Sweden’s Management of Refugee Children – Systematic Violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

feb 22, 2022

International 2022.

A submission from Swedish civil society to Sweden’s reply to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Author: Birgitta Göransson, February 2022


The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child scrutinizes how the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is implemented in countries that have ratified or included the entire Convention in their national laws. The most recent UNCRC report (2015) recommended that Sweden improve its efforts and its support for children in exposed situations, amongst others, refugee children.

Huge numbers of refugees entered Europe in 2015. Sweden received 163,000 asylum-seekers, of whom 35,000 were registered as unaccompanied minors, i.e under 18 years of age. Of these, 23,000 had Afghan citizenship, but many were from Iran and Pakistan. In addition, 6000 Afghan children came to Sweden accompanied by a legal guardian.

In November 2015, the government declared that Sweden needed a respite and closed the border the following January. On July 20, 2016, the so-called Temporary Law began to be implemented. This law limited the possibilities for granting permanent residence and instead, a temporary residence permit became the rule. The law applied retroactively, as of 25 November 2015. Two so-called Upper Secondary School (Gymnasium) laws were introduced later, which were meant to give unaccompanied minors a possibility to receive a permanent residence permit.

The examples and experiences described below relate to a period after the Swedish government received the UN Committee’s recommendations. The situation in 2015 – 2016 was extremely demanding, and it was sometimes difficult to maintain high quality in the reception of refugees.  Unfortunately we see that the faults that existed in the interviews and investigations and decisions regarding asylum-seekers in 2015 still remain when the same people now reapply for asylum or seek enforcement impediments.

At present there are thousands of families with children in Sweden who are denied residence permits but cannot be deported: around a thousand minors who were 12 – 14 years old when they arrived in Sweden without a legal guardian and who are supposed to leave the country when they turn 18; and several thousand young adults without documents – former unaccompanied minors. Many thousands have also gone to other countries in Europe where they have often been granted residence permits.

Author: Birgitta Göransson, psychologist at the NGO, Skyddsvärnets Krismottagning I Göteborg (Skyddsvärnets Crisis Centre in Gothenburg, Sweden), and member of the editorial committee for the book, The Unnecessary Refugee Crisis – the Rule of Law, the Civil Society and the Refugees 2015 – 2021.

Endorsing this report are the other members of the editorial committee for the book, The Unnecessary Refugee Crisis:

Karin Fridell Anter, chairman of Stöttepelaren (The Supporting Pillar), a voluntary organization supporting unaccompanied minors and young people

Ingrid Eckerman, founder of the network Stoppa Utvisningarna till Afghanistan! (Stop Deportations to Afghanistan!)

Solveig Freudenthal, The Ethics Committee in Sweden

Carin Flemström, Haninge voluntary foster home

Jan Stattin, Stop Deportations to Afghanistan!

Den onödiga flyktingkrisen – rättssäkerheten, civilsamhället och flyktingarna 2015 – 2021
(The Unnecessary Refugee Crisis – the Rule of Law, the Civil Society and the Refugees 2015 – 2021) info@onodigaflyktingkrisen.se

The Swedish government’s reply to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is misleading

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child scrutinizes how the Convention on the Rights of the Child is implemented in countries that have ratified or included the convention in their national laws. In its most recent report from 2015 [1] the UN Committee recommended that Sweden improve its efforts and its support for children in exposed situations, those who were socio-economically vulnerable, those who were mentally or physically disabled, and refugee children. Sweden needed to focus more on what was best for the child and support the child’s right to be heard.

After six years, Sweden was to report back on how the recommendations have been followed and relate how the Convention on the Rights of Children is being applied. The government delivered its reply in autumn 2021 [2] to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Swedish report described various organizations that work with children and included thorough-going descriptions of how means have been provided to different sectors in order to reduce the harmful effects the pandemic and consequent restrictions could have on children. Extra means have been provided to counter children’s vulnerability to violence. The Barnombudsman (the Children’s Ombudsman) was asked to describe how to improve children’s participation in all decisions in which they are involved.

However, nothing is mentioned about the results of all these efforts, nothing about how Swedish government agencies have interpreted and applied their mandates. Nothing on follow-ups and possible improvements within the areas cited in the 2015 UN recommendations.

In its response to the UN committee, regarding refugee children, the government wrote:

As is evident in its instructions, the Swedish Migration Agency should analyze consequences before making a decision or taking other measures affecting children, and work towards making the application processing time as short as possible regarding cases involving residence permits. The Migration Agency should prioritize applications from unaccompanied children in order to expedite decisions. The agency is charged with reporting especially on how it ensures that the child’s own grounds for asylum are investigated, assessed and accounted for in the decision. The agency has produced methods for quality assessment follow-ups of asylum cases and for analyzing changes in court rulings.

