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Östman, 2019 🔗

Unaccompanied Refugee Minors and Political Responses in Sweden: Challenges for Social Work

Year: 2019

Type of text: Doctoral Thesis

Published by:  Mittuniversitetet

Language: English

Author: Caroline Östman

Pages: 283

Available at:

Short description of text 

‘The main objective of this study is to examine how the Swedish reception system and social work institutions meet the needs and ambitions of URMs. The study seeks to answer the following research questions: how has the increase in immigration in 2015 influenced Swedish political parties’ programmes and policies?; how does the municipal receiving system for unaccompanied refugee minors in Sweden function according to the experiences of minors and their carers?; what are some of the possibilities and hindrances that exist in respect of unaccompanied refugee minors’ integration into Swedish society?; and how well-informed and prepared are Swedish social workers and the ‘staff from family-homes’ in meeting the needs and ambitions of unaccompanied refugee minors?’ (Abstract)

Most important results

‘The analysis suggests that the political debate influencing Swedish migration and integration policies almost totally ignores the role of Western countries in the war and violence created in countries such Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, which is one of the major reasons behind increasing migration from those countries. It also suggests that there are many shortcomings and problems in the Swedish reception system, such as social authorities’, and carers’ lack of adequate knowledge about migration and integration in general and in relation to the life conditions of URMs and their personal histories and ambitions in particular. There is also evidence of a strong West-centrism in how reception staff work with URMs. Together, these factors harm URM’s future integration in society’ (Abstract). 

– ‘Increasing immigration to Sweden neutralised almost all discussions concerning integration of immigrants in Swedish society, instead the immigration issue became a question of cost, security and control. Further restrictions on immigration were legitimised by the increasing costs, which would harm the welfare of Swedes and the social security system … People in need of protection from devastating wars and conflicts have been increasingly presented as a ‘problem for ‘us’ and ‘our welfare state’ (p. 118). 

– ‘The results show that the URMs have to be active agents in the entire process of migration and application for asylum in Sweden. They are well-aware of the requirements for them to be accepted as an URM in Sweden. The agency of the URMs is proved on the basis that they are constructing the fact that they have been forced to leave their country of origin even if many of them came to Sweden from Iran. However, in this process, they have been guided by their parents, relatives, smugglers and other immigrants in their choices. Other factors influencing their choice of Sweden as their destination country have to do with ‘Educational opportunities’ and possibilities in Sweden for family reunion’ (p. 157). 

– ‘The results show that although huge resources provided by the Swedish welfare system, the way the reception of the URMs is organised creates many problems for the future integration of the URMs. The lack of an intersectional perspective by which to consider differences between and within the category of the URMs has led to the existence of a homogenisation of the URMs as a category of people with just one property, i.e. to be unaccompanied children. Socioeconomic, educational, age and gender differences are overlooked by social authorities […] One of the findings of this chapter is the risk of clientisation of the URMs in Sweden. Existence of a relatively generous welfare and allowance system, which does not put any demand on the URMs obligations in return for the allowances, risks making the URMs dependent on the welfare system. There are many indications for the development of a dependency lifestyle among the URMs. According to the interviewed social workers and ‘staff from family-homes’ the majority of the URMs are very aware of their rights and the ways of getting different allowances, but do not try to change their ‘comfortable’ lifestyles. There are no declared political ambition or policy for the integration of the URMs in Sweden. Municipal social workers who have the major responsibilities for the placement and well-being of the URMs in Sweden say that they have no responsibilities for the integration of the minors. They put the responsibility of the integration of the minors on the residential homes and the ‘family-home’ staff, who in their turn claim that they have not enough possibilities to do anything about the integration of the URMs since the municipal social workers ‘do not listen to them’ and act in accordance with their own routines’ (p. 197). 

– ‘The results show that municipal social workers do not have adequate knowledge about the URMs immigration journey, their ambitions, the constellation of the ‘family-homes’, their legal guardians, and the conditions the URMs’ daily life at residential homes. Such lack of knowledge is not, however, limited to the municipal social workers, but it is also shared by other carers who ask for more education and guidance in their daily work with the URMs. High degree of mobility among carers has been another problem’ (p. 206). 

– ‘The doctrine of ‘cultural competency’ is also a reason for placing many URMs in ‘family-homes’ with ‘cultural competency’, such as ‘speaking the same language as the URMs’ and ‘coming from the same country or region’. Although, this can provide the URMs an initially good start in the new country, they say that this can hinder them of learning the new language properly. Another problem is what was mentioned earlier, i.e. the problem of integration. Many ‘family-homes’ with immigrant backgrounds are unemployed and dependent on social allowances and as such marginalised (Kamali, 2004). They are therefore not able of providing the URMs with adequate information and knowledge about their rights and responsibilities in Sweden’ (p. 228). 

Theoretical perspective/framework

Postcolonial theory and critical intersectionalism.


Qualitative content analysis of data based on Swedish political debate regarding migration and integration between 2014–2018, and the result of 29 interviews with 12 unaccompanied refugee minors, nine carers, three persons from ‘family-homes’, three municipal social workers and two legal guardians.

Policy suggestions

1. New critical knowledge based on critical research 

2. Increasing critical knowledge in the education of social work 

3. Social work skills for working with transnational families and new global family formations and relations 

4. New education for the URMs 

5. Educating teachers and carers, who are working with the URMs, in critical knowledge and skills 

6. Socio-political mobilisation against racism and xenophobia (p. 230).

‘In this study, many URMs say clearly that they do not want to go to school, where they feel themselves alienated, but are eager to start working in the normal labour market in Sweden. This makes organisation and creation of new ‘educational paths’, such as occupational educations and training, necessary in order to promote the URMs’ integration in society’ (p. 231). 

Summarised by: Alva Nissen