The major wave of refugee arrivals in 2015 was an extreme strain on social services, including services that received unaccompanied minors. Researchers in Umeå are now investigating how the crisis was managed.

Evelyn Khoo is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social Work, Umeå University. She has extensive experience in research on social work with children. In the autumn of 2015 she saw statistics that had her worried.

Evelyn Khoo
Evelyn Khoo

“Because of my research, I knew that in 2014 we had more than 30,000 children in social services throughout Sweden. But the number of unaccompanied minors was not included in that calculation. The autumn of 2015 came and suddenly we now had more than 35,000 newly arrived unaccompanied refugee minors – a sharp increase in the number of children in need of support and care”, says Evelyn Khoo.

The wave of refugees descended on an already strained social service, where the majority of employees are women. Particularly in the child services sector, there has been talk of high workload and staff turnover, many vacancies and sick leave due to stress.

An exceptional refugee year

Evelyn Khoo realised that social services faced a major challenge and that there was a need for additional research. In total, Sweden received 162,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

“I felt that we had to research on how it is to work under such extremely stressful and unique circumstances. Not even during World War II or the war in the Balkans has Sweden received so many refugees in such a short time”, says Evelyn Khoo.

She chose to focus only on refugee children, perhaps the most vulnerable in society – and often the most questioned.

“They are questioned on their age, their reasons for migration and their backgrounds. Often they are misunderstood as well. We sometimes see them as a homogeneous group, but they are not. Each child has their own history, their own background”.

“Perhaps we do not have the knowledge we need to take care of these children and their specific needs? We do not have much experience of working with unaccompanied minors under such stressful, extreme conditions”.

Evelyn Khoo and her colleague Viktoria Skoog will now seek answers to a number of questions in the wake of the refugee wave: What solutions were used, what strategies were in place at an individual and organisational level and were there people who worked “outside the box”?

The research will also look at how the extreme workload affects people on a personal level: stress, frustration, sleep problems.

“We have a feminist perspective; ‘the personal is political’. If someone is suffering in a stressful work situation, it’s not just that individual’s feelings and experiences that are of interest, but also why that is the case, the structural conditions for the job”, says Evelyn Khoo.

She and Viktoria Skoog will facilitate at least three focus groups in three anonymous municipalities across Sweden which have different conditions for working with refugee children. The researchers will also interview 30 people, social service workers and managers.

“We want to speak with managers who work closest to the social service workers, but also at higher level, managers who are responsible for economic and organisational decisions. We will try to capture as many voices as possible”.

Khoo and Skoog will also interview social workers who did not cope and resigned from their jobs with refugee children. However, the children themselves will not be interviewed.

The interviews have not been conducted yet, but they will probably discuss controversial solutions to staffing shortages. The municipalities simply needed people!

“And with inexperienced or temporary staff it is difficult to create a relationship with the individual on the other side of the table. And that obviously has consequences for the job”.

The crisis is not over yet

Some social services reported themselves in accordance with the provisions of the Social Services Act (commonly referred to as “Lex Sarah”) when they realised that they were not working in accordance with the rulebook. Evelyn Khoo thinks there may be further reports. When we talked in January 2017, she said the crisis is not over yet.

“Managers in Individual and Family Care (IFO) tell me: ‘The crisis is not over, but the worst part, finding the children a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, that part is over’”.

“The question is whether we now have what it takes to think long-term about the complex problem of unaccompanied refugee minors, that’s a big question”, says Evelyn Khoo.

Various municipal policies and regulatory documents will also be studied, along with the National Board of Health and Welfare’s guidelines “Barnets behov i centrum (BBIC)”, on putting the child’s needs in the centre and how to investigate and follow up children in community care.

“I’m curious whether BBIC was followed for unaccompanied refugee children. Or were there changes as a result of the situation, for example, on how to investigate and how long it should take”, says Evelyn Khoo.

Do you mean there may be one benchmark for Swedish children in social welfare and another for refugee children?

“That may be a working hypothesis, but it is not something we have evidence to support as yet”.

Text: Mats Fahlgren