Protecting and Integrating Children on the Move


How Germany and Sweden responded to the unprecedented number of children seeking asylum during the current European refugee and migration crisis.

By Shanoor Seervai

When almost 1.3 million migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year seeking refuge in Europe, each country faced a choice—help those fleeing unspeakable violence and suffering or close the borders and make the lives of these people even more difficult. Germany and Sweden are two countries that opted to help, diving headfirst into the complex challenge of receiving and providing services for a large number of arrivals in a short time frame.

Children on the move are particularly vulnerable and face numerous risks to their safety. They are entitled to special care and protection, including the right to safe accommodation, education, health care, legal representation, and, for unaccompanied children, the protection of an adult guardian. Germany and Sweden have provided high quality care to asylum-seeking children. However, their arrival in unprecedented numbers in 2015 overstretched the countries’ capacity to cope with the influx.

In May 2016 this researcher traveled to both countries to conduct a rapid assessment of policies and practices for responding to the needs of child migrants. The overarching refrain I heard from experts and policymakers was, “We were not prepared for this,” a reference to the enormity of the task before them.

Integrating Refugees into German Schools

Germany accepted more migrants than any other European Union country last year. As a result Germany needed to integrate around 325,000 children into the school system as of the end of 2015.[1] Germany does not have a national education policy—the sixteen federal states have their own laws for culture and education. The policy of most states is to offer German-language immersion classes to all foreign students, including asylum seekers, in regular schools, ensuring that integration begins even while children are acquiring language skills. Based on their age and progress children are mainstreamed into regular classes after one or two years.

According to Helmut Kehlenbeck, a German official and expert on intercultural affairs, migrant children are “normal children for us. We do not treat them differently—we must help them perform to the maximum of their cognitive abilities.” Germany’s response to the education of refugees reflects this sentiment: most states have hired hundreds of new teachers and increased the number of transition classes in schools. Although teacher recruitment has been a challenge, states have made a concerted effort to hire teachers who have expertise in teaching German as a second language and are sensitive to cultural differences.[2]

Many teachers have emerged from retirement expressly to fill the gaps in migrant education. Many others do not have the rigorous training required of full-time teachers in Germany and are therefore placed on short-term contracts and paid less than regular teachers, said Michael Schwan, an advisor on refugee management at the Department of Education in Berlin. But most are motivated by an interest in migration and by a sense of social responsibility. The six teachers I interviewed all expressed a desire not only to teach their new students but also to express love and affection and acknowledge the tremendous barriers the children had faced in their journey to Europe.

Due to the overwhelming demand, not all migrant children are able to access a high quality education. Students waiting to be placed in a transition class may experience isolation, which in turn might make it more difficult to ultimately integrate. Schwan noted that those who have studied German in a transition class and are ready for regular classes may also have to wait several months to secure a spot in an English or mathematics class, particularly in competitive schools.

Migrant children who have the opportunity to learn German and subsequently attend regular classes are well positioned for integration if they are granted refugee status and remain in Germany. This is not without challenges. According to Judith Kumin, former Europe director at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, integration into a different culture takes more than language acquisition, but education is the best starting point, even for older children.

The success of integration programs in Germany will depend in large part on the commitment of individual teachers, principals, and schools to be inclusive of migrants and to stretch resources, as policymakers in each state determine how to expand and reform the education system.

Caring for Unaccompanied Children in Sweden

Sweden received the largest number of unaccompanied minors (children traveling without their parents or others responsible for their care) in 2015. Of 163,000 asylum applications, 43 percent (70,000) came from children. Half of these were from unaccompanied children.[3] Historically, unaccompanied children have picked Sweden over other EU countries because it has a relatively child friendly asylum process and generally ensures that children have access to care, accommodation and social services.

Once a child arrives in Sweden, the Swedish Migration Agency appoints a lawyer for each child and transfers the child’s care to a municipality. The municipality is responsible for finding accommodation (either in a residence or foster home) for each child, ensuring their access to education and health care, and appointing an adult guardian for them. The appointment of a guardian for unaccompanied minors is widely regarded as a best practice for protecting and advocating for the best interests of asylum-seeking children.

Even this well-developed system could not withstand the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors in the fall of 2015. Faced with a backlog of asylum cases, the Migration Agency was unable to prioritize the most vulnerable children. Temporary accommodations for newly arrived children were filled beyond capacity. Municipalities scrambled to respond. Hundreds of mattresses were purchased and placed on the floors of school gymnasiums to create makeshift transitional homes, according to Shaima Muhammad, a social worker for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the municipality of Mölndal. Scrupulous norms for the monitoring of residence and foster homes fell by the wayside as social workers struggled to keep up. There were delays in the appointment of guardians, while guardians that were appointed were tasked with overseeing the care of too many children.

Sweden’s response must not be underestimated. At the level of the municipality as well as at the level of ordinary citizens, the country demonstrated both the will and the capacity to provide children with the highest level of care permitted by time and resources. But the response at a policy level to the crisis is disappointing and significantly shrinks the likelihood of unaccompanied minors receiving asylum in Sweden. Border controls now require unaccompanied minors to provide a valid form of identification upon arrival. Many asylum-seeking unaccompanied children (particularly from Afghanistan, the largest source country) do not carry such identification.

Once a role model in protecting the rights of refugees, Sweden recently passed a restrictive asylum law, which will go into force on July 20 of this year. This temporary new law rolls back Swedish rules of asylum to bring them more closely in line with the minimum standards of European law. The proposal grants asylum-seeking children temporary residence permits instead of permanent ones, limits the right to family reunification, and seeks to make mandatory medical age assessments of unaccompanied minors whose age is in question. Most nonprofit and human rights organizations see this proposed law as an unnecessary retrenchment of a system that once prioritized the best interests of the child.

The protection and integration of children seeking asylum poses numerous, complex challenges, even to countries with a long-standing commitment to human rights and social welfare. Even when the best interests of the child are treated with the utmost importance, every contingency cannot be accounted for. “We need to be prepared to be a country of immigration,” Schwan said. Muhammad echoes this sentiment: “We need to find a solution for every possible situation. The authorities need to learn to be adaptive.”

Adaptation, however, should not come at the cost of child rights—bureaucratic timelines need to be relaxed, but standards of care should not be compromised. In both Germany and Sweden, innovative, on-the-spot solutions were required when established systems choked in 2015. In the short term, this is critical in order to prioritize the needs of children on the move. But in the medium to long term, resilience needs to be built into systems so that crises are better managed and fewer children slip through the cracks.

See more on Harvard FXB Center’s work with Children on the Move.


[1] Office of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK), “Integration of newly-arrived children,” Berlin: KMK, Unpublished.
[2] Office of the Standing Conference, “Integration of newly-arrived children.”
[3] Swedish Migration Agency, “Applications for Asylum Received 2015.” Updated April 15, 2016, Accessed May 26, 2016.

Photo courtesy of the author.