Sweden’s report to the UN Committee completely lacks follow-up information concerning how the Migration Agency carried out what they were charged with doing. What happens in reality? To what degree has the agency fulfilled, for example, the demand to shorten the processing time for applications? Are children’s own grounds for asylum examined? According to the European Union’s asylum procedure directives, the decision concerning resident permits for asylum-seekers should be made within six months. Only in exceptional cases should the process take twelve months, and absolutely no longer than 21 months. In Sweden, an unaccompanied child might wait five or six years, i.e. 60-70 months.  Moreover, the length of time for processing cases has increased. During the last several years the time for processing applications for normal asylum cases has on average taken circa three years. However, in the large group of asylum seekers who arrived in 2015 there are examples of processing periods of up to five years (60 months). There are unaccompanied children seeking asylum who have waited 24 months before being called to their first interview.

The Migration Agency’s investigations and decisions do not maintain an acceptable judicial level. In practice, the courts do not make independent examinations of appealed decisions. This will be further elucidated below.

The bases for this submission

The information bases for the present text, which concerns examples of how UNCRC is applied in the Swedish Migration Agency asylum process, derive from a) a large number of personal encounters with unaccompanied refugee minors and families with children, b) scrutinizing asylum documents and cases and c) studying reports and articles.

All this may be found in more detail in the book The Unnecessary Refugee Crisis – The Rule of Law, Civil Society and Refugees 2015-2021 [3]. The book contains analyses and testimonies from 50 contributors who have been directly involved with refugees in their daily lives and in their work since 2015. In the book the asylum-seeking process is described from various points of view, with about 1000 references.

The present text highlights several aspects, for example how the asylum process, interviews, and years of waiting for a decision affect asylum-seekers’ mental health. In addition, the text takes up how age assessments are made and their effects on different groups of children and young people.

Refugee families and minors

Families and unaccompanied children who flee to Sweden often have similar backgrounds. They have been subject to escalating persecution and many traumatic experiences. When their situation becomes unendurable they flee to save their own lives or to avoid forced recruitment to Taliban groups, ISIS or Al Shabaab. The largest group of both unaccompanied minors and families with children have fled from Afghanistan; many also come from Syria, some from Somalia and Iraq.

They have not left their countries to gain access to Sweden’s welfare system; they have planned to flee to Europe and for various reasons have landed in Sweden. The Afghan refugees are often young people from rural areas, but a large portion have also fled from Iran (most of them Hazaras).

Those who have lived in Iran left when Iran decided to deport them to Afghanistan if they refused to be recruited into the Iranian army during the war in Syria. The other large group are those who fled after refusing to join the Taliban. Their families have not let them be recruited, and when, in many cases, their fathers have been taken prisoner by the Taliban or executed in front of the sons, the sons have fled or been told by their mothers to leave to save their lives. These are young men who abhor violence and suffer greatly for having to abandon their mothers and siblings, who would have needed their help in the absence of the family father.

The rule of law in practice in the asylum process

Politicians often talk about Sweden’s application of the rule of law in the asylum process. The Swedish legal system, with appeals available at various stages, is considered to guarantee legal certainty. The researcher, Livia Johannesson examined the process in her PhD thesis, In Court We Trust [4] and discovered a performed, staged rule of law, a theatre performance that conceals another reality.

Jan Bratt, District Court judge in Malmö has pointed to the same sort of grandstanding. After having read many of Migration Agency case files, retired Court of Appeal judge, Nanna Töcksberg Zelano in Gothenburg, has criticized the interviews for not reflecting young applicants’ stories and for consistently leaving out or deliberately misinterpreting important information that underpins their claims [5]. In her opinion the Migration Agency’s grounds for decision are undifferentiated and mechanical; large portions of them lack relevance. The grounds for agency decisions and the Migration courts’ rulings do not maintain an acceptable judicial level. Their arguments are illogical, obscure and unclear and their proof assessments peculiar. Worst is the impression that decisions have been made in advance. In her PhD thesis Isa Cegrell Karlander quoted a Migration Court judge who exclaimed, “Whatever we do, we do the right thing anyway” [6].

A few examples of how the rule of law functions in practice:

The Migration Court does not scrutinize Migration Agency decisions, but almost always complies with agency conclusions. The court does not make its own proof assessments and it does not weigh together various kinds of evidence. The Migration Court of Appeal accepts few cases and alters judgements in only one percent of them.

