Why Are So Many Child Migrants Turning Up at Sweden's Borders?

  • Half of Sweden's migration budget is spent on refugee children
  • Afghani minors account for more than two-thirds of total

Children refugee have fun in the playground of a school in Halmstad, Sweden.

Photographer: David Ramos/Getty Images

Sweden had the highest number of asylum seekers in relation to its population among the top 10 host countries last year.

But that wasn’t the only record it set. The country also received more unaccompanied minors than any other country -- an influx that’s raising costs (and questions) as the government struggles to welcome the newcomers.

That’s in part because the sudden rise in unaccompanied minors in late 2015 was of a magnitude no one was prepared for: arrivals jumped by 400 percent on the year, compared with an overall rise of 100 percent for total asylum seekers.

Dig a little deeper and another anomaly shows up. More than two-thirds of the minors arrivals came not from war-torn Syria, but from Afghanistan, itself also caught in the clutches of sectarian violence.

"There’s something very, very strange about these numbers," said Hanif Bali, a leading member of the opposition Moderate Party, who himself came as a refugee from Iran when he was 3 years old.

The Migration Agency says it needs the ability to do more age testing. Municipal politicians from the opposition Moderate Party in an op-ed in Svenska Dagbladet said on Monday that Sweden needs to carry out age assessments earlier in the asylum process, and that the quality of age testing is “far behind our neighboring Nordic countries.”

It’s an issue for Sweden because the cost of caring for children is much higher than for adults. Children who aren’t placed in foster homes are hosted in asylum centers that cost the state up to 1,900 kronor ($225) per day, more than what a business traveler would spend at the Sheraton Stockholm.

Housing children seeking refuge in Sweden will cost taxpayers about $2.5 billion this year and $2.8 billion the next, according to the country’s Migration Agency. That means that about half of Sweden’s total budget for refugees is projected to be spent on unaccompanied minors.

Sweden has become a magnet for minors because it’s easier than other countries to get a residence permits and also offers possibilities to get a good education. But now it has become harder to gain entry and the arrival of unaccompanied minors dropped after the government introduced border and ID controls and tightened other rules.

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