Photo: Geese migration from Rosana Prada Flickr photostream

Around 9,000 young people who arrived as unaccompanied children and claimed asylum have been denied a residence permit in Sweden since 2015. With a peak of new arrivals in 2015, the waiting time for decisions increased dramatically from a matter of weeks in 2014 to one year and eight months in December 2017.

The consequences of long waiting times for asylum decisions, especially for children, raise questions about whether migration can be regulated in a way that attends to vulnerability without compounding it.

In 2015, with the borders, open Sweden received 35,369 asylum applications from unaccompanied minors. The borders were closed at the end of 2015 and the number of applications dropped to just over 2,000 for 2016. This 94% drop represented the biggest decrease in the number of arrivals of unaccompanied minors in Europe for 2016. Without identification papers, it had become impossible to travel into Sweden with checks on bus, train and ferry crossings from Denmark.

Due to the long waiting times, many young people had reached the age of 18 by the time the decision on their asylum application arrived. Having reached majority reduced their chances of being offered residency because minors are treated more favourably. During the long waiting time, young people had learned Swedish and established themselves socially.

Currently under discussion is a law that would allow these young people – mostly men – another opportunity to gain a residence permit, providing they are in education. The Swedish anti-immigration party (whose slogan is Trygghet och Tradition, that is Security and Tradition) is against the proposition to devote statutory funds to educating and supporting these young men, a large proportion of whom are of Afghani origin.

The spectacle of deporting vulnerable young people to Kabul is difficult to square with Sweden as a humanitarian super-power. The Hazra minority are over-represented among Afghani asylum seekers. If deported, their prospects in Afghanistan are not good, with reports of punishment beatings and killings by the Taliban. Being denied asylum is one reason why young people go missing from institutional care.

Asserting the imperatives of vulnerability is one means of negotiating access to healthcare, welfare and residency papers. Critical ethnographies of humanitarianism have shown how emphasizing disease and disability can support the case for temporary residence permits.  In refugee camps where a limited number of displaced people will be offered quota refugee places, evidence of vulnerability is important. Women who are lone-householders are seen as vulnerable and therefore given priority for quota refugee status. Informally NGO workers may know that a father or husband figure exists, especially when a pregnancy becomes evident. But, in terms of how the system works, ignoring the existence of a man, even if he is supportive, emphasizes the woman’s vulnerability and can help her and her children’s asylum case. But of course, it has repercussions for the men seeking asylum, from the same camps.

In order to access support, migration regimes regularly ‘require’ the performance of vulnerability. For example, young people who had migrated to the UK as children described the difficulty of being asked to rehearse the story of their trauma in order to access urgent healthcare. But the forms of vulnerability which govern migration vary. Girls arriving in Sweden who had been raped en route have not been offered appropriate care and faced further harassment when placed in group accommodation dominated by young men.

The regulation of migration and of access to healthcare through claims of vulnerability has long-term consequences for both populations and individuals. Lone children are treated more favourably than adults in some aspects of the asylum process. Does this create an incentive for parents in difficult circumstances to send their children away before they reach adulthood? Sending a younger child on a migration journey may give him a chance to claim asylum and have that claim processed before he reaches adulthood and/or before his age is contested by a migration officer or healthcare provider.

In a European context, the number of unaccompanied child migrants arriving increased year by year to 2015. In 2017 Unicef reported a five-fold increase in the number of unaccompanied child migrants worldwide since 2010. Analysis of Eurostat data from 2008 to 2015 showed that unaccompanied minors arriving annually were mostly boys aged 14 to 17 years. Around 10% annually were girls of the same age. About 10% of the unaccompanied young people were 13 years and under in any given year.

Of course, it’s good news that young migrants to Sweden will be able to pursue an education rather than face deportation – assuming the law is adopted. Given that young migrants tend to disappear from official view when deportation looms, offering an education route to residency avoids creating a hidden population available to exploitation for trafficking, sex work and unfree labour.

But what about young people who do not want or cannot tolerate education? How does the uneducable and unruly former child migrant avoid deportation? If he cannot follow an education is he undeserving of asylum? If we accept that migrants should not be deported to countries they do not know, shouldn’t this apply to all, regardless of their desire or tolerance for education?

The old moral division between the deserving and the undeserving seems hard to escape.

An audio version of the blog is available here (6m25s):