There is no comprehensive evaluation weighing up written documentation; individual documents are rejected separately, one by one. Even qualified documents from consultant physicians, child psychiatrists, law professors and others are rejected or put aside, unread. The Migration Agency judges all hand-written material from the applicants’ homeland to be simple, with low evidential value. Such interpretation enables the agency to dismiss court rulings from Sharia courts, which are signed and stamped. This occurs even in cases when these court rulings are supported by letters, interviews and testimonies.

Country of origin evaluations, which are to be used to estimate the risks involved in refoulment, are selectively used by the Swedish Migration Agency. The agency references precedential judgements from the European Court, the Migration Court of Appeal and statements from the United Nations that facilitate deportation decisions, but does not mention later decisions in favour of granting resident permits.

In its examinations of asylum applications the Migration Agency discriminates children and young people from Afghanistan. Evidence has been demanded that the agency knows is impossible to obtain – for example, dates of birth, which are often not registered in Afghanistan. The case officers reject almost all the documents from Afghanistan as having low evidential value and do not weigh the evidence. The Swedish Migration Agency, in contrast to its counterpart in other Western European countries, has refused applications on the grounds that applicants have possibilities for internal transit, refuge inside the country, despite the fact that it has been shown that there are no safe areas in Afghanistan. Sweden has drawn up a contract with Afghanistan concerning the reception of deported refugees but not followed the agreement proscribing the deportation of minors [7].

Age assessments

According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for a child to be correctly evaluated, age assessment is decisive – this relates to the method for determining whether a child is a minor or not.

The Swedish Medical Ethics Council

The Swedish state Medical Ethics Council has addressed age assessments of asylum seekers in documents that also include recommendations to the Migration Agency [8, 9]. The purpose of medical age assessments is to investigate whether an asylum seeker is a child, i.e. under 18 years old, since children have special rights. Unaccompanied children comprise a vulnerable group, with limited abilities to look after their own interests themselves and they lack legal guardians. It is essential that children are treated as children so that they can enjoy the special protection they have a right to. The medical age assessments have a crucial role in the asylum process and if the assessments are wrong there is a risk of serious consequences, both for individuals and society.  The Swedish Medical Ethics Council does not advise against medical age assessments provided that the methods used have the strongest scientific support and at the final age assessment the agency weighs in other information that arises during the processing of the asylum application.

The Swedish Medical Ethics Council finds that at present no method exists that can assess an exact age. Therefore, it is vital that methods with the highest scientific value are chosen, potential risks for incorrect assessments are acknowledged, and the methods used are regularly evaluated and altered according to new scientific findings.

The National Board of Forensic Medicine, which in 2016 was commissioned to carry out medical age assessments, was not supposed to declare an exact age but report their result together with risks and margins for error. The Migration Agency, responsible for making the final age assessment, should weigh in the assessed age together with other evidence in a cumulative judgement of whether the age given by the asylum seeker is credible.

The Swedish Medical Ethics Council stresses that as regards unaccompanied minors and age assessments, Swedish authorities and courts must respect the principle of the benefit of the doubt, which is a burden of proof rule that applies in Swedish law.  The revised asylum procedures directive states that if doubts remain after a medical age assessment has been made, the decision-making case officer should assume that the asylum applicant is a minor.

According to the Medical Ethics Council, it is less harmful in interviews to treat the asylum applicant as younger rather than the opposite. Most important is to ensure that a person who is not over 18 years old is not registered as older. To treat the applicant as older than he or she is during interviews can involve major risks – for example, that large demands are placed on the applicant to deliver documents, certificates and more detailed information. In addition, an older person is considered to be more responsible for his or her situation.

The European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) states that age assessment should be used only when there are documented doubts about whether a person is a child or not, and the “benefit of the doubt” should be employed generously. In the first instance, accessible evidence should be scrutinized, and thereafter non-medical methods such as interviews and psychological evaluations. Only then should MRI examinations and x-rays be utilized. The margins for error should be given and the lowest age indicated thereby should be used.

There is no internationally recognized method for medical age assessment. Most countries combine at least three different methods and often indicate an age range. In several countries a doctor makes the final assessment.

Age assessments as practiced by the Migration Agency

According to a ruling by the Swedish Court of Appeal in 2014, the burden of proof regarding age lay with the child. Up to 2017, the case officer’s ocular examination comprised the main grounds for assessing age. In the large numbers of refugees arriving in Sweden in 2015, 35,000 were unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The age of many of these children was raised to 18 years old, which prompted a comprehensive debate concerning the real ages of these children; the need for a secure medical age assessment was obvious.

In 2016 the government commissioned the National Board of Health and Welfare to investigate radiological methods for age assessment of children. The subsequent report revealed shortcomings in its statistical calculations and was withdrawn.

