17-year-old Elyas is one of the tens of thousands of Afghan teenagers who showed up on Europe’s doorstep last year, in perhaps the most unexpected and challenging aspect of the migrant crisis. In a matter of weeks last fall, Sweden alone received more than 20,000 young Afghans–equaling the number of unaccompanied minors that applied for asylum in all of Europe the year before.
As asylum-seekers stream into Europe, the number of unaccompanied children and teenagers among them overall is soaring. In Norway and Sweden, about one in five last year was a minor traveling alone, up from one in 10 the year before. The exodus has put a new, youthful face on migration into Europe. But it has also strained Europe’s capacity to receive migrants even more, because minors traveling alone are given priority in the asylum process and require attention from social services.
In Norway, two-thirds of the 5,300 unaccompanied minors who sought asylum in 2015 were Afghans. They are now spread out in special shelters across the country. Elyas lives here in a former hostel with about 40 other boys from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea and other countries. Many are traumatized by years of war, oppression and abuse in their home countries, or shaken by an agonizing journey to Europe at the mercy of brutal human smugglers.
Ann Roarsen, one of five nurses working with refugees at the Alta Health Center, says it’s not uncommon for the boys to show stress symptoms, including heart palpitations, sweating, anxiety, muscle pain and difficulty sleeping, once they’ve settled down from their journey. Some get depressed and resort to deliberate self-harm, she says, making a cutting gesture over her arm.
Analysts are still trying to figure out why the Afghan numbers soared so suddenly in the fall. Most cite a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, where civilian casualties of the war rose to record levels for the seventh year in a row in 2015, according to the United Nations. They say the violence, along with a drop in prices for human smuggling and the images of Syrian refugees entering Europe, combined to make Afghan families decide this was the time to send their sons abroad.