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(Stockholm) – Unaccompanied migrant children in Sweden are experiencing delays and difficulties in getting critical care and support, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Sweden has had an unprecedented increase in the arrival of unaccompanied children, but it should do more to ensure that all unaccompanied children get special protection, including swift processing of their asylum claims.

The 32-page report, “Seeking Refuge: Unaccompanied Children in Sweden,” documents shortcomings in the system that prevent children from receiving the care guaranteed by international standards and Swedish law. Children endure long delays in the appointment of legal guardians to safeguard the child’s best interests and wait months before meeting with a social worker or healthcare provider. In some cases, the specific needs of girls are not sufficiently identified or addressed. Amid a backlog of cases, unaccompanied children face lengthy waits in processing their asylum applications.

“Sweden has been a global leader in providing sanctuary to unaccompanied children and has taken positive steps to respond to a surge in arrivals,” said Rebecca Riddell, Europe and Central Asia fellow at Human Rights Watch. “But gaps in the system compound the suffering and anxiety of children who arrive in Sweden alone and who have already gone through more than any child should have to bear.”

More than 35,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Sweden in 2015, a dramatic increase over the approximately 7,000 in 2014. Sweden guarantees asylum-seeking children equal access to health care and education, and accommodates most unaccompanied children in dedicated group homes.

Human Rights Watch visited seven municipalities and interviewed 50 unaccompanied children, as well as national and local officials and service providers. 

Afghan boys playing soccer at a group home in Gothenburg, Sweden. © 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

Children experience delays in getting critical mental and physical health care, Human Rights Watch found. Some of those interviewed had been in Sweden for months without meeting with a social worker or receiving a health screening, and others had not been referred for needed physical and mental health services. Children also described problems with their housing, including disruptive relocations, insensitive staff, and poor conditions.

Girls who have experienced sexual violence are not being identified or referred for essential services. Nadia J., a 16-year-old girl from Afghanistan, said that a smuggler in Turkey had raped her repeatedly but that when she told her Swedish social worker, she was not sent for critical post-rape care, including gynecological care and psychological support. Girls also said they had been placed in group homes with very few or no other girls, and some girls in group homes said that boys there had harassed them.

Children face an agonizing wait for a decision in their asylum application, Human Rights Watch found. Sweden does not give applications by children priority. As of April 20, 2016, the Swedish Migration Agency had 31,234 pending applications from unaccompanied children and could not provide applicants with estimated processing times. Hiyab A., a 16-year-old girl from Eritrea, said that worrying about her asylum has affected her ability to focus in the classroom: “I am attending school but I can’t think about it because I am worried about my papers and asylum.” Extended periods of insecurity can have a particularly harmful effect on children’s mental health.

Children also described long delays in the appointment of guardians, making it harder for them to get information, support, and education. The Swedish Act on Guardians for Unaccompanied Minors does not provide a clear time frame for appointing a guardian or training requirements. And practices vary greatly among municipalities, which are responsible for providing housing, education, and care.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Sweden has ratified, requires countries to assess and address an unaccompanied child’s particular vulnerabilities and protection needs, and to take these into account in arranging for physical and mental health care and accommodation. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which evaluates countries’ compliance with the convention, has said that they should appoint a guardian as soon as a child is identified and give priority to asylum applications by unaccompanied children. In March 2015, the committee urged Sweden to ensure prompt appointment of properly trained guardians.

Many of the children interviewed had fled conflict, abuse, and danger. The unaccompanied children had traveled on their own to Europe or became separated from their families in transit, and many experienced further traumas during the journey, including violence at the hands of smugglers and abusive authorities.

The Swedish government should provide oversight and support to municipalities to identify shortcomings and improve their services. The central government should collect detailed data on living arrangements, school enrollment, health screenings, and assessments by social workers. The government should give priority to asylum applications of unaccompanied children and amend the Act on Guardians to require prompt appointment of a guardian with the necessary expertise to get children the assistance they need. 

“The arrival of so many unaccompanied children has placed an undeniable strain on local services, but each child still deserves the best possible care and support,” Riddell said. “Sweden is up to the challenge of addressing shortcomings in its system, and should continue to set a positive example for the rest of the European Union.”

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