Sweden reaches a critical point in integrating unaccompanied minors

Minor issues turn major as Sweden is overloaded with unaccompanied minors fleeing to the safe arms of Scandinavia. As a result of the overburdened system eight out of the ten cities have a queue to the local high schools, where young unaccompanied minors will have to wait their turn.

By Ahalya Srikant and Chjanna Delaingzes

Qais Ahmadiar hadn’t eaten for two whole days before he came to Sweden. He holds up four fingers to show us how many times he has eaten today.

“Four times,” he keeps repeating as he grins.

Qais is a 17-year-old from Kulnduz in Afghanistan who left his home in October and recently entered Sweden. He left his home because he didn’t feel like he had a future. There was no security in his homeland.  With both the Taliban and Islamic State, Afghanistan was too unsafe for him to ever go outside and walk around in his hometown.

Police check documents of people arriving at Hyllie Station, Malmo, Sweden, 26 November, 2015
Police check documents of people arriving at Hyllie Station, Malmo. To gain control over the masses of refugees entering the country, Sweden enforced border control on November 12 lasting until further notice. 26 November, 2015

He arrived in Malmö without documents. They got lost together with his cellphone on his way to Europe.  Qais Ahmadiar has been staying at the transit center in Malmö for over two weeks now, waiting to hear back from the Migration Board about when he will be able to leave. Right now he doesn’t know when it’ll be.

“Everyday I see people leaving. I see the younger kids that get removed to other cities. Yesterday I had to say goodbye to my bunkmate,” he says.

It takes the Migration Board between two to five weeks to get the unaccompanied minors removed from the transit center in Malmö to a permanent home in another part of Sweden. Depending on which city Qais Ahmadiar will be removed to, he will probably have to wait more time before going to school.

Sweden drowning in minors  

The unaccompanied minors are facing challenges throughout the process of being integrated in the new country.  After they have registered as asylum seekers they are facing queues to be moved to permanent housing and to attend schools.

One to two months. That is how long the average current wait is in eight out of the ten biggest Swedish cities if you’re a 16-19 years old refugee and want to start high school in the Scandinavian country.

The situation in Sweden is at a tipping point as the country has reached its capacity for the number of refugees they have been able to take in.

When it comes to unaccompanied minors Sweden have received twice as many as Germany in 2015. Sweden has welcomed 23.349 unaccompanied minors from the beginning of this year to October.

The number of 16-17 year-old minors who are entering Sweden has increased by over 85% between 2010 and 2015 creating a huge pressure on the Swedish states, who are responsible for the newcomers.

This graph shows the increase in unaccompanied minors who have entered Sweden over the past 10 years.
This graph shows the increase in unaccompanied minors who have entered Sweden over the past 10 years.

In Örebro, the sixth biggest city in Sweden, the municipality has received so many young teens that it is hard to process them fast and get them into school.

“It is a very, very hard situation,” says Martha Liw, the High School Co-ordinator for Örebro Municipality.   

“We can’t do any more than we doing right now. It is a problem and of course  I don’t think it is good that they have to wait. But when they have come so many at the same time, we can’t process them all at a fast rate and it creates a queue.”

The delays have also reached the national level. The Swedish Migration Agency has designed their system to handle a much smaller number of unaccompanied minors than they have been receiving, mostly due to the fact that they didn’t expect the high number of refugees. Therefore, especially for the older minors ages 16 to 19, it has been difficult to start going to school.

Unaccompanied minors are supposed to be in transit housing for a couple of days before they are processed and sent to a specific state to start school. But the wait is prolonged to two to five weeks by the Migration Board because of the sheer numbers of minors entering Sweden.

Eight states in Sweden face queues

The situation has gotten so serious that 300 young teens in Stockholm are waiting for a place at a school. Some of them have waited more than three months after being moved to the capital, according to the local High School Sprintgymnasiet.

