When ‘Underage’ Refugees Look Anything But

Under strain from an influx of asylum-seekers claiming to be children, Sweden is now considering instituting mandatory age tests.

TORNIO, FINLAND  - OCTOBER 4:   Immigrants, mostly from Iraq, walk from a bus station in Sweden to Finland to a makeshift customs checkpoint in the northern border in Tornio, Finland on October 4, 2015.   Most have journey a week or two, through multiple countries including Sweden who put them on a train, then a bus to the Finnish border.  There are families with small children, some women traveling alone but mostly there are young men from the Baghdad area.  (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
TORNIO, FINLAND - OCTOBER 4: Immigrants, mostly from Iraq, walk from a bus station in Sweden to Finland to a makeshift customs checkpoint in the northern border in Tornio, Finland on October 4, 2015. Most have journey a week or two, through multiple countries including Sweden who put them on a train, then a bus to the Finnish border. There are families with small children, some women traveling alone but mostly there are young men from the Baghdad area. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

MALMÖ, Sweden — For years, Sweden has been the favorite destination for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Europe. Its reputation as both a comfortable place to wait out the application process and a generous granter of asylum approval has spread far and wide. Last year it received almost twice as many underage asylum-seekers as the No. 2 destination, Germany; at the end of the year in particular, the number of children arriving alone in Sweden skyrocketed. But lately, some of these recent arrivals have appeared — at least according to their fellow asylum-seekers and Swedish officials — well, mature for their ages.

“In my [home for unaccompanied minors], there are so many people who look like 32 but say they’re 16,” reports Jamal Hawilo, a 17-year-old Palestinian whose slender frame and not-quite-settled bass voice suggest that he is indeed an adolescent. “There’s one guy I’m absolutely 100 percent convinced he’s 35.”

Jamal, who arrived in Sweden in August with his 16-year-old brother, isn’t the only one who noticed some rather seasoned-looking men among the 1,000-2,000 unaccompanied minors who were arriving in Sweden each week over the summer and fall. Now, in the midst of a fierce debate over asylum policy that saw Sweden backtrack on its generous open-door position late last year, Swedes are also weighing how to treat migrants who claim to be children but lack identification.

“The problem is not the volume, but the fact that people” are claiming to be children, said Mats Johansson, chair of the Stockholm Free World Forum, a right-leaning think tank and a former member of parliament from Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party. “Adult Afghans are not children in need of protection.”

The government and the country’s Migration Agency have long been reluctant to medically test unaccompanied minors’ ages as a standard procedure. “The government has been hoping that silence about age cheating will solve the issue,” said Johansson. But now as part of the recent reversal of its open-door asylum policy, the government is considering making age-determination tests standard practice for unaccompanied minors. The test, which involves dental and wrist-bone X-rays, can usually determine a young person’s age within a one-year margin. A Justice Ministry spokesman told Foreign Policy that a proposal is expected within the next six months.

There are many reasons a 30-year-old asylum-seeker would claim to be an adolescent. In Sweden, if a newly arrived asylum-seeker claims to be a minor, the Migration Agency has to treat him as such during the application process until it has ample reason to contend he’s an adult — and that means extra protections, enshrined in international law. Signatories to the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child have agreed to give children — that is, anyone under age 18 — “special safeguards and care.” In practice in Sweden, this means that while an adult, for example, can be denied asylum on the grounds that some parts of his country are safe and can then be returned to an unfamiliar place, a child will not be sent to a different part of his home country. Children applying for asylum in Sweden also don’t face the prospect of being returned to the EU country where they first arrived and are, if approved, allowed to bring their families to join them.

During the week of Nov. 9, exactly 2,942 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Sweden, which means that children arriving alone made up nearly one-third of the 10,553 asylum applications filed that week. That’s an increase of 635 children compared with the week before. In total, 8,808 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in November, a small drop from the record month of October, when 9,339 children did so. In 2014 — the latest year for which data are available from the European Union’s statistical body, Eurostat — Sweden was the undisputed No. 1 among destinations for unaccompanied minors, with 7,049 applications. Second-ranked Germany received 4,400 applications, followed by Italy at 2,505.

