6th Dec 2022

How Moroccan street boys changed Swedish foreign policy

  • Sweden and Morocco have agreed to work togethe to make repatriation of Moroccan citizens easier. (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Earlier this year, Sweden’s government announced it would not recognise Western Sahara as a country. The real reason for this decision may lie not in the deserts of West Africa, but with Moroccan children living on Stockholm's streets.

Both partners in the governing coalition - the Social Democrats and Greens - had urged recognition while in opposition. In 2012, the parties had together with the Left Party and the Sweden Democrats voted through a bill in that direction.

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What has caused this volte-face?

Was it Morocco’s threat to stop the opening of an Ikea store and boycott Swedish products?

Or Sweden’s candidacy to the UN Security Council, which made it wary of a row with a mighty Arab country?

Mohamed Sidati of Polisario, which considers itself the Western Sahara government-in-exile, told Swedish radio he thought the decision came after pressure from France, which sees Morocco as an ally in the fight against terrorism.

The government’s decision is based on a report, the summary of which is available but the rest of the content is confidential.

But many link the decision to the growing number of Moroccan boys living on the streets of Sweden, and the problems they cause for the authorities. The change of heart has breathed new life into relations with Morocco, whose government used to ignore the problem.

'They don't trust us'

Three unaccompanied minors from Morocco sought asylum in Sweden in 2008. By 2015, the number had jumped to 403.

Some of these have “disappeared” from the reception centres where they were housed. Many more arrived without filing an asylum request.

“They never get into 'the system',” says Kjell-Terje Torvik, the national coordinator for unaccompanied children at the Migration Agency.

He estimates the number of Moroccan minors living on the streets of Sweden to somewhere between 800 and 1,000.

“But nobody knows the real number,” he says.

Many are in their teens, but social services have come across children as young as seven. All of them are boys.

Kjell-Terje Torvik explains to the EUobserver why they stay away from authorities: “They don’t trust us. They know they have small chances of receiving asylum and fear being deported.”

While 87 percent of all unaccompanied children are granted a right to stay in Sweden, the figure is two percent for those of Moroccan origin.

”Another reason is that our reception system doesn't fit them. They are used to taking care of themselves, so when the staff tell them they have to respect rules - come home at a certain hour, for instance - they tend to leave,” says Torvik.

Many have grown up on the street, either in their home country or somewhere in Europe. By the time they make it to Sweden, they are often traumatised.

“They need long-time rehabilitation, but social services are not ready to undertake such efforts for someone who’s supposed to eventually leave the country,” he says.

Police frustration

Instead, the children often sleep rough, even in winter, or visit hospices for one night only. They support themselves by selling drugs, pickpocketing or robbing drunk Swedes on the way home from nightclubs.

There are also some cases of more violent crimes: four boys are suspected of gang rape, two others of murder with robbery.

The boys are also victims.

In January, a mob of masked men descended on one of the boys’ meeting places in central Stockholm, intending to attack people who did not look like ethnic Swedes.

“The younger get used by the older to steal or sell narcotics”, Christian Froden, a Stockholm police officer, told EUobserver. “Nearly all do drugs."

Swedish law says children must be protected from drugs, whether they are citizens or not.

Froden has worked with the boys for two years now and expressed in the past his frustration with the lack of options and with a system that is not designed to help the children.

His supervisors recently doubled the number of officers working with the boys from two to four. By way of improving coordination with social services, every team's car is now accompanied by a social worker.

But the number of individuals they have to follow stays constant.

“Our work is foremost about disturbing them from doing crime and putting names on the perpetrators and victims. One shouldn’t be able to break the law in an anonymous manner or suffer offence without reporting it,” Froden said.

One of the only interventions available to the police is to lock the boys up if they are visibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

SIS, the government agency that provides custodial care for youngsters with psychological problems, handled 219 patients last year. More than half were from Morocco or Algeria.

 “But it’s a cumbersome procedure and not always the best option,” Froden said.

No extradition

Adding to the authorities' difficulties, Sweden faces a tough task to repatriate the children.

“We can only deport children if they have an orderly reception in their home country,” Torvik explains.

“Both children and adults also need to have valid travel documents.”

When a deportee will not, or cannot, prove his or her identity, Sweden can ask the country of origin for help.

But Morocco has often failed to cooperate, much to the frustration of Sweden’s