The same year, the government asked the National Board of Forensic Medicine “to commence conducting with all possible speed medical age assessments” in a manner to safeguard legal certainty. The aim here was primarily to ensure that adult asylum seekers should not be evaluated as minors.  The risk that a child could be assessed as an adult was not touched upon.

The National Board of Forensic Medicine chose a method, magnetic camera (MRI) scanning of the knee joint, which in the report from the National Board of Health and Welfare was mentioned as promising but not validated, in combination with x-rays of wisdom teeth. The media was told that the method was very safe for children. Results were expressed in a number of standardized texts concerning to what extent the MRI examination indicated for or against the young person being over or under 18.  No information was given on the age span revealed in the results in individual cases. These assessments nearly always led to the age being raised.

The Migration Agency offered medical age assessments to children from 14-15 years and older, with the proviso that “if you do not have the examination, we will consider you to be 18 years old”. The legal department decided that age assessments should exclusively rely on The National Board of Forensic Medicine’s expert opinion.

The decision did not include weighing together the medical assessment with the assessments from experts on child development such as pediatricians, child psychiatrists, psychologists and pedagogues which the Migration Agency could have obtained and included, even when statements from these experts were sent to the Migration Agency. Either they were not read or the comments they elicited concluded that the statements were of low evidential value and subjective. The Migration Agency did not apply the “benefit of the doubt”. There are examples where even passport documents giving the age of 15 were discredited for no other reason than they were considered to have low evidential value.

Reviews of Migration Agency decisions in the courts should guarantee legal certainty. Yet as a rule, the Migration Courts and the Migration Court of Appeal accept Migration Agency decisions without making independent evaluations of the evidence. This is the case also when the age of the applicant has been raised. One study shows that the court often does not comment on the asylum seeker’s argument at all, nor does it evaluate scientific arguments.

The government is not ignorant of these discrepancies: on the basis of the Board of Forensic Medicine’s statements the Migration Agency´s raising the age of most applicants to 18 prompted discussions in the media and in Parliament (Riksdagen) as well as protests from civil society.

The lack of scientific grounds

The method promulgated by the National Board of Forensic Medicine for assessing age received massive criticism from researchers representing various disciplines. After prolonged criticism and debates, the government finally ordered an enquiry in 2020; its first report arrived in November 2021 [10]. The scientific appraisal was carried out by the Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment and Assessment of Social Services, which showed that the method used by the National Board of Forensic Medicine lacked scientific grounds. Moreover, the Board of Forensic Medicine’s formulations were unclear.

Although the method used by the National Board of Forensic Medicine for the medical assessment of age has not been validated, it is still being used today. However, the assessments for girls have been changed as has the way the reports are presented. The Migration Agency has included in its guidelines that balanced assessments should be made of all the material given in evidence.

The assessments of thousands of young people have been faulty and new assessments have not been made. Incorrectly assessed age remains as grounds for deportation from Sweden.

For a young person to not be believed when giving his or her age is a deeply serious matter. Age is a part of one’s identity and to be doubted and indirectly accused of lying contributes to losing trust and hope.  Hopelessness is also reinforced when age assessments from people who have known the young person a long time are not acknowledged. This is also an infringement of the young person’s human rights.

How do young people experience the asylum process?

Knowledge about how asylum seekers’ mental health is affected by the asylum process is well documented in various chapters in the book, The Unnecessary Refugee Crisis. Young applicants’ mental health has been followed continuously by the NGO Skyddsvärnet’s Crisis Centre in Gothenburg, where ten volunteer psychologists and psychotherapists have been working since 2015. They have met with 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking youth in need of support and have conducted circa 4000 treatment sessions. Some of these young people have needed help during the entire asylum process, which in certain cases has taken six years.

These young people have experienced many and very difficult traumas in their native countries. They have witnessed executions of close relatives, experienced beatings and rapes; they have been ostracized from their village society and they have been persecuted for not joining the Taliban or Al Shabaab.

During their flight they have been beaten, forcibly placed in detention, chained, crowded together with others who are seriously ill; they have had too little food and water but far too many beatings and whippings by prison guards. No one we have encountered upon arrival at the Crisis Centre has had a criminal record or addiction.  In our view, according to our evaluations, all have generally been the age they said they were. We have not met any “bearded children” or dissemblers or charlatans who have come to Sweden for economic reasons or only to get their families here. In addition to multiple traumas, young unaccompanied refugees are burdened with the sorrow of having to leave their families.

The young women or girls have lived with beatings and rapes, which they are forced to keep secret because of shame and the ostracism the family would suffer if they were made public. They live in families that impose honour-related violence and forced marriage; many flee such forced marriages.

