Faiaz arrived in Sweden from Afghanistan in 2015, aged just sixteen. “After being in ten different countries and having a very difficult journey,” he said, “we finally had hope. We could feel alive.”
More than 35,000 unaccompanied children like Faiaz applied for asylum in Sweden that year — five times higher than the year before, and more than ten times as many as in 2011.
They were drawn to the country in part because of its track record of quickly and fairly processing migrant children’s asylum claims. By dedicating an unusual level of time and expertise to cases early on, the Swedish Migration Agency has largely been able to avoid the protracted appeals processes seen elsewhere in Europe.
The sheer scale of applications, over just a few months, put even a well-developed system like the Swedish one under strain. But where other European countries saw their asylum procedures buckle under the pressure, Sweden’s specialised approach meant it endured much better.
Surging numbers slowed Sweden to a crawl
The Swedish approach to processing asylum claims is marked out by the amount of time and expertise given to each claim.
Anna Bengtsson, of the country’s migration agency, explained that every case has at least two staff — a researcher and a decision-maker — usually with masters-level qualifications in a relevant field. Each asylum seeker is given a public lawyer to represent them from the beginning of their claim, rather than only at the appeal stage as in other European countries.
This level of attention, however, became hard to sustain in the face of the significant surge in asylum seeker numbers in 2015. The total number of asylum applications doubled from 81,000 in 2014 to 162,000 a year later, and the number from unaccompanied minors increased more than fivefold to 35,400.
Bengtsson said that the usual time to process an unaccompanied child’s asylum claim was three months, but rose as high as two years for many who arrived in late 2015. A Human Rights Watch report issued in mid-2016 criticised the government for not prioritising applications from children.
The report highlighted broader problems in Sweden’s system of caring for unaccompanied minors. Children were placed in group homes which had to be opened in large numbers at short notice. In some, the report found, single girls shared accommodation with groups of boys, and staff were sometimes under-trained.
There were also delays in the appointment of guardians for asylum seeker children. Municipal governments in Sweden assign unaccompanied minors an individual guardian, who is responsible for enrolling them in school and helping them access healthcare and social services.
Difficulties finding and training guardians as numbers increased meant that some children had to wait more than a month before being able to start school.
The challenges associated with 2015’s high numbers did not fade rapidly. In February 2017, the government’s Ombudsman for Children raised concerns about refugee children getting inadequate attention for mental illness, and even using online forums to plan mass suicides.
Faiaz, who is now involved in refugee activism in Sweden with Save The Children, said the initial sense of hope was dulled after a few months. “The government started treating us differently,” he said. “They deported some of my friends, and some people committed suicide because they didn’t have anything to say to the migration board.”
But individualised attention worked
Even in the exceptional circumstances of 2015, however, Sweden’s approach worked well by international standards. The 2016 Human Rights Watch report praised the government for housing the large number of child arrivals without resorting to detention centres.
The increase in numbers also prompted the national government to introduce new rules to ensure asylum seekers are more evenly spread between municipalities, avoiding severe burdens on particular areas.
Bengtsson said that the migration agency has almost cleared the backlog of asylum applications, and that processing times for new applications are back to three months. In the intervening period, rules around residence permits were changed to allow asylum seekers waiting for a decision to continue their school studies.
Although the process has been lengthy, the greater resources dedicated to initial decisions avoid the risk of protracted appeals adding more delay and uncertainty.
Around 5% of decisions are overturned on appeal, according to Bengtsson. “Five percent is still not good, we should perhaps do better,” she said. “But compared to many other countries, it’s not a lot.” Recent figures from both Germany and the UK showed nearly 50% of immigration and asylum appeals are upheld.
That high quality of decision-making has proved sustainable despite the significantly larger caseload. A migration agency review, involving expert reassessment of a sample of cases, found that standards did not fall during the 2015-16 surge.
In Germany, by contrast, the weight of additional numbers crippled the asylum processing system in some places. The refugee office in the city of Bremen, for example, has had its authority suspended and is under investigation for allegedly wrongly granting asylum in 1200 cases.
The specialisation of staff and level of attention given to each case has meant Sweden has avoided such pitfalls. Even facing the challenge of attending to unprecedented numbers of vulnerable children, the country has managed to maintain a system that, by international standards, works remarkably well. — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Hill)