As Migrants Flow In, Sweden Begins To Rethink Its Open-Door Policy | KUOW News and Information

As Migrants Flow In, Sweden Begins To Rethink Its Open-Door Policy

Mar 7, 2016
Originally published on March 7, 2016 3:42 pm

Anna Pfeifer unlocks a door to one of the apartments for unaccompanied minors in the town of Ronneby, in southern Sweden. She says there are 50 kids at this complex, all between the ages of 15 and 18. They come from countries across Africa and the Middle East — mostly boys, and a handful of girls.

They can stay in this protected environment until they are 21, Pfeifer says. Staff members are on hand to help 24 hours a day. Many of the kids have endured traumatic trips. They can talk about it with a psychologist if they want, but she says the staff doesn't question the youngsters about what they went through.

"We are working with them from now and the future," says Pfeifer. "That's the important thing: What do you want in the future?"

No one knows exactly how many unaccompanied minors are on the move across Europe, but Germany registered 60,000 and Sweden 35,000 last year alone. Sweden has created hundreds of homes for unaccompanied minors across the country.

Sweden has been accepting about 400 unaccompanied minors a year since 2004, says Sophia Ohvall Lindberg of the Swedish Migration Agency. "But," she adds, "I must say we weren't ready for 35,000."

In Ronneby, Pfeifer says these kids have risked a lot and show great determination.

"They have a mission. They have to do something, they have to show something," she says. "So they don't come here to be asleep the whole day. They want to start school immediately. They want to work. They want to do something. So it's very easy to work with them."

Traveling Alone To Sweden

Sayd, 18 and from Afghanistan, traveled alone to Sweden after becoming separated from his family in Turkey. His last name is being withheld to protect his privacy. Sayd says he wasn't able to go to school back home.

"I love Sweden because I will be able to study," he says. "There's really nothing I don't like about Sweden. I even love the weather!"

At Stockholm University, researcher Aycan Celikaksoy is following the progress of unaccompanied young asylum seekers who've been coming to Sweden for more than a decade.

"Sometimes the whole traveling process without their families takes several years," she says. "The kids have to work in transit countries to be able to pay smugglers. So it's not only [their] arrival age that's important — but of course, at what age these children have been left alone and how long they've been fleeing their countries."

Ohvall Lindberg says the huge number of arrivals has put pressure on the system, but Sweden still strives to do what's best for the children. They attend special language classes to prepare them for education in Sweden. Every unaccompanied minor is assigned a legal guardian who manages the child's monthly stipend from the government and makes sure he or she is in school and receiving proper care. Ohvall Lindberg says there has been a shortage of people to serve as legal guardians.

This year, Sweden passed a law saying that every municipality must accommodate its share of migrants. This country of 10 million took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 alone, most from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. That would be the equivalent of the U.S. opening its doors to 5 million asylum seekers.

Reconsidering The Open-Door Policy

But many Swedes appear to be rethinking the country's decades-long open-door policy for refugees. Some polls late last year showed Sweden's anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, with growing support.

Migrants under age 18 get special consideration when they apply for asylum in Sweden. But Kent Ekeroth, a Sweden Democratic member of parliament, believes many who claim to be minors are actually much older. He is calling for medical tests to confirm the actual ages.

Denmark and Norway already carry out tests to measure bone density and estimate age. But the Swedish medical community has called them unreliable and unethical. Meanwhile, Ekeroth complains that Sweden now spends more to support migrants than it does to help Swedes.

"Our own population, our own elderly people who've been working 40, 50 years, who grew up here, they have to pay a lot more," says Ekeroth. "So now we're discriminating against Swedes for the benefit of immigrants who have no respect for our country."

Swedish officials say the country has successfully integrated previous waves of immigrants. A recent Stockholm University study shows unaccompanied minors who arrived in past years have generally been successful in finding jobs in the Swedish economy.

The Swedish migration agency's Ohvall Lindberg believes today's unaccompanied youths could be an asset for Sweden.

"We need to understand that the children are going to be with us in the system for three, four years, and if we work very well with them during that time, then they are a resource for our country," she says. "Because Sweden is going to need more people."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Of those people who are seeking refuge in Europe, an increasing number of them are children traveling alone. But last year, 35,000 of them sought asylum in Sweden and 60,000 in Germany. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Sweden, which has taken in more migrants per capita than any other European country.

ANNA PFEIFER: Here is this house. And here....

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Anna Pfeifer is the director of one of hundreds of homes for unaccompanied minors around Sweden. Her center in the southern Swedish town of Ronneby harbors 50 kids from Africa and the Middle East between the ages of 15 and 18. Pfeifer says the staff doesn't question the youngsters on what they went through to get here.

PFEIFER: We are working with them from now and the future. That's important. What do you want to do in the future?

BEARDSLEY: The minors, including a handful of girls, can stay in this protected environment until they are 21. Pfeifer says these kids have risked a lot and have great determination.

PFEIFER: They have a mission. You have to do something. You have to show something. So they don't come here to be asleep the whole day. They want to start school immediately. They want to work. They want to do something. So it's very easy to work with them.

BEARDSLEY: Sayd is just 18. He traveled to Sweden alone after becoming separated from his family in Turkey. His name is being withheld to protect his privacy. Sayd says he wasn't able to go to school in Afganistan.

SAYD: (Through interpreter) I love Sweden because I'll be able to study. There's really nothing I don't like about Sweden. I even love the weather.

BEARDSLEY: Aycan Celikaksoy is a researcher at the University of Stockholm. She follows the progress of unaccompanied young asylum seekers who have been coming to Sweden for more than a decade. Celikaksoy says it's not only about how young the migrants are when they arrive in Sweden.

AYCAN CELIKAKSOY: Sometimes the whole traveling process without their families takes several years, so it is not only the arrival age that is important but, of course, at what age has these children been left alone and how long have they been fleeing their countries.

BEARDSLEY: This year, Sweden passed a law that says every municipality must accommodate its share of migrants. This country of 10 million people took in 160,000 migrants in 2015 alone. That would be the equivalent of the U.S. opening its doors to five million asylum seekers. But many Swedes appear to be rethinking the country's decades-long open-door policy for refugees. Recent opinion polls show Sweden's anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, has growing support.

KENT EKEROTH: OK, so...

BEARDSLEY: Kent Ekeroth is a member of parliament for the Sweden Democrats. Migrants under the age of 18 get special consideration when they apply for asylum in Sweden. Ekeroth believes many of those claiming to be minors are actually much older, and he's demanded medical age tests. He says Sweden now spends more supporting migrants than it does helping Swedes.

EKEROTH: Our own population, our own elderly people who's been working here for 40, 50 years who grew up here - they have to pay a lot more. So now we're discriminating Swedes for the benefit of immigrants who have no respect for our country whatsoever.

BEARDSLEY: Swedish officials say the country has successfully integrated previous waves of immigrants over the years. The Swedish Migration Agency's Sophia Ohvall Lindberg believes unaccompanied youths could be an asset for Sweden.

SOPHIA OHVALL LINDBERG: We need to understand that the children are going to be with us in the system for three, four years. And if we work very well with them during that time, then they are a resource for a country as Sweden because we're going to need more people.

BEARDSLEY: A new Stockholm University study shows unaccompanied minors who arrived in previous years have generally been successful in finding jobs in the Swedish economy. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Stockholm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.