Bismillah and Ali Reza in the reception center | Photo: Leslie Carretero
Bismillah and Ali Reza in the reception center | Photo: Leslie Carretero

Over 35,000 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in Sweden in 2015. The country is doing what it can to take care of this vulnerable group, managing through specialized reception centers.

"I feel safe here," says Bismillah, smiling softly. The 16-year old Afghan arrived in Sweden in 2015. He has been living in Sollentuna, one of Stockholm's suburbs, in one of Sweden's many centers for refugee minors.

At the height of the migration crisis in 2015, Sweden witnessed an influx of migrants, including 35,000 unaccompanied refugee children. Ten years earlier, there had been no more than 400, according to the Swedish migration agency. The state quickly delegated the minors to municipalities that were required by law to provide housing, health care and education.

A sense of calm, at last

The Sollentuna center opened its doors in 2014, managed by the Valjus company. It is located on the fifth floor of a building that also houses a retirement home. 19 minors between 14 and 19 years of age live under its roof, most of them from Afghanistan, like Bismillah. "I fled my country because of the war", he explains in nearly fluent Swedish. "I could not go to school anymore and life was too dangerous. So I left alone."

In Sweden, unaccompanied minors are immediately taken into official care in accordance with the Geneva Convention. They are first settled in refugee transit centers before being transferred to "houses," as social workers call them.

One of the rooms in the center

Sollentuna is one of the larger houses. All twenty rooms are private ones, they are spacious and each one has its individual bathroom. There's a breathtaking view over a forest of fir trees. The youngsters chose to be on this side of the building. "We thought they would want to face the street, so we were surprised", says Catarina Olsson, one of the managers at Valjus.

Calm and serenity are exactly what these children are looking for after they fled. The silence at Sollentuna is striking. In the common areas, young people sit together, discuss, watch television or share their meals, everything quietly and discreetly. Each one respects the other's privacy. And this after having been through the perils of exile and having lived in shelters with dozens of strangers.

Integration in Sweden

The youngsters can leave the center as they like and the staff occasionally arranges bus tickets for a trip to Stockholm. As with any other community home, there are house rules: smoking is not allowed inside the building, as are pets and alcohol. There's a 10 pm curfew at night. If a rule is broken, the person is sent to another center. "There have been incidents, yes," says Diya, one of the social workers. "Last time, someone was smoking a cigarette in the house and he was thrown out."

The view from the center

To avoid rule breaking, there are guardians supervising the minors, usually one mentor for two or three minors. They also help and accompany them in everyday life. "If they ask for it, we accompany them to apply for asylum, or if they have a doctor's appointment," says Diya who takes care of Bismillah. There's a visible relationship of trust between them.

Every day, the youngsters attend the local school and take part in extracurricular activities. Bismillah loves to play football and is even part of the local team.

On the surface, integration into Swedish society seems to work out well. But looking closer, there are challenges. "I tried to make some Swedish friends but the first contact was quite cold", he said. "So I only have friends like me, other refugees. It is simpler with them."

Bismillah filed his asylum application last March and is worried about the answer. "What I want to do is stay in Sweden. I am afraid to be sent back to my country, all I want is to study and play football."

 

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