Sweden is one of the largest destination points for child refugees during the current crisis. In Malmö, Sweden, unaccompanied minors continue to arrive in droves. In 2015, more than 35,000 unaccompanied children vied for asylum in Sweden. Fleeing from violence and persecution in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq and Ethiopia, over 2,500 are girls and nearly half are 15 and younger. Most traveled alone to Sweden while some children were not separated from their families until they were en route seeking asylum.
Scandinavia’s cold temperatures do not deter new arrivals since Sweden is one of few countries in the European Union that holds up to international standards for asylum policies. Sweden has one of the most gracious asylum systems in the EU, especially for unaccompanied minors.
Unaccompanied minors are protected in many ways through Swedish, EU and internationally recognized legislation, which emphasizes the best interests of the child.
Various legislations and guidelines try their best to guarantee refugee children the same rights and opportunities as other children, but whether or not Sweden succeeds in doing so is questionable. By law, unaccompanied children in Sweden cannot be detained and are provided equal access to education, housing, health care, a guardian and a lawyer. Though, the very foundation of Sweden’s liberal asylum system is threatened as borders become policed. Even refugees’ basic needs for comfort and intimacy are largely bereft.
Refugee children have to carry a heavy burden—whether it is the violence they fled, the process of integrating into a new society, learning a new language, or the indescribable journey endured—that would cause trauma even in the strongest of us.
Eira Malmros Manfrinato is a 21-year-old student earning her Bachelor’s in International Migration and Ethnic Relations in Malmö, Sweden. She is one of many Swedish citizens who have taken it upon themselves to work with unaccompanied minors. Her particular centre is for unaccompanied boys.
Sitting down with Eira, Pike and Hurricane asked her how her personal experience and work may have changed her outlook on Sweden’s treatment of unaccompanied minors. For her, beyond essential asylum legislation, forming personal connections is vital for unaccompanied minors’ well-being, even if their stay in Sweden is undetermined.
Pike and Hurricane: How many children do you look after?
Eira Malmros Manfrinato: I look after ten kids and we are always two staff working together.
PH: Could you describe an average day at work?
EM: Arriving at work, I sit down with my colleagues and go through what has been going on at the centre the time I haven’t worked. How the boys are, what the plans are for the day and other necessary information that I have to know about before starting. The days can look very different, but, in the weekdays, the boys are at school and the staff can concentrate on office work related tasks etc. In the afternoons, I often socialize with the kids. Help them, talk with them, etc. And in the evening, we fix dinner together. Sometimes, there are certain events happening and we’ll leave for a trip with those who are interested.
PH: What have the kids asked you about? With what do they need the adults’ guidance the most? Social life? School work?
EM: I think many times it is about intercultural communication. How you use the language, what to say when and in which way you speak to different people. For example: girls or teachers. Then, they ask us about help with homework.
PH: Do the boys still feel secure in their dreams and aspirations after all that has happened to them? What do they hope to make for themselves in Sweden?
EM: Because of the situation they’re in- they don’t feel safe and cannot know what the future holds for them. This makes it more difficult to plan. Although they obviously have dreams. The biggest dream for many is firstly to get citizenship and secondly to learn Swedish well. A big wish is to be able to have a stable life and send some money home as well. Some dream further about studying at university and becoming, for example, doctors. Others see professions such as electricians as a future.
PH: What feelings have the kids evoked in you? Do you think you were prepared for those experiences and emotions beforehand?
EM: Since I have already worked with refugees before, I had an idea about what it was like. Although to be one of the staff, being at the centre for many hours/ days in a row, it leads to much more knowledge about each individual and means a closer cooperation. I love my job and to be around the kids. It has led me to being much more grateful of life, hearing their stories and knowing about their tough situations. They each contribute in their own ways to the group and to follow their steps along the way, trying to support and motivate has made me grow a lot in myself and gain social knowledge. Many times there is a positive spirit, but, sometimes, bad and difficult things happen and that has been a challenge for me to learn how to act if someone for example is in a very bad mental state. Overall, I’ve gotten so much inspiration as well as I’ve become stronger and see the world differently and less shallow than before.
PH: How well do you think the kids are protected under the Swedish/EU law? Were you educated about the kids’ rights before you started working?
EM: I study International Migration and Ethnic Relations, which, before I started out, has given me some bases for knowing about the refugee apparatus. Though, working with it in real life has made me see the situation more clearly. I think that there is a protection system when it comes to their living conditions and I think the staff is doing a great job. Even though I question the work of Migrationsverket. I feel that the waiting times are so long and many times the boys feel left out not having any power in the process. A lot of times, in my opinion, the system does not put the kids’ mental health in focus since they are expected to integrate while waiting for the asylum result. They are giving them the time to feel at home and then, in some cases, all of a sudden they are not allowed in the country anymore. At least after the newest law in Sweden, that is what I am the most upset about.
Laura Korte & Mariah Katz
Note: The interview has been edited for brevity.
Photo Credit: Mariah Katz, Photo of Eira