Refuge cities The sympathy of last autumn towards asylum-seeking minors in the Gothenburg suburb of Mölndal has been drowned out by anger and suspicion – but the city is working hard to help these lone adolescents start afresh

When Mustafa made it to Gothenburg in June, one of 35,000 unaccompanied minors to have claimed asylum in Sweden last year, a wave of compassion was sweeping the country.

The 15-year-old had travelled on his own from Quetta, western Pakistan, via Iran, Turkey and Greece. Soon he had his own room in a former youth hostel in the countryside near Mölndal, a large suburb of Gothenburg in south-west Sweden, together with 12 other refugee children and seven permanent staff.

He started full-time school, joined a football team and theatre group, and began to dream of becoming a doctor – enjoying the benefits of the long-term approach that helped make Sweden by far the most attractive destination for unaccompanied minors fleeing wars in the Middle East and Asia.

“This is the way to ensure we have super-nice grown-ups who will work and contribute to society on many different levels,” says Anna Ingvarsson, a refugee youth worker in Mölndal.

Of the 69,000 unaccompanied minors who came to the EU last year, more than half chose Sweden. By law, they are guaranteed care and accommodation until they turn 21. Upon arrival, a 16-year-old refugee has cost Sweden none of the expenditure associated with rearing a baby, so apart from being a child in need, Mustafa is officially seen as a potential cheap addition to the workforce in a country with an ageing population.

A police officer outside a home for juvenile asylum seekers in Mölndal, where an employee was killed in a knife attack.

A police officer guards a home for juvenile asylum-seekers in Mölndal, where an employee was knifed to death. Photograph: Adam Ihse/AFP/Getty Images

Since last summer, however, attitudes to young refugees – and Afghan boys in particular (in part since police singled them out during a recent controversy oversexual harassment by immigrant youths) – have changed sharply in Sweden. The sympathy of last autumn has been drowned out by anger and suspicion.

A social tinder dried by fears of terrorism, sexual harassment and strains on the welfare state ignited in January after a tragedy in a home for refugee children in Mölndal, where a young female social worker was stabbed to death by a Somali boy.

The killing saw Swedes give vent to concerns that had grown while the country took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015, sometimes as many as 10,000 each week – more per capita than any country in western Europe. Last November, the government changed course and closed its borders amid a crescendo of concern from the media and politicians that the country could not cope. Far-right vigilantes announced “it’s enough now” and set out to give refugee children “the punishment they deserved”.

The tragedy in Mölndal made headlines across Europe. In Britain, the Daily Mail branded it “the city destroyed by immigration”, claiming it was facing a “rising migrant crime wave”, its streets “at the mercy of gangs of young men”. Sweden’s embassy in London subsequently complained that the newspaper was conducting a campaign against the country’s liberal asylum policy.

“Coverage of the killing was media pornography at its worst,” says Birgitta Korpe, head of the unaccompanied child and adolescents unit in Mölndal. “It was a tragedy, and we should let it be a tragedy. It needed to be handled with more humanity and dignity.”

Korpe, who says she was was interviewed by the Mail, says she refuted the paper’s claims but that her response was ignored. Erik Nord, chief of police for the Gothenburg district, says the Mail’s reports about refugee crime were “quite an exaggeration”.

Children from Syria sleep outside the Swedish Migration Board in Märsta, Sweden.

Syrian children outside the Swedish Migration Board in Märsta. Sweden took more than half the 69,000 unaccompanied minors who came to the EU in 2015. Photograph: Jessica Gow/AP

An immediate result of the change in attitudes and policy in Sweden has been a precipitous decline in the arrival of new refugees, Korpe says. At its peak in November, Mölndal was caring for 700 unaccompanied refugee children; now it is 20. Across the country, private care companies who provided accommodation now see their investments lying idle, sometimes at huge cost to municipalities who are locked in to continuing payments.

Yet Mölndal is preparing for a renewed surge of refugees, a policy Korpe describes as “trying to brake and accelerate at the same time – we are so uncertain what will happen. Nobody can make a prognosis today.”

Central Gothenburg, meanwhile, saw four times the expected numbers of unaccompanied minors in 2015, taking 1,600. At its peak, on a single day in November, the city received 150 children. Most are between 14 and 16, and around 90% are boys.

“We had to scrap the normal bureaucracy and just fix it. It was an extraordinary situation,” says Marina Johansson, a city councillor responsible for refugee accommodation. “Staff had to take decisions very fast. Every week we delivered new ideas and solutions.”

After the photo emerged of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned when the boat he was in capsized in the Mediterranean, many townspeople offered to help. “But now it has changed,” Johansson says. “There have been arson attacks on refugee accommodation, lots of articles about sexual assaults by unaccompanied children – and then the murder in Mölndal.”

A ‘Refugees Welcome’ demonstration in Gothenburg in September 2015.

A ‘Refugees Welcome’ demonstration in Gothenburg in September 2015. Photograph: Scanpix Sweden/Reuters

The political climate has complicated the city’s plan to spread new arrivals around, rather than send them to areas that already have a high concentration of immigrants. In some schools no pupils are native Swedish speakers, Johannson says, so more mixed schools are needed. A new law, meanwhile, requires Gothenburg to find apartments for 880 refugees in 2016, as part of a policy of forcibly dispersing refugees around the country.


Recent public meetings in Gothenburg held to discuss these plans have seen huge turnouts of sceptical, anxious and angry residents. The city already has an acute housing shortage after years of under-investment, and there is widespread fury that resources are being directed at refugees. Some areas, such as affluent Örgryte, have seen rival campaigns spring up for and against proposed new asylum accommodation.

Johansson says the construction of 2,700 new apartments began last year – the highest level for 40 years – and there has been a steady rise in house building since 2010. “We have said we don’t want to build more segregation,” Johansson says. “But we are building flats for everybody, not just refugees.”

However, total housing starts in the city over the past five years are only 20% higher than in the first five years of this century, official figures show, and less than half the pace of construction in the early 1970s.

Sweden expects to receive another 100,000 asylum seekers this year if numbers pick up again in the summer, with some 6,000 coming to Gothenburg – including another 1,600 minors. The city is moving towards housing all children in council-controlled accommodation, in partnership with the non-profit sector.

“It is very important that the staff are mature and educated,” Johansson says. “They can build good relations with the kids and give them structure, routines and meaning in their lives. If we don’t do this, there is more risk that they will do bad things on the street, like any normal young people”.

Rashid, 20, from Somalia, is determined to make a new life for himself in Sweden. He fled here four years ago and now works at McDonald’s while he puts himself through college, where he is training to be a carer for the elderly. This is a popular route for young unaccompanied males, according to David Nilsson, a refugee youth worker in Mölndal.

“The atmosphere has changed in Sweden; it is making it much more difficult for the new refugees,” Rashid says. “But nobody comes here because they want to be violent – that only happens if they have serious mental health problems.”

Abdul-Rahman, 18, a Somali friend of Rashid’s at the asylum centre, has decorated his room with pink butterflies and hearts. What would he say to Swedes who are scared of young men like them?

“Come and meet us, look into our eyes and ask us why we are here and what we want to do with our lives,” Rashid says. “Then you will understand that we are not here to hurt people.”