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We write in advance of the 92nd Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and its review of Sweden. This submission includes information on the repatriation and reintegration of Swedish children, the rights of migrant children, and adoption.

Repatriation and Reintegration of Children (articles 3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 27, and 39)

In its recent 63-page report, Human Rights Watch found that many children repatriated from detention camps for Islamic State (ISIS) suspects and their families in northeast Syria are successfully reintegrating in their home country Sweden.[1] Interviews and online surveys with caregivers, teachers, and social workers provided information on 26 children between the ages of 2 and 17 who had arrived in Sweden between 2019 and 2022.

Sweden has now repatriated the majority of its nationals. However, reliable sources indicate that two women and seven children, all Swedish citizens, remain in Roj camp, and up to six women and 18 children from Sweden, though unconfirmed, may remain in al-Hol camp. The children who remain in the camps are indefinitely held in conditions that are life-threatening. They have little to no access to education and lack adequate food, water, and shelter. Many have died from preventable diseases, accidents, and camp violence. ISIS targets children in the camps for recruitment and radicalization.

All interviewees rejected the view that the children are security threats, and many emphasized the importance of urgently bringing home the children remaining in the camps and prisons. Security and counterterrorism experts also emphasize the importance of repatriating women and children from the camps as soon as possible. The UN’s counterterrorism chief, Vladimir Voronkov, has said that inaction on repatriation threatened to “bring about the very outcomes we intend to prevent,” including “the radicalization and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists, and the strengthening of terrorist groups in the region and around the world.”[2]

Despite the horrific conditions that children face in the camps, many mothers do what they can to protect them. On repeated visits to the two camps in northeast Syria between 2017 and May 2022, Human Rights Watch researchers observed mothers homeschooling their children, reading to them, and taking them to camp health clinics. A Swedish mother repatriated in 2021 said that a psychologist assessed her children and found no evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another Swedish mother of two said: “Despite being in a very dangerous environment in the camps, I managed to protect my children so that they didn’t have much trauma. The social workers were surprised that my children are as well-adjusted as they are.”[3]

Upon repatriation, many of the children appear to be adjusting well and performing well in school. Many have reintegrated smoothly and enjoy a wide range of activities with their peers, including football, skating, cycling, dancing, crafts, and music. The mother of a 9-year-old boy said that only four months after their return to Sweden, he had nearly caught up with his peers in school.[4] The mother of a 4-year-old girl who returned to Sweden in 2021 said that her daughter quickly learned to understand Swedish. “The staff at the institution are surprised that she is developing so quickly.”[5]

Still, some family members said that it would be helpful to provide children with programs to help enter society more quickly and learn about their new country and its culture.[6] A repatriated Swedish mother said: “I feel like my children are integrating very well, but I would have appreciated the opportunity for them to meet other kids and learn about their new society. Everything is new for them.”[7]

Despite the successful integration of many repatriated children, Human Rights Watch found that some of the Swedish government’s policy choices have made reintegration more difficult, and in some cases, even caused additional harm. For example, Swedish authorities have immediately separated children from mothers who are being investigated or charged with ISIS-related offenses. The children are placed in care under the Swedish Care of Young People Act while social services in local municipalities conduct individual investigations of their mothers.[8]

Mothers are typically detained for only 24-48 hours; however, it can be weeks or months before they are reunited with their children. In one case, returned children were separated from their mother for six months.[9] This often causes children serious and lasting emotional and psychological damage, according to both family members and mental health professionals. Some repatriated mothers said their children developed anxiety from the separation. One said her 6-year-old son “has asked many times how long he can stay with me and is constantly worried that we will be separated again….”[10]

Another repatriated mother was separated from her children for three months while authorities investigated her. She said: “During the three months of separation, my children were sad and confused about what was happening and why they were separated from me. I felt the separation traumatized them even more.… Some of my children developed behavioral problems they didn’t have before. My three-year-old son didn’t speak for weeks, and the foster family thought he was mute.” [11]

After mothers and children are separated during the initial investigation, they are in some cases reunified in an “observation” house or apartment where social workers have unrestricted access and can drop in at any time. Multiple individuals interviewed stated that placing mothers and children in such observation houses from the outset could avoid the trauma of family separation, while allowing authorities to identify any security or child protection concerns.