When young asylum seekers came to Sweden they experienced a positive reception; they were given a legal guardian and housing; they went to school and had access to a variety of supportive people. They were made to feel human, not like dogs, as one of them put it. At the Crisis Centre we felt that they could be helped to heal and cease being plagued by all their traumatic memories. Nevertheless, insecurity about the future and fear of being deported never left them. When their waiting became more and more protracted and when they saw how their friends, whom they knew were 15 years old, suddenly returned from an asylum interview 18 years old, they began to worry about losing their secure homes, having their age upgraded, and being deported. The fear of death that some of them had known all their lives and all the terrible experiences that tormented them were reinforced during their year-long wait. To be exposed to prolonged stress damages the brain’s cognitive capabilities and also has other effects on health according to scientific studies.

The asylum interview

The asylum interview was a shock for many young people; they saw how their friends returned from the interview totally crushed. At the Crisis Centre we received young people who were shattered psychologically and had lost all hope. Some of them had managed to relate terrible traumatic experiences at the interview, but not been believed.

Asylum interviews often take place in a hostile, testy atmosphere, where the case officer seems to assume that everything is a lie. Questions about details must be able to be answered chronologically in order to be credible, according to a Migration Agency case officer. Families are interviewed together with their children, and consequently, children are sometimes forced to listen to their mother’s experiences of violence and rape. Women are forced by the Migration Agency to describe violent assaults in detail – the most shameful and anxiety-ridden thing women who have lived in cultures condoning honour-related violence can experience. And then not to be believed because the case officer considers her story insufficiently detailed.

For a badly traumatized young person to be able seriously to describe his or her grounds for asylum requires in certain cases many meetings with a respectful respondent, for a long time, in an environment that feels secure. Migration Agency interviews are short – two-three hours – which include interpreting time. Many professional support persons around the young asylum seeker have had lengthy periods of contact with them and have often tried to provide the Migration Agency with clarifying and helpful information. The Migration Agency refuses such information. Furthermore, in many cases the interpreter has made errors regarding circumstances, such as times or people, which gives the case officer wrong information.

The Migration Agency’s decision to deny asylum and a resident permit is based on demands for detailed chronological narratives, without which the asylum seeker is not considered to be credible or trustworthy. Officers in the Migration Agency seem to lack knowledge of how memory functions under traumatic experiences. Knife-sharp recollections of short moments but diffuse memories of what happened before and after and in what order things happened is normal in trauma. The Migration Agency dismisses testimonies of traumatic experiences if the agency deems them lacking in detail or disjunctive, calling it “deficient self-experience”. The Agency have chosen not to take into account that persecution of a family and the rape of a mother cannot be divulged because it destroys the family’s honour. A woman’s silence, not speaking, not telling, means, according to the Migration Agency, that her story is not credible. The asylum interviews we have had access to reveal that case officers lack knowledge of children, cultures, crisis reactions, memory disorders and age assessments.

Children’s grounds for asylum

Children in a family may have their own grounds for asylum which are not taken up. Children can be pawns in a conflict; they can be contracted into a marriage as payment for an honour-related debt. As a rule, children are interviewed for only 15-30 minutes and their own grounds for asylum are not evaluated.

In investigations of asylum applicants Migration Agency case officers have distrusted evidence of injuries due to beatings, scars from knife wounds, from chains, etc. This distrust can be exemplified in the case of the gunshot-wounded five years old who was taken unconscious to hospital. The boy’s own body documented the several injuries he suffered during an attack in which his father was killed. The Migration Agency did not find the boy credible since his was not a first-hand testimony. It was his mother who told the story since he himself had been unconscious when taken to hospital. According to the Migration Agency case officer, the boy could have sustained such injuries in another way.

Children with disabilities have the right to a fully- fledged decent life as well as help to actively participate in society. In their decisions for refoulment the Migration Agency and migration courts circumvent the stipulations in UNCRC. The rights of the child are weighed against the interests of society.

A number of single mothers and gravely handicapped children arrived in Sweden in 2015 and later. These children had not been able to receive adequate care in their home countries. Many of the mothers had been exposed to violence and persecution. Without proper care these children risk developing additional psychological disabilities and premature death.

While waiting for their applications for residency to be investigated by the migration authorities these families have received care and improved; the children have begun training and attending school, each according to his or her own preconditions. Doctors and psychologists have sent strong unequivocal statements to the Migration Agency saying that these children will not survive deportation. Schools and the social services have also written in the same vein. Nothing helps – the children, their mothers and sometimes other siblings are deported.  In a typical refoulment decision, the Migration Agency has claimed that “it is not evident from the information received that the child’s state of health is so serious that it can be considered practically impossible to implement the decision”.  Concretely, this means that if a child can be carried on board an airplane and the child does not die in the plane, refoulment is practically possible.