It’s unclear how many of these applicants are adult men claiming to be 17 or younger, as the Swedish Migration Agency only investigates applicants’ ages later in the asylum process. But Migration Agency figures show that 46 percent the unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum in Sweden last year were males giving their age as 16 or 17. Another 40 percent were males ages 13 to 15. “We Swedes are undemanding and naive in not wanting to check unaccompanied minors’ ages,” said David Eberhard, a leading Swedish psychiatrist and expert on children’s psychological development. “That attitude is connected to the undemanding way in which we rear our children.”

The influx of what appear to be grown men posing as adolescents, however, has created a vigorous debate that rages on Internet forums and social media. Local newspapers often report on the unaccompanied minors, and when the photos seem to depict men rather than boys, ordinary citizens proceed to research their ages by, for example, locating their Facebook profiles. “The guy is not 17 years old, but 34”, claimed a user recently on Flashback, a popular website among age-cheating detectives, about an unaccompanied minor featured in a newspaper report.

The question of age-cheating among asylum-seekers is a fraught one, explained Stefan Olsson, a political columnist and local politician for the Moderate Party. No one wants to accuse children in danger of lying. But “because the establishment doesn’t discuss the issue openly, and critics of the very liberal policy towards unaccompanied minors are often accused of being racists, the discussion is mostly conducted on the Internet” — where it often turns one-sided.

The New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, Germany, have added a new aspect to the debate. Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily, recently reported that last year at “We are Sthlm,” a large youth festival, 90 young men were removed by the police after attacking female participants. The newspaper quotes one of the police officers as saying that the police treated it as a sensitive matter because a number of the men were understood to be unaccompanied minors.

Sweden’s commitment to underage asylum-seekers is evident in the housing provided for unaccompanied minors while their asylum claims are decided, a process that on average can take some 200 days. Their home-like residences typically feature modern furniture, televisions, game rooms, and well-equipped kitchens; adults and families are housed in more modest accommodations. “They give you money for the bus, for the [mobile] phone, for a laptop,” says Jamal’s brother, Wael, of the residence where he lives with Jamal and some 10 other boys.

The children are looked after around the clock by social workers, and each child is also represented by a guardian whose task is to protect his interests. While humane, the policy of enhanced care for children means these cozy homes can be hugely expensive. To cover the cost of caring for asylum-seekers, the Swedish government is using funds from its aid and development budget: Every new asylum-seeker means 499 kronor per day ($60) is taken from development-aid recipients.

Local authorities are reimbursed 1,900 kronor ($220) per child per day by the government, but because they don’t have enough capacity, they also buy services from private companies. In some cases the prices charged by such companies have tripled, leaving local authorities out of pocket by large amounts. As a result of the cost and the enormous increase in arriving children, city authorities are struggling to provide room and staff, and more than 30 cities have already reported themselves to the government as unable to care for the children. In October, the government announced that it will introduce pared-down living arrangements for 16- and 17-year-olds, which will include less adult supervision.

Jamal and Wael traveled to Sweden from the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra just outside Beirut, where they grew up, last August. At home in Sabra, there are no opportunities for Palestinians, Wael explained. Plus, their estranged father had not paid back loans to several people, who are now threatening to harm Jamal and Wael. To get a better life for his grandsons, Jamal and Wael’s grandfather, with whom they lived, arranged for them to travel to Denmark with a Lebanese soccer team. As planned, the two teenagers absconded to Sweden.

After arriving at Central Station in the southern Swedish city of Malmö, the boys made their way to the Migration Agency registration office, where the agency assigned them to one of the 34 refugee residences here. In the youth residences, Afghan males dominate: another on-the-ground expression of a geopolitical reality. Because Sweden grants permanent residency to all Syrians, Syrian men don’t need to pretend to be boys, and only 3,777 of the unaccompanied minors arriving in Sweden last year came from the ravaged country. But with no such blanket asylum in place for Afghans, they — and a likewise disproportionate number of Somalis and Eritreans — often appear to claim asylum as unaccompanied minors. Recent figures provided by the Migration Agency show that more than half of the 41,564 Afghans who arrived in Sweden in 2015 claimed as unaccompanied minors.

