Unaccompanied refugee minors and political responses in Sweden: Challenges for social work

Abstract: Currently, there are 68.5 million people forcibly displaced around the world, which is the highest figure since World War II. The affected individuals have fled their homes to seek protection elsewhere, either within their own country or across national borders. Approximately 16.2 million people were newly displaced during the year 2017 as a result of conflict, persecution, generalised violence and human rights violations. Against this backdrop of increased displacement, it is worthy of note that 52 per cent of the world’s refugee population is comprised of children under 18 years of age, which is the greatest number in a decade. Within this particular group, the number of unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs) seeking asylum has increased significantly and has today reached its highest level since the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began collecting such systematic data in 2006 (UNHCR, 2018). Although statistics show that the number of URMs seeking asylum in Sweden has steadily increased since 2006, the sudden increase of this group in 2015 in particular was considerable and both caused a poisonous political debate concerning the country’s immigration policy and created a major challenge for Swedish reception and integration policy. This study is focused on the case of unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan who immigrated to Sweden in 2015.The main objective of this study is to examine how the Swedish reception system and social work institutions meet the needs and ambitions of URMs. The study seeks to answer the following research questions: how has the increase in immigration in 2015 influenced Swedish political parties’ programmes and policies?; how does the municipal receiving system for unaccompanied refugee minors in Sweden function according to the experiences of minors and their carers?; what are some of the possibilities and hindrances that exist in respect of unaccompanied refugee minors’ integration into Swedish society?; and how well-informed and prepared are Swedish social workers and the ‘staff from family-homes’ in meeting the needs and ambitions of unaccompanied refugee minors? The methodology used in this study is qualitative content analysis based on the Swedish political debate regarding migration and integration between 2014–2018, and the result of 29 interviews with 12 URMs, nine carers, three persons from ‘family-homes’, three municipal social workers and two legal guardians.The theoretical framework used to analyse the data in this study is postcolonial theory and critical intersectionalism. Given the fact that Afghanistan has, during the course of its modern history, been subjected to the colonial and imperialist politics of European countries, the recent increase of Afghan URM migration to Sweden cannot be separated from this: that is, foreign direct intervention in the home country of these refugees in the form of Western countries’ postcolonial political and economic policies. When used critically, an intersectional perspective helps us to avoid unqualified generalisations, which is often interwoven in the concept of ‘immigrants’ in general and URMs in particular.The analysis suggests that the political debate influencing Swedish migration and integration policies almost totally ignores the role of Western countries in the war and violence created in countries such Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, which is one of the major reasons behind increasing migration from those countries. It also suggests that there are many shortcomings and problems in the Swedish reception system, such as social authorities’, and carers’ lack of adequate knowledge about migration and integration in general and in relation to the life conditions of URMs and their personal histories and ambitions in particular. There is also evidence of a strong West-centrism in how reception staff work with URMs. Together, these factors harm URM’s future integration in society. It is argued that social work needs critical knowledge in the education of social workers, and adequate training in skills for working with transnational families and new global family formations and relations. Also important for progressive social policy and social work are special individual-adjusted education programmes for URMs, and educating the teachers and carers who work with URMs, in critical knowledge and skills and socio-political mobilisation against racism and xenophobia. The topics of the study are important in a time of increasing racism and right-wing populism in mainstream politics, trends which risk negatively influencing public policy and social work research, education and practices.