In several cases the police have collected families at dawn. The families have not been able to take their belongings and necessary medicines; neither have they taken their phones, passports or money. They have been flown in specially chartered airplanes back to the countries they have fled from. No reception of them has been organized in these countries; instead, the Swedish police have left the families in the airport.  The Migration Agency often claims that the families have not been able to confirm with acceptable medical documentation that adequate care is not available in the families’ homelands. This is a circular argument, which demands that a non-existent care facility formally confirms that it does not exist.

A permanent residence permit can only be granted if “in an overall appraisal of the child’s situation there are found particularly distressing circumstances relating to severely or permanently impaired health in the child such as to absolutely demand that he or she be granted a permanent residence permit”. Despite this the Migration Agency and its courts have deported most of the child applicants with serious disabilities.

Mental ill health among unaccompanied minors

In January 2018 a survey, commissioned by the National Board of Health and Welfare, of self-harm behaviour and suicides among unaccompanied minors in Sweden in 2015-2017, was published [11]. The results were alarming. Suicide frequency among young people between 10 and 21 years of age was ten times higher among unaccompanied refugee minors than it was among Swedish youth of the same age. Children and young people from Afghanistan were over-represented in the group of unaccompanied minors. Suicide was the absolutely most common cause of death among unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Boys or young men from Afghanistan also dominated the group of attempted suicides.

The National Board of Health and Welfare has examined studies of refugee children from 40 countries [12]. Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTS) could be found in 18-54% of the children and depression in 3-30%. Unaccompanied minors with repeated severe trauma, who had been living in Sweden since 2015, were found to suffer PTS to a greater degree than others: 84% were diagnosed with depression and 70% with PTS.  These figures may be explained by the asylum policy as implemented in the temporary upper secondary school law, with very short, temporary residence permits, years of waiting, and questionable legal decisions. The termination and loss of supportive contacts such as legal guardians, teachers, social workers and the loss of accommodation in conjunction with the upgrading of minors’ age to 18 also contributed heavily towards these young people’s deteriorating mental health.

Young people can experience great emotional fluctuations or mood swings, but their ability to deal with them is often limited because their cognitive capabilities are not fully developed. The cognitive damage caused by Sweden’s asylum process affects young people particularly hard because their brains are still developing (our brains are not fully developed until we are 25 years old). The prolonged stress these young people are exposed to creates concentration problems, sleep and memory disorders which require years of rehabilitation in a secure and predictable environment.  The current one year temporary residence permit causes more damage: the young asylum-seeker may experience a few months of peace, but then comes the anxiety before the reassessment. The ability of the body to manage stress weakens during long-term or prolonged repeated periods of stress. It is not possible to train for stress tolerance; instead, one loses one’s original capacity. “To have hope and to believe in the future are as important for health as physical activity and good food habits,” noted Margareta Kristenson, Professor and Consultant Physician in Social Medicine in Linköping, in an interview [13].

The child’s best interests

The Convention on the Rights of the Child entails the following: all government authorities that make decisions affecting children should take the best interests of the child into account and they should listen to the child’s arguments and consider them meaningful for their decisions. The child’s grounds for asylum must be investigated when adopting a position regarding the child’s best interests. “The benefit of the doubt” should apply in asylum judgements. However, the Swedish Migration Agency does not comply with any of the above.

To determine the child’s best interests is not simple. It requires knowledge from both research and tried and tested experience, i.e. generally recognized and accepted knowledge about children. Such knowledge is absent among Migration Agency case officers, but of course could be obtained from various experts. However, the Migration Agency does not seek this knowledge and refuses even to read statements or testimonies sent during an applicant’s asylum assessment.

Children are not protected from inhumane treatment. Migration Agency processing of minors’ applications shows that they are not regarded as children and minors needing protection. After upgrading their age to 18 the agency moves young people who have a foothold in a community and go to school there. Children are transferred without warning to municipalities that can be far away and that have no schools. Or to large-scale asylum accommodation such as Restad Gård in Vänersborg, with 1,700 places in 2017, where under-age applicants were forced to live in 8-bed rooms with older, sometimes aggressive men who frightened them to death. These men were similar to the men the children encountered during their flight or in their homeland, who beat or raped them. The Migration Agency moves them to such accommodation regardless of how ill or fragile they are.

