In Sweden, which takes the largest number of refugees per capita in Europe, the Migration Agency says almost 1,300 unaccompanied child asylum seekers sought asylum in a single week in September–a staggering increase from about 400 a week in June.
“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. A journey from Afghanistan to Sweden could take months, sometimes years.
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, where 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, 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.