Last summer, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America crossed the US border, it triggered an immigration crisis.
Today Europe faces its own immigration crisis, on a much larger scale. And there is a similar wave of children making the dangerous journey on their own from their war-ravaged homelands to claim asylum, particularly in liberal Sweden.
But while many of the “unaccompanied minors” from Central America were seeking to reunite with extended families in the US, the youthful arrivals in Sweden often have an inverse goal: to secure refugee status so that they can bring their families with them to their new haven.
“Honestly, the main reason I came to Sweden is to be able to bring my mother here,” says Omar Nagar, a 17-year-old Syrian who arrived in August in Malmö, a city just a bridge away from Denmark and the principal entry point for refugees into Sweden. “Someday I hope to become a doctor,” he adds, “but my first dream is to bring my mother so she can live a peaceful life.”
Sweden has already registered more than 8,000 unaccompanied foreign minors entering the country this year and is on track to take in more than 12,000 by the end of December. That’s about 50 percent more than last year, and triple the number that registered in 2013.
“At the beginning of this year we were receiving about 40 children a week, but by the summer it became 40 a day,” says Carina Nilsson, the commissioner for the welfare and care of minors for Malmö.
Afghan children account for the largest portion of minors arriving alone in Malmö, followed by smaller numbers of Eritreans, Syrians, and Somalis. “We are finding that Afghan families send sons as young as 12,” Ms. Nilsson says. (So far, relatively few of the Syrians to arrive in Sweden are unaccompanied minors. Most Syrians are either 18 or older or are families traveling together.)
Dangers at home
Many of the children here are like the “lost boys” of Sudan, adolescents seeking safety and a future after their home countries denied them both.
One of those is Rahmat Moradi, a 16-year-old Afghan boy who arrived in Malmö in January. His father was an interpreter for American and British forces in Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand province. Rahmat enjoyed learning English from his dad, but he was also aware of the threats his father received from the Taliban to stop working with the “pagan” forces.
As the dangers the family faced grew, Rahmat says he faced troubles of his own. The boy’s sweet face and small stature drew the leering eye of an Afghan general, who sent soldiers around to take Rahmat for the general’s “entertainment.”
“He told me to dance for him, but I said no, I won’t do these bad things,” Rahmat says. “But then he put a gun in me here,” he says, indicating his side. Lowering his head, he adds, “So I danced for him, and he did so many bad things to me.”
In the end of 2013, Rahmat says, the Taliban came to his house in the night, beat his parents, and took his father away. Rahmat was sent first to live with neighbors for a few days, but then he was sent to Turkey – and on to Sweden. As he seeks asylum in Sweden, he knows nothing of what has become of his mother and the rest of his family.
Such horrific stories are not uncommon among the child refugees in Malmö. And that is partially why Sweden has made itself so accommodating to young refugees.
Sweden considers anyone under 18 to be a "child": a more accommodating definition than many countries. And those who are recognized as children get generous benefits, including a stipend of $275 a month, enrollment in Swedish classes, counseling, tutoring, and housing, either via a guardian or in a residential center.
“We believe the smugglers send them here because they know the conditions for minors are good in Sweden, and it’s true,” Nilsson says. “We think it’s very important to give the children a good reception in Malmö after they have suffered so much.”
Given the extra benefits minor refugees receive, Sweden does vet applicants as best they can to confirm their status. The primary vetting is to determine age: Rahmat, for example, is having trouble getting asylum because authorities believe he is over 18, though he insists he will be 17 in January. Generally, though, minors do get asylum status if they are from a conflict country like Afghanistan, Eritrea, or Syria.
'The life they should have as children'
Many minor refugees see earning asylum as the gateway to a greater goal: bringing their families to safety in Sweden. There are widespread rumors that doing that is quick and easy once a child is granted asylum.
For a few, that dream is already “mission accomplished.” Tabasom Rahimi, the daughter of Afghans living as undocumented refugees in Iran, arrived in Malmö in 2012 at the age of 14. Seven months later she was granted asylum status, and a few months ago she was successful in bringing her mother to live in Malmö as well.
“When I got asylum I told Migration [the Swedish immigration service] I want my mother to come live with me,” she says. “and two years later she’s here.”
But in fact, Nilsson adds, Tabasom's experience is the exception, not the rule. Despite the prevalence of the idea that Sweden is an easy place for minors to bring their families, in recent years just over 10 percent of those petitioning for family reunification have succeeded.
Still, the refugee children in Malmö end up doing very well, says Nilsson. She proudly displays photos of a graduation party the city held in June for 25 graduates of trade school programs for unaccompanied minors.
“Most of them want to succeed here, and we find they often do better than the children who come with refugee families,” Nilsson adds, citing studies that find the unaccompanied minors who live in special housing with lots of Swedish advisers and mentors often integrate more successfully.
Jenny Anderberg, the director at Otto’s Place, a social center for minor refugees in Malmö, says “I think the idea is very strong in Sweden that these are children, children who have experienced so much and suffered and lost so much coming here, and so now we should try to give them some of the life they should have as children.”