To exemplify: a 15 year old boy with serious PTS, extreme anxiety and a grave suicide risk. His age was raised to 18 and he was quickly moved to a large housing facility which lay in a desolate, deserted area. He had his medicines with him, which he had to take, but couldn’t manage to look after in the housing facility. The facility lacked health care; there was no available contact person, no help with medicine. This boy’s life was saved by a contact person and a nurse from Skyddsvärnet’s children’s unit who went to his accommodation and stayed a few days. Skyddsvärnet received no compensation for this, but managed to help get him moved to a smaller facility.

The Migration Agency’s pronouncements on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

According to Daniel Grynfarb, Director of the Migration Agency Legal Affairs Unit, an evaluation should be made of the consequences of deportation for the child. Remaining in Sweden can be in the child’s best interests. However, the child’s best interests should be weighed against the state’s interest in maintaining regulated immigration. “Sweden’s interest in regulated immigration overrides the child’s right to his mother”, was how the Migration Agency motivated deporting a one year old baby, whose Afghani mother had a residence permit.

Another statement from the Migration Agency: “Consideration of the child’s best interest cannot in relation to the Aliens Act be awarded such extensive significance that being a child becomes tantamount to a criteria for obtaining a residence permit.” Carl Bexelius, Deputy Director of Legal Affairs at the Migration Agency, was interviewed by Swedish television (SVT) on 28 December 2019 in conjunction with UNCRC being made into a Swedish law in January the following year.  He stated the following:

There are great expectations that the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and perhaps above all, that the principle of the child’s best interests, shall in some major way change the preconditions for being awarded a residence permit in Sweden. I do not think that will happen since the preconditions for being granted a residence permit here are governed by the Aliens Act and the Aliens Act will not be altered.

In Sweden the Convention on the Rights of the Child has the same status as all other laws. When it was made a law in 2020, the government commissioned a survey to ascertain how Swedish legislation and practice cohered with the Convention. The report was submitted in November 2020. The author of the report judged that Swedish legislation agreed for the most part with the UNCRC. However, there were some deficiencies which meant that children’s rights were not fulfilled. The author stated that regulations concerning the child’s best interests and the child’s right to express his or her opinion and have that opinion recognized were not fully reflected, and were not given the attention they deserved in certain legal areas. The Swedish Migration Agency would appear to be a clear example of a government agency where the provisos of Convention on the Rights of the Child have had no impact.

Summary of the above description of Sweden’s asylum procedures with regard to unaccompanied minors seeking asylum

The Swedish Migration Agency has not followed the instructions referred to by the government in its response to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. No analysis is made of the consequences of decisions or of other measures regarding children. The agency has not attempted to reduce procedural delays – shorten the processing time for applications, which are three times longer than what is given in EU directives. The Migration Agency shall ensure that a child’s own grounds for asylum are examined, assessed and reported in the decision made. This is not done. The agency has prepared methods for quality follow-ups in asylum cases and for overturning decisions in the courts. Ambitious follow-ups were made in 2016 [14] and 2017 [15], follow-ups that exposed many deficiencies.  In 2016 the Migration Agency found that the 53% of the asylum decisions made did not fulfill satisfactory legal qualifications. During the following year attempts were made to improve quality, and certain improvements were made, but the scope and incidence of the deficiencies remained considerable.

Since then the Migration Agency has ceased making such thorough examinations and reports. We members of civil society, like many lawyers, who have read the Migration Agency’s application investigations from 2015 to 2022, perceive a decline in quality. The same applies to migration court rulings. The courts follow the Migration Agency’s decisions; they do not review evidence. Neither do they read submitted qualified testimonies from professionals nor question unscientific age assessments. To the Migration Agency the Aliens Act overrides the Convention on the Rights of the Child even though the Convention on the Rights of the Child is a law with the same status as other laws, and according to the Convention, the child’s best interests should take precedence. One of the recommendations that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child made to Sweden was to focus more on the child’s best interests. In Norway the entire Convention on the Rights of the Child has been incorporated into a human rights law that takes precedence over all other national legislation.

The Swedish Migration Agency violates many articles in UNCRC beyond those concerning refugee children. The asylum procedures and children’s reception in the agency involve a de-humanizing process where children and young people are increasingly treated like numbers that can be move here and there, whose ages can be raised and lowered.

The Migration Agency’s operations and way of working are not checked and evaluated like those of other judicial authorities in Sweden. The evaluations of the temporary asylum law, promised by the government before the law was extended, have not been carried out, despite appeals by many authorities, services, and organizations.

The Swedish government’s sixth and seventh periodical report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2021 is a sham, a whitewashing as regards child refugees. It describes a conceived bureaucratic process and not what goes on in reality. The UN Committee should be apprised of this discrepancy.

