CHILD REFUGEES fleeing violence at home are seeking asylum in Sweden at record rates — but, a recent Human Rights Watch report found, the grass is not so green on the other side of their exodus. The 35,000 children who reached the Scandinavian nation in 2015 often arrived traumatized by violence or sexual abuse at the hands of the Islamic State or during their journeys from Syria, Iraq and Africa. Now, the report says, they lack access to mental- and physical-health care, wait months for word on their asylum applications and live in insufficient or improper accommodations. Lone girls often find themselves in group houses filled with boys just weeks after they have been sexually abused in transit.
Sweden, a country of fewer than 10 million people that received more than 160,000 asylum seekers last year, is perhaps understandably overwhelmed. But the troubles of the refugee children it has taken in are symptomatic of Europe’s continuing failure to respond adequately to the humanitarian crisis at and beyond its borders.
Though the European Union has managed to curtail the refugee flow from Turkey to Greece in recent months, more than 50,000 asylum seekers are still stranded in Greece waiting for European Union members to accept them. Though obligated to accept some resettled families under a binding E.U. plan adopted in September, Austria and Hungary have refused to do so. Denmark and Britain , for their part, will not fully open their doors.
Meanwhile, throngs of refugees are still attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Italy, often with tragic results. Hundreds upon hundreds of refugees are drowning while being transported in smugglers’ boats. Increased European assets devoted to search and rescue, or the creation of safe and legal channels for entry, could save some of those lives. But European governments, led by Germany, continue to prioritize preventing the departure of refugees from their home countries over protecting them once they’ve left.
At a minimum, those who have already arrived must receive better care. Sweden should make changes to its system for receiving refugees: The report recommends the government prioritize unaccompanied children’s applications, strengthen the law governing the appointment of their guardians and improve oversight of local services to collect data that would guide policymaking.
These reforms are as pragmatic as they are pressing. But it is little surprise Sweden has buckled under the weight of so many refugees when many other European countries have done their best to keep their borders closed.
The United States has its own shabby record. Though it is more than 20 times the geographical size of Sweden, it has pledged to take only 85,000 refugees this year and has struggled to meet its goal of 10,000 from Syria.
The European Union and the United States are not primarily responsible for causing this humanitarian crisis. But they — and not just Sweden — are responsible for helping to solve it.