available; therapists with the linguistic and cultural knowledge to deal with Afghans recently arrived in Sweden are rare.
While the others may not need such specialised care, the transition from a collective environment to an individualistic society, after a long journey involving extreme hardship, is wrought with difficulties for them as well. Every story is unique but one common denominator that stands out revolves around losing one´s bearings. The weight of this experience adds to the difficulties normally involved in any successful resettlement and integration into a society as different from Afghanistan as Sweden, which is deemed the world´s most secular country and in the forefront also when it comes to gender equality.
At the same time, the influx of asylum-seekers during the last couple of years has turned Sweden into a heavily polarised country. While many Swedes keep standing up for a liberal and generous immigration policy, a political movement working against immigrants, particularly from non-European countries, has gathered strength. Somewhere in between are a great number of Swedes, including the Swedish government, who fear that the overload caused by the recent influx could erode the welfare system and who feel that a ‘breathing space’ is needed. Unaccompanied minors, most of them Afghan boys, often find themselves at the centre of the ongoing debate and are likely to be negatively affected by the change that is taking place in the political landscape. For those who continue to arrive, the challenge is likely to be even greater.
(1) For relevant statistics, see here. The second largest group came from Syria – but was much smaller, around 3 000 arrivals during the period January-October 2015 – followed by Eritreans and Somalis.
(2) The IMF chart was presented at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 20-23 January 2016 at Davos, Switzerland. The figure for Sweden was 1.0 per cent, followed by Denmark, with 0.57 per cent. See this report, p 12.
(3) The uproar was in spite of the fact that three well-functioning homes had already been established in this municipality. The local authorities had to change their plans after the upheaval at the information meeting and are now looking for a new location.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020