See also:

Stattin, Jan and Fridell Anter, Karin. Att göra flyktingar utvisningsbara. Rättsosäkerheten i asylärenden efter 2015” (Making Refugees Deportable. Legal Uncertainty in Asylum Cases after 2015)

Vestin, Sanna. Att göra barn utvisningsbara (To Make Children Deportable)

Eckerman, Ingrid. Medicinska åldersbedömningar av ensamkommande asylsökande (Medical Age Assessments of Asylum-seeking Unaccompanied Minors)

Göransson, Birgitta. Om psykisk ohälsa, rättsosäkerhet och volontärhälsa (On Mental Illness, Legal Uncertainty and Volunteer Health)

Rundqvist, Elisabet. Katastrofalt många självmord bland ensamkommande (Catastrophic Numbers of Suicides among Unaccompanied Minors)

Lindberg, Anna. Barnfamiljer på flykt (Families with Children Fleeing)

Freudenthal, Solveig. Barn med grava funktionsnedsättningar (Children with Serious Disabilities)

All contributors: Den onödiga flyktingkrisen – rättssäkerheten, civilsamhället och flyktingarna 2015 – 2021 (The Unnecessary Refugee Crisis – The Rule of Law, Civil society and Refugees 2015 – 2021). Fridell Anter, Karin och Eckerman, Ingrid, eds. Migra förlag och Stöttepelaren (Migra Publishers and Stöttepelaren) 2021.


  1. Sammanfattande slutsatser och rekommendationer avseende Sveriges femte periodiska rapport  (Summary conclusions and recommendations regarding Sweden’s fifth periodic report) UNCRC, CRC/C/SWE/CO/5 2015-03-06
  2. Sveriges kombinerade sjätte och sjunde periodiska rapport till FN:s kommitté för barnets rättigheter (Sweden’s combined sixth and seventh period report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child) October 2021
  3. Den onödiga flyktingkrisen – rättssäkerheten, civilsamhället och flyktingarna 2015 – 2021 (The Unnecessary Refugee Crisis – Rule of Law, Civil Society and Refugees 2015 – 2021)
    Eds. Eckerman, I. Fridell Anter, K. Migra publisher & Stöttepelaren 2021
  4. Johannesson, L. Migrationsdomstolarna har ökat rättsosäkerheten (The Migration Courts have augmented legal uncertainty) Dagens Nyheter Debate, 2017-10-29
  5. Töcksberg Zelano, Nanna. Rättssäkerheten bara en kuliss på Migrationsverket (The rule of law only a backdrop for the Migration Agency) Göteborgs Posten Debate 2017-11-30
  6. Cegrell Karlander, Isa. Officialprincipen i migrationsprocessen. Domstolens utredningsansvar (Official prinicples in the migration process. The courts’ adjudicating responsibilities) PhD thesis, Juridiska institutionen (School of Law), Uppsala University 2021.
  7. Många fruktar för sina liv – trots Sverigekoppling lämnades många kvar (Many fear for their lives – despite connections with Sweden, many are left behind) Syre 2022-01-28     
  8. Oklarheter kring medicinska åldersbedömningar i asylprocessen (Ambiguities in medical age assessments in the asylum process) The State Medical Ethics Council. Memorandum 2018-12-20. Dnr Komm 201801085/S 1985:A
  9. The State Medical Ethics Council. Memorandum 2018-02-06. Dnr 1.3.1-2018-3243
  10. Granskning av RMV:s metod för medicinsk åldersbedömning i asylprocessen (Enquiry into the National Board of Forensic Medicine’s method for medical age assessment in the asylum process) SOU 2021:84
  11. Hagström, A et al. Kartläggning av självskadebeteende, suicidförsök och annan dödlighet bland ensamkommande barn och unga (Survey of self-harm behaviour, suicide attempts and other mortality among unaccompanied minors and young people) Karolinska Institute 2018
  12. Psykisk ohälsa hos asylsökande och nyanlända emigranter: ett kunskapsunderlag för primärvården (Mental illness among asylum-seeking and newly arrived immigrants: information for primary care facilities) The National Board of Health and Welfare 2015
  13. Kristenson, M. Hopplöshet ett hot mot hälsan (Hopelessness – a threat to health) Dagens Diabetes 2016-11-09
  14. Nationell kvalitetsuppföljning med regionalt fokus (National quality follow-ups with a focus on regions) The Migration Agency, Analysis Report 2016
  15. Nationell kvalitetsuppföljning med regionalt fokus (National quality follow-ups with a focus on regions) The Migration Agency, Analysis Report 2017

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