Sweden used to regard itself as an open, tolerant country – and it had a fine record of integrating newcomers. But now it is closing its borders, rejecting asylum applications and sending people home. Nothing has done the country’s self-image more harm than its handling of child refugees – a sad story full of warnings for Britain.
Sweden’s problem is one of scale. Back in 2004, it was taking in about 400 children a year; by 2011 it had risen to 2,600. But then came the Great Migration – an astonishing march of African and Middle East migrants across Europe, a mix of the aspirant poor and people fleeing war. Sweden received the highest number of asylum seekers compared to its national population. In 2015, some 163,000 people claimed refuge. More than a fifth, or 35,000, were children.
The strain on services was predictable: unaccompanied minors account for about half the asylum budget. Sweden had to find an extra 70,000 school places in a country that already had a shortage of teachers. In the municipality of Södertälje, south of Stockholm, some 37 per cent of residents were born abroad. At one local primary school, 90 per cent of children reportedly speak Arabic and nearly 20 per cent arrived in the country just two years before.
Worse: nothing prepared Swedes for the abuse of their asylum system by predators and criminals. Back in January, Swedish authorities admitted that at least 70 girls in asylum centres were child brides. That same month, Alexandra Mezher, a worker in a refugee centre in Molndal near Gothenburg, was allegedly stabbed to death by a psychologically disturbed Somalian resident who claimed to be 15. Medical examination suggested that he was, in fact, at least 18 years old. This story is not unique. In December 2015, a Afghan called Ali Bahmani raped a 15-year old girl at a children’s psychiatric clinic in Stockholm. He claimed to be 16. Dental examinations revealed him to be around 19.
Sweden has had to face the grim possibility that not all its child asylum seekers are children. Some 667 minors had their age adjusted by officials in 2015, although we don’t know if this reclassed them all as adults. We do know that around half of the unaccompanied minors are aged 16-17. Sweden’s migration agency has implied that there could be cause to doubt the veracity of around 70 per cent of them – so age tests, against the protests of doctors who call them unreliable, are being rolled out.
Even if some of these “youths” were bending the truth, who can blame them? In wartime, the line between childhood and adulthood blurs. Children grow up fast, giving them the haunted, haggard look that can make it hard to judge their age, while someone who has just turned 18 is really only an adult on paper. To send them back to an uncertain fate on a technicality seems cruel.
Nevertheless, if a country doesn’t enforce the rules and have rigorous checks, it creates a problem for itself somewhere down the line that will have to be corrected, and sometimes with drastic means.
Sweden has reversed its asylum policy in deference to Right-wing populism. Welfare and housing payments to asylum seekers are being cut. In the first nine months of this year, around 14,000 of them left the country, of which about 13,000 did so voluntarily. Many more have escaped deportation by going underground. Police say they have lost track of around 12,000.
And there’s an uneasy element of discrimination in who does and does not get in. Just as Germany has quietly clamped down on Balkan migration, so Sweden has turned its back on Afghanis. This year, four out of five Afghan applications for asylum have been rejected. Children can be deported if there is a guardian waiting for them. A group of teachers recently wrote an open letter expressing horror at the idea that their pupils could be effectively sent home to fight in a war: “What is a government even worth if it is incapable of protecting children in its own country and giving them hope for the future?” Suicides have been reported.
Sweden is an example of good intentions having decidedly mixed consequences. The peoples of the developing world are on the move – it is tempting, in the spirit of Christian charity, to open the door to them. But there are a lot of them. They are a mix of refugees and economic migrants. And some may even be criminal. It makes far more sense to focus on ensuring stability and development in their home countries than encouraging mass relocation here – and if refugees are accepted in significant numbers then the voters are going to want to know that they are genuine refugees. If the idea gains currency that hospitality is being exploited or rules broken, the popular mood will swing the other way. Life for migrants in Sweden is increasingly, tragically, uncomfortable. Racist attacks are up. An immigrant’s chance of being unemployed is now twice as great as a native Swede.
Liberals beware: evidence is mounting that open borders are unpopular and will not stay open for long. An act of mass generosity is likely to be followed by an act of mass intolerance – as Sweden’s asylum seekers will tell you.