Gert-Ove Sekerstrøm, Vice-Chancellor from the Center for Introduction to School in the Uppsala Municipality, confirms that it is the same in the fourth biggest city in Sweden, where 200 out of 300 young teens are waiting to start school in January.

“It has all happened so suddenly and we didn’t expect so many unaccompanied minors. We have a couple of people working with the problem and hope there will be a school in January that can take 200 of the students. The rest will have to wait until February,” says Gert-Ove Sekerstrøm.

Back in Örebro municipality the next class will start in the middle of January and it will be the biggest one, they have ever had, containing 75 students. The 15 students that couldn’t get a spot this time will have to wait until mid-February, a total of two and a half months.

This graph shows the wait times to start school in the ten biggest cities in Sweden.
This graph shows the wait times to start school in the ten biggest cities in Sweden. The waiting times are estimates from the Swedish municipalities and can change, when new classes opens up in January, or when more minors moves to the state.

The queues exists because the municipalities need more resources.

“Our main problem is that we don’t have enough teachers that can teach Swedish as a second language and furthermore there isn’t room enough at the schools in Uppsala. We looking for teachers who are interested in helping the new people living in Sweden and hope that we can get some of the retired teachers to join part time,” says Gert-Ove Sekerstrøm.

Sekerstrøm also believes that it will be an issue in the future when the state will have to plan for more schools and teachers.

The need for more teachers who can teach Swedish as a second language is general for most of the states.

“In Sweden there is a lot of job offers to school teachers, so they can choose from a wide range of schools and areas. We are trying to advertise to get more teachers to take the introduction classes and are also trying to try include the retired teachers, “ said Ulla Blomberg High School Co-ordinator from Huddinge Municipality.

Last year Huddinge received 140 young newcomers, and since August this year they have received 200 students who need a slot in High School, which is quite a change for the municipality.

The queues depends on both teachers and classrooms, and the new classes opens up when the state has both.  The wait can differ for the independent student. In most states the minors will be interviewed about how long they have attended school and afterwards they will be placed in a class that fits their level of education. If you have had no former education and the only available class opening is be for students who have attended school for a couple of years, you will have to wait until a beginner class opens up.

Some might be lucky and only wait two weeks, whereas others can wait a whole month.

Out of the ten biggest cities, it is only Malmö and Jönköping that do not have a queue to enter High School. Since October, Malmö has not received any unaccompanied minors to stay permanently and therefore there are no queues to the classes.

The young teens are being forwarded to other Swedish cities, because Malmö is so busy taking care of new refugees entering Sweden. Next year the city will once again open its arms and give permanent housing and education to the newcomers.

Jönköping, the smallest of the ten biggest cities, has managed so far without creating queues.

Consequences for the minors of being on hold in the Swedish system

The queues put the unaccompanied minors on hold while the Swedish system tries to keep up.

Instead of going to school, the young teens will have to keep occupied alone. 

Qais Ahmadiar talks about his journey to Sweden in Malmo, Sweden, 24 November, 2015
Qais Ahmadiar talks about his journey to Sweden in Malmo, Sweden, 24 November, 2015

For Qais Ahmadiar it has already been a struggle just to pass the time in the transit center. He has not had a lot of things to do since he came to Sweden.

“It can be boring in the camp in Malmö. There’s nothing here to do,” Qais told us. “That’s why a lot of the young boys will sit at the train station where there is free wifi. In the camp there is only one TV and a PlayStation for 200 people.”

Instead of being restless he wants to go to school. Back in Afghanistan he studied in school until 7th grade.

“Coming to Sweden is a chance for me. I have a good mind. I hope to go to school and study law and be an honest man.”

Becoming a lawyer requires that he goes to school to learn Swedish and after a couple of years, when he has improved, he’ll be good enough to enter the normal Swedish high school. Only then will he hopefully graduate after three years, so he can apply for college and study law.