With family members looking out for them, the Hawilo brothers are not abandoned. But they arrived in Sweden on their own, and as far as the law is concerned, that makes them unaccompanied minors. Now they’re attending a city-run school program for newly arrived refugees while their asylum claims are processed. If they get asylum, they want to bring their grandparents here.

Over 2,000 of the children who have recently arrived in Malmö have been assigned to youth residences while awaiting their asylum decisions; others are housed in neighboring towns. To keep up with the increasing numbers of unaccompanied minors, Malmö’s City Council has hired 1,000 new staff, mostly social workers. “Last spring we had 120 places for unaccompanied minors; we now have 2,500, but this is it,” explained Lene Cordes, Malmö’s director of youth welfare. “There’s no more space we can use.” There’s no more staff either. Cordes has even created a 15-person unit charged with making sure the child-refugee homes are always fully staffed.

At his residence, Jamal reports, many of the teenagers he suspects of actually being 30-somethings shave their arms in order to look younger. But, he says, “I tell them, ‘The Migration Agency is smarter than that. They check your teeth.’” If social workers sense a resident in a child-refugee home is much older, they can request that he be removed — a policy also designed to keep younger residents safe. However, according to social authorities, it happens extremely rarely

Previously, unaccompanied minors’ state-appointed guardians could request age-determination tests by means of dental and wrist-bone X-rays if the Migration Agency decided the children were older than they claimed; these could become standard if the Justice Ministry’s proposal goes forward. But Anders Hjern, a professor of pediatrics at the Centre for Health Equity Studies in Stockholm, told Foreign Policy that while the method works well in determining ages between 14 and 17 years, it’s less than accurate in people between 17 and 30 — a tricky problem when so much hinges on the true age of older applicants.

Another driving force behind this spate of unaccompanied minors — real or fake — is that Swedish law allows parents, guardians, and siblings of unaccompanied minors who have been granted asylum as refugees to join them in Sweden. By contrast, adults granted asylum are not automatically permitted to bring their parents. Parents and siblings apply for residence permits at a local consulate, and armed with the acceptance letter they can make their way to Sweden. To send along a minor, or someone who pretends to be one, as an advance party is seen by some as a more cost-effective — or indeed the only possible — way of bringing over a whole family.

Qassim Ali, a 17-year-old from the Syrian city of Daraa, arrived in Malmö last May, having made the journey north from Turkey via Hungary. At first, his family of six had wanted to flee to Sweden together, but with smugglers now charging more than $10,000 a head, his parents concluded that escaping together would be impossible. Instead, Qassim’s father paid a smuggler the requested $15,000 for Qassim, who made his way to Turkey while his parents and three younger siblings traveled to the United Arab Emirates. “We decided that I would go to Sweden first and they’d join me,” Qassim explains.

When he receives asylum and permanent residence, his family will have permission to join him, meaning they will be able to travel by plane — a legal way of traveling to Sweden and one that’s safer and cheaper than journeying through Greece or the Balkans. It’s a tactic smugglers have taken to advertising: “They tell families in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan that it’s easy to get to Sweden by sending an older boy first and then the family can come after,” reported Terje Torvik, the Migration Agency’s point man for unaccompanied minors. “Smugglers make money on these journeys, so it’s in their interest to advertise Sweden as a paradise for unaccompanied minors.” But sending an older teen ahead has its risks too, as the family-unification policy doesn’t apply once an asylum-seeker turns 18.

The government’s plans to increase age tests may be a measure of last resort as Sweden grapples with the youthful-refugee surge. But it’s nonetheless a radical change in Swedish politics. Noted Eberhard: “Just a couple of months ago, you would have been called a racist for suggesting age tests.”

Photo credit: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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