Many repatriated children have grandparents or other extended family members who are willing and eager to be involved in providing care or support for returned children. But when investigations of extended family members are prolonged, children develop bonds with foster families, and the eventual transition to family care can further traumatize the child. A Swedish grandfather said his orphaned grandchildren were initially moved around to different foster families, and that it took more than a year for long-term placements to be identified for some of them. He said:

“Each separation is harmful and reminds them of the loss of their own parents. The authorities should try to arrange permanent placements from the beginning to minimize transitions.... Social services should integrate family members in the planning for the kids’ situation.… I wish there was more trust from the authorities towards the families. It’s terrible for us families to be left out of the process and I don’t think it’s good for the children.”[12]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee:

  • Commend the government of Sweden for repatriating most of its nationals.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Sweden to:

  • Ensure the repatriation, as a matter of urgent priority, of the remaining nationals arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria.
  • In particular, ensure all remaining mothers or other adult guardians together with their children can return home immediately, absent compelling evidence that separation is in the best interests of the child.
  • Regularly reassess each child’s progress and provide additional support and services over a longer term, as appropriate.
  • Ensure that mothers and children are not separated once in Sweden unless absolutely necessary in the best interest of the child, for example, by providing supervised living arrangements when assessments or investigations are required and ensuring the children’s best interests is a primary consideration.
  • Facilitate contact between the child and extended family members as soon as possible after the child’s return, including through supervised visits, if appropriate. Involve, assess, and prioritize extended family members in decisions regarding the care and placement of the child.
  • If separation from their mothers is absolutely necessary and unavoidable by way of alternative arrangements, and extended family members are not able or suitable to care for the children, identify long-term placements for children ahead of time or as soon as possible following repatriation to avoid unnecessary transitions and upheaval.

Migrant Children (articles 3, 12, 20, 22, 24, 27, 28, and 39)

In June 2016, Human Rights Watch found that unaccompanied migrant children in Sweden experienced delays and difficulties in getting critical care and support.[13] Human Rights Watch visited seven municipalities and interviewed 50 unaccompanied children, as well as national and local officials and service providers, from January 25 to February 8, 2016, and on April 20, 2016.

Over 35,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Sweden in 2015, a stark increase over the approximately 7,000 in 2014.[14] In 2021, Sweden registered 11,419 new asylum applications, of which 507 were by unaccompanied children.[15] 5,509 applications were pending at the end of 2021.[16]

Swedish laws are generally consistent with international standards. Unaccompanied children are not detained and are entitled by law to equal access to education. Municipalities are responsible for providing housing, health care, and education, as well as the appointment of a guardian to look after the child’s interests. The Migration Agency appoints every asylum-seeking child a lawyer.

However, the arrival of tens of thousands of children in 2015 put a strain on this system. Some children, including those who had experienced sexual violence, had not received adequate health screening or mental and physical health care.

Second, amid a broader backlog of asylum cases, there was a lack of prioritization of applications of vulnerable unaccompanied children. As a result, some children endured long delays in the processing of their asylum applications, despite consistent findings that keeping children in such an insecure situation for extended periods of time can be harmful to their mental health.[17] One official told Human Rights Watch in February 2016 that unaccompanied children might wait one to two years for an application to be processed.[18]

Third, inappropriate accommodation, such as the placement of lone girls in group housing with boys and multiple relocations, had a profound effect on some of the children. Trainings for staff of group homes for unaccompanied children varied greatly, meaning that key actors responsible for the care of children sometimes lacked necessary expertise.

Finally, delays in appointing guardians also impacted children’s access to education, information, and support. At the time, 11 children we interviewed said they had no guardian. Among those, 10 said they had been in the country for a month or more. Five said they had been in the country for three months or more. Four children told Human Rights Watch that they were prevented from enrolling in school because they did not have a guardian.

Sweden has made efforts to improve the situation of unaccompanied migrant children. The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs appointed the Agency for Health and Care Services Analysis to assess the care provided by group homes and foster families and appointed the National Board of Health and Welfare to conduct an analysis of the social services offered to unaccompanied children. The Board collaborated with the Children’s Ombudsman to launch a website that provides information to children and young people about social services. The Ombudsman also published a report on transit facilities in January 2016.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Sweden:

  • What is the current average processing time for an unaccompanied child migrant’s asylum application?
  • What is the current average time taken to appoint a guardian for unaccompanied child migrants?
  • How have shortcomings in the system been identified and monitored since 2016, and what reforms have been put in place to offset them?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Sweden to:

  • Evaluate oversight of and support offered to municipalities to ensure deficiencies in access to social services, health care, education, and appropriate housing are systematically assessed and improved upon.
  • Ensure implementation of systems for response to gender-based violence, including immediate referrals to trained physical and mental health providers.
  • Ensure group home staff who work with unaccompanied children have the necessary expertise. Continue to develop and deliver training and support programs for guardians, interpreters, group home staff, medical staff, and social workers.
  • Ensure that asylum applications filed by unaccompanied children are given priority.