The wait for a school can affect a young unaccompanied minor’s life in the long run. They can feel uncertain about their new life in the foreign country since the situation is unfamiliar and maybe even different than they expected.  It is a difficult situation for young people who are at such a critical age of learning. Especially for young people who are coming to Sweden without a family.

“Young people need protection and structure in their everyday lives where school is one of the most important aspects,” says Pouran Djampour, a professor in Social Sciences at Malmo University.

The struggle to get a place in a school keeps many young people from progressing in the society they have been trying to integrate into.

According to Solvig Ekblad, a professor in Multicultural Health at Karolinska University, not having access to schools leads unaccompanied minors to have a high rate of criminality and drug problems.

“Not having resources means that you feel like you are not important, said Ekblad. “You’re not treated like a normal person. It’s difficult for those people. What future will you give the children in such a situation?”

For the past weeks Qais has been going to the Community for Lonely Descendants to meet friends and get help on his transition into Sweden. NGO groups like The Community for Lonely Descendants help the newcomers to connect with people who are already in Sweden and supports them while they’re practicing Swedish or doing homework.

Another NGO working with refugees is The Swedish Network of Refugee Groups (FARR), who works with Swedish legislation to improve the conditions of refugees in Sweden.

“They have to wait longer for custodians and school, they are disappointed because schooling is a very important part of their lives,” said Michael Williams, the Vice-Chairman from The Swedish Network of Refugee Groups, “and it is tough because they don’t have a daily social context.”

For a 17-year-old with no family who has faced so much in their life already with their journey to Sweden, it is detrimental to experience a lack of belonging.

Any solution would require a combined effort

Even though a lot of the young teens are waiting in the current queue is going to start school by January, the queues are not going to fade away. The number of young teens coming to Sweden all by themselves is only increasing and puts pressure on the municipalities and schools.

“If they were able to go to school more quickly, they would have a stabilizing aspect of their lives. Until more people are employed and there is not a lack of classes, you cannot solve the problem,” says Michael Williams from the Swedish Network of Refugee Support Groups.

In Hedemora, the town Michael Williams is from, they use a building that used to be a nursery as a classroom. The building was supposed to become a retirement home, but the city decided it served a better purpose this way.

Alternative solutions like this one, might be a way to solve the issue with the rooms. To solve the  issue with the lack of teachers there are a few possible solutions.

The states can educate more teachers so they can teach Swedish as a second language, the state can hire retired teachers part-time or try to make it more attractive to be a teacher in the area.

“We need to educate more teachers who can speak Swedish as a second language. Then there is the question of wages and lecturing times. If a school pays a wage higher than normal, they may get more teachers, “ said Ulla Blomberg.

Due to an overall need for teachers, Sweden will from the beginning of 2016 invest 3 billion kroners in raising teachers wages.  This might make the profession more attractive and help if the queues continue in the future.

Ulla Blomberg believes that the municipalities must try to work with other organizations to create activities beside school, so the teens can keep occupied in the meantime.

A new initiative in Göteborg will ensure that there are activities to stimulate the minors while they wait. This can be a way to solve some of the waiting time the minors are facing.

“This week we started up a new set of activities that gives the minors an introduction to the Swedish society and the school system, while they’re waiting. We are doing our best to recruit teachers. It is hard, but not impossible,” said politician Karin Pleijel from the Green party, who is the Chairman of the Educational Board in Göteborg.

She continued, saying “we have hired retired teachers and are also looking at the education of the teacher in general, since some might need other competences.”

The current wait in Göteborg is two to three weeks to find out how much the student have studied prior to coming to Sweden. After the wait the next queue can last one day to a month, depending on whether or not the student’s level fits with the next opening of classes. During this last period the minors can join activities, while they wait for a slot in High School.

An activity program like this one can be a temporary solution for the queues, but even with programs like the one in Göteborg, unaccompanied minors are still waiting weeks before having any interactive experiences, let alone starting school.




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