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The unaccompanied refugee girls: a follow-up

1 September 2016

Magdalena Bjerneld, researcher at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, examined and documented the lives of refugee girls in Sweden.

Shortly before the turn of the millennium, fourteen Somalian girls arrived in Sweden. Magdalena Bjerneld met with them both then and now to see what paths their lives have taken, and the reunion offered many interesting insights.

The number of unaccompanied children arriving in Sweden may seem to be on the rise, but the phenomenon is by no means new. Nor is the debate surrounding these children. Who is responsible for taking care of this group? What care do they need? And how should these initiatives be funded? So far, the work can hardly be described as an unqualified success, and perhaps some of the problems associated with this stem from rash decisions?

Shortly before the turn of the millennium, fourteen girls fleeing the war in Somalia arrived in Sweden. As soon as they’d crossed the border, they were abandoned by the human smugglers who had accompanied them. Most of the girls had no idea what type of life awaited them in their new country. A few years later, they were contacted by Magdalena Bjerneld, a researcher at Uppsala University, who was conducting a study to document the girls’ lives in Sweden. At that time, some lived in a group home, others with relatives, a few in their own flats. All of them yearned for their mothers. Today, a decade and a half later, Magdalena Bjerneld once again met with the Somalian girls, this time to find out how their lives have evolved.

‘The reunion was in many ways a positive experience,’ says Magdalena. ‘All of the girls have established themselves into the Swedish society, they’ve acquired educations, jobs and families. They’ve also embraced the Swedish culture and like to eat Swedish food. Pancakes were a clear favourite.’

Why is it that these girls have succeeded so well in becoming a part of Sweden and the Swedish culture? One common denominator for them is the testimony of safe childhoods in loving families in Somalia, who placed great importance on education. The girls have another thing in common, though. After their fathers died, their mothers singled them out from among their siblings to be given a chance in Sweden, a choice that was likely due to them being considered to possess the qualities that would allow them to stand on their own feet in a new country.

‘There are certainly details that set these girls apart,’ says Magdalena, ‘but in our discussions, a lot of aspects also emerged that can increase our understanding of the needs of unaccompanied immigrant children. One of these is the importance of quickly meeting a person who they can trust, who can partially replace their mother and who is empathetic, encouraging and caring.  Several of the girls had wished for what could be likened to a ‘cultural interpreter’, and stressed above all that they wanted to be treated as individuals with resources, not, as often seems to be the case, as a group that needs to be taken care of.’

The study is already receiving a great deal of attention from affected authorities and schools, and the results are also being conveyed directly to supervisors and teachers at seminars arranged by Uppsala University aimed at improving the reception of unaccompanied immigrant children.


Magdalena Bjerneld’s research
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