Adoption (article 3, 21)

Sweden has a long history of inter-country adoptions and has the highest number of adopted children per capita in the world.[19] The number of international adoptions in the country has been decreasing since the start of the millennium, falling to less than 500 in 2021 from about 1,000 in 2000.[20] Many adoptees in Sweden have voiced concerns as some have found, in searching for their birth families, that their adoption files lack information or the information they contain is incorrect. Some have learned their adoptions were illegal.[21]

In October 2021, Sweden launched an official inquiry into intercountry adoptions that have taken place since the 1950s, with a focus on adoptions from China, Chile, Colombia, Poland, Sri Lanka, and South Korea. This came after several other countries had started investigations into inter-country adoptions and increased media scrutiny of illegal practices, including testimonies from Chile, Colombia, and China about children who were stolen and forcibly placed for adoption without the consent or knowledge of their birth parents.[22] 

A report from 2021 by the Agency for Public Management found that though Sweden had implemented many measures to ensure legal certainty in the inter-country adoption process, risks remained.[23] These include how well adoption legislation in the countries of origin was applied, corruption, and how well the sending country investigated the child’s background and conditions for adoption.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Sweden:

  • How will the government of Sweden safeguard adoptees’ adoption files, and ensure that they are accessible to the adoptees, even when the adoption agencies shut down?
  • What measures have been taken to implement the recommendations of the 2021 report by the Agency for Public Management?
  • How will the government mitigate the remaining risks in the inter-country adoption process to ensure that the adoption is truly in the best interests of the child?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Sweden to:

  • Carry out the investigation into intercountry adoptions in a thorough, impartial, and timely manner and adhere to its findings and recommendations.
  • Ensure that the best interests of the child is the paramount consideration in cases of adoption.
  • Ensure that adoptees can continue to access post-adoption services, such as mental health resources and birth family search support, and ensure strict supervision of adoption agencies.
  • Ensure that the quality of the mandatory parent training course, and the background check of potential adoptive parents, carried out by municipalities, are of equal standard across the country.
  • Transfer all adoption files to a government agency to ensure that all inter-country adoptees will always be able to access their files.

[1] Human Rights Watch, ““My Son is Just Another Kid”: Experiences of Children Repatriated from Camps for ISIS Suspects and Their Families in Northeast Syria, November 21, 2022, (accessed November 30, 2022).

[2] Vladimir Voronkov, as cited in Human Rights Watch, ““My Son is Just Another Kid”.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview (name and details withheld by Human Rights Watch), May 11, 2022.

[4] Online survey response from a Swedish parent, April 11, 2022.

[5] Online survey response from a Swedish parent, February 5, 2022.

[6] Online survey responses from Swedish mothers, April 11, 2022.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview, April 26, 2022.

[8] Letter to Human Rights Watch from Ambassador Cecilia Julin, Head of Department of Consular Affairs and Civil Law, Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 29, 2022.

[9] “As Women and Children Return to the West from Syrian Camps, Lessons From Sweden,” Beatrice Eriksson, Just Security, December 6, 2022, (accessed December 7, 2022).

[10] Online survey response from a Swedish parent, June 10, 2022.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview, April 26, 2022.

[12] Human Rights Watch interview, February 8, 2022.

[13] Human Rights Watch, “Seeking Refuge:” Unaccompanied Children in Sweden, June 9, 2016, (accessed December 1, 2022).

[14] Figures are based on statistics provided by Sweden’s Migration Agency. The Swedish Migration Agency, “Applications for Asylum Concerning Unaccompanied Minors Received, 2015,” January 1, 2016, (accessed April 20, 2016).

[15] Aida Asylum Information Database, “Country Report: Sweden,” up to date as of December 31, 2021, (accessed December 9, 2022).

[16] Ibid.

[17] European Council on Refugees and Exiles, “Position on Refugee Children,” (accessed December 9, 2022), paras. 28-29.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with Roula Rettegi, Child Unit Team Leader, Migration Agency, Gothenburg, February 2, 2016.

[19] “Så blev Sverige störst på adoptioner,” Dagens Nyheter, March 7, 2021, (accessed December 8, 2022).

[20] Official Statistics of Sweden, “Adoptions, number by sex, country of birth and year,” (accessed December 5, 2022).

[21] Human Rights Watch, “Sweden To Investigate Illegal Intercountry Adoptions,” February 22, 2021, (accessed December 5, 2022).

[22] “Sweden launches adoptions inquiry after kidnapping reports,” the Local, October 28, 2021, (accessed December 5, 2022);  “Sweden to probe international adoptions amid worries over illegal practices,” Reuters, February 22, 2021, (accessed December 5, 2022); “150.000 ”hittebarn” adopterades bort från Kina – men alla var inte övergivna,” Dagens Nyheter, June 19, 2021, (accessed December 8, 2021);  “Fattiga mödrar berövades sina barn – som adopterades till Sverige,” Dagens Nyheter, May 17, 2021, (accessed December 8, 2022); “Detta har hänt: De adopterade barnen från Chile,” SVT, June 9, 2021, (accessed December 8, 2022).

[23] The Swedish Agency for Public Management, “Organiseringen av den internationella adoptionsverksamheten,” (accessed December 8, 2022).

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