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MALMÖ, Sweden — Almost two years ago, Chamdin’s family decided that their hometown of Jaba, Syria, was getting too dangerous. It was resolved that Chamdin, who was then 16, and his 14-year-old brother would make their way to a safe country and wait for the rest of the family to join.
After doing some research on the Internet regarding conditions for asylum seekers in different countries, the family chose Sweden. Most countries treat underage asylum seekers with more leniency than their adult peers, but Sweden enjoys a reputation as a particularly generous host because it grants permanent residence to all applicants under 18 who qualify for asylum. It also treats them well during the application process. For example, young people are assigned to homes run by social workers, not immigration officials.
As a result, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving from Syria and other nations is skyrocketing. In 2004, an estimated 388 unaccompanied children arrived in Sweden. By last year, that figure had leapt to 7,049, according to the Swedish migration agency, Migrationsverket. The country is now by far Europe’s most popular destination for child refugees, followed by Germany at 4,400, Italy at 2,505, Austria at 1,975 and Britain at 1,860, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical body.
Some 45 unaccompanied minors arrive each week in Malmö, more than in any other Swedish city. For the last 16 months, Chamdin has lived in a home for child asylum seekers, one of 13 such facilities established in Malmö in recent years. Three provide emergency housing, with newly arrived children spending two to three days before being assigned to a long-term facility here or in another city. Another three offer longer-term housing for youths as they apply for asylum, while children who’ve been granted asylum live in one of seven group homes. (Chamdin’s surname has been withheld because of concerns about his family's safety, while his brother hasn’t given consent for his first name to be mentioned.)
Chamdin’s home away from home is a cozy residence with a communal area featuring couches, a large dining table and a kitchen, where staff prepare meals for the 25 boys residing here. (The overwhelming majority of child migrants are male. Girls are housed at a different home in the city.) Each of the boys has a private bedroom. There are communal rooms with TV sets and game consoles as well.
Homes for child refugees in Malmö employ 200 social workers, whose salaries are paid by the government. They help the young people with schoolwork, do their laundry and also teach them how to cook and look after themselves. At Chamdin’s residence in the neighborhood of Rosengård, the boys have a list of items they’d like the social workers to purchase. Recently Chamdin got very lucky: When he told his social worker that he needed new clothes, an iPad and a monthly bus pass, he soon received the first two along with a bike.
‘Some children leave out facts because they’ve been told at home to do so. So our experts check their dialects, and we ask them local-knowledge questions, for example about landmarks in Mosul.’
Most Sweden-bound youths make their way to Europe via Turkey with the help of smugglers. Their first stop is typically Italy, and then they travel north, often by train but sometimes, as in Chamdin’s case, by plane to Copenhagen, Denmark. From there, Sweden is an easy train ride away. Chamdin estimates that his journey cost his father some 9,000 euros ($10,000). Many extended families pool their money to allow one teenager to be smuggled to Sweden. Once young people gain asylum, they are entitled to sponsor their families. Immigration officials assist with the paperwork and, if the family lacks the means to pay for the trip, help with the cost of the trip as well.
“The children arrive at all times of the day and night,” says Lene Cordes, the head of Malmö’s social-services department in charge of unaccompanied child refugees. “During the daytime they make their way to the Migrationsverket office and request asylum. At other times of the day they turn up at the police station or the railway station.” Some present themselves at child-refugee residences.
During his journey to Sweden, Chamdin heard from others refugees traveling with the smuggler that Germany might be a better destination. He called his father, who advised him to stick with the original plan. Chamdin says he has been pleased with his decision. Sweden is safe, and people treat him well. The social workers even buy him items his father wouldn’t, he says.
To help evaluate asylum applications, a veritable industry of experts has sprung up. Under Swedish law, asylum applicants under 18 who travel alone and are from countries or areas affected by severe hardship are designated as unaccompanied minors and thus qualify for the more lenient asylum-application process. Language experts assist the 122 migration officials now working exclusively on unaccompanied-child cases in instances when a young person’s dialect isn’t clear. A child from Somalia has a much better chance of gaining asylum than a child from Somaliland, Somalia’s unrecognized but relatively stable neighbor, and a child from Mosul, Iraq, has a far better chances of getting asylum than one from Erbil, Kurdistan. Private companies operate child-migrant residences as well, selling their services to cities, which are in turn reimbursed by Migrationsverket.
“When the children tell us that they have absolutely no family, it raises red flags,” says Kjell-Terje Torvik, Migrationsverket’s expert on child migration. “Some children leave out facts because they’ve been told at home to do so. So our experts check their dialects, and we ask them local-knowledge questions, for example about landmarks in Mosul.”
Doctors and dentists are asked to help establish a teenager’s age. “Especially around 18 years, a person’s age is incredibly hard to determine, and the error of margin is around two years,” says Lars H Gustafsson, a pediatrician who is a member of the Swedish medical association’s working group on child refugees. “The compromise we’ve reached with Migrationsverket is that there will just be a few doctors at special clinics who specialize in age determination, and they can only be asked to point out when a person’s reported age seems totally incorrect.”
As a result, some “children” who are, in reality, around 20 years old may be let in under the child-asylum laws. But the Swedish doctors say that’s preferable to running the risk of returning a 16-year-old who looks 18 to his home country. Approximately 87 percent of Sweden’s unaccompanied child refugees are granted asylum.
Two years ago, Sweden introduced a blanket asylum policy for Syrians, so Chamdin’s family would have been granted asylum even if he and his brother hadn’t first made the journey. Their parents and three younger siblings have just arrived in Sweden. The family will soon reunite in an apartment outside Malmö. Last year, 943 adults were granted asylum based on their relationship with unaccompanied minors, according to Migrationsverket.
Child migrants are cared for by the government in city-run homes until they turn 18, and they attend public schools. If at that point they’re still waiting for their asylum decision, they remain in the home. Those who have already been granted asylum move temporarily to apartments, where they’re supervised by social workers. (Malmö offers 25 such apartments). Eventually they move into their own apartments, mostly city-owned rentals available to any resident who joins the queue for public housing.
While there’s growing discomfort among Swedes with the country’s immigration policies — the far-right Sweden Democrats, who advocate stricter immigration laws, won 12.9 percent of the votes in last year’s parliamentary elections, compared with 4.8 percent in the previous election — few Swedes would publicly take issue with the child-migrant laws. In conversations with Al Jazeera America, however, some said they worried that young asylum seekers and their families are taking advantage of Sweden’s generosity. But Torbjörn Wiik, the director of Chamdin’s residence, isn’t bothered by the fact that some of the charges in his care may not be telling the whole truth about their age or origins. “There’s always a reason why someone wants to leave his home country,” he says. “If that reason is that they want a better life somewhere else, that’s OK too.”
Lately the country has seen a surge in teenage boys arriving from Morocco. “Things aren’t great in Spain right now, so they’re probably going here instead,” says Wiik. (Moroccan asylum seekers have traditionally made their way to Spain.) Swedish authorities believe many of the Moroccan youths are homeless street children. “Even street children have smartphones now,” says Gustafsson. “They can see what Sweden looks like. The world is coming here.”
Mehdi Ghazinour, a professor of social work at Umeå University in northern Sweden, says that the asylum process is only the first of many challenges these young people will face. “Swedish society is good at receiving them, but it doesn’t open its doors, so these young refugees have a hard time finding work and friends,” he says. “The Swedish mentality needs to change.” According to the government’s statistics agency, SCB, unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds born abroad is 70 percent higher than among those born in Sweden. Argues Ghazinour: “Swedish institutions are good, but people need to be more welcoming on the social level as well.”