In Kent, the main English county receiving refugee children from the Middle East, arrivals jumped from 296 in September 2014 to almost 800 in the same period this year. Almost all land in Dover, a key port connected by rail and road to France.
And in Sweden, which takes the largest number of refugees per capita in Europe, the Migration Agency says almost 1,300 minors sought asylum in a single week in September–a staggering increase from about 400 a week in June. The agency estimates that a total of 12,000 unaccompanied children would have sought asylum in the country this year.
“The municipalities have never been close to having a situation like this before, ever,” said Kjell-Terje Torvik, an expert at the Swedish migration board who has worked with child refugees for over a decade. “Even though we knew the numbers were going to rise, this is far beyond our imagination.”
Social workers say many child refugees have to take off alone because of desperate circumstances: Some became separated from their families in war; others are alone because their family cannot afford to send more than one member abroad. Younger refugees also often have better chances of getting asylum in Europe.
Compared to adult asylum seekers, unaccompanied children are treated under a different set of rules in many European countries. Because they are more vulnerable, they are separated from other migrants and refugees on arrival at their destination country, and transferred to local reception centers like the one in Kent. There they stay for up for two months while authorities make further plans for them: Some will transfer to social housing with supervision by social workers or a guardian–a “god man” in Swedish, meaning a “good person”–while others stay with local foster families. All have the right to accommodation and welfare benefits including education, health care, and money to buy food and clothes.
At the Kent reception center, which has been overflowing with young refugees since the summer, facilities are clean and resemble those at a student hostel. Newcomers are given a welcome pack of toiletries, pajamas, a copy of the Quran or a Bible. The rooms are small, but each is fitted with bunk beds, a sink and a mirror in the corner. The scene is remarkable in its ordinariness: A big group of boys is playing games and watching a teen music TV show in the lounge, while others are relaxing and chatting in the courtyard.
“They go out to familiarize themselves with English life –they play football, go to the shops,” said Sue Clifton, county manager overseeing the center. “They learn about the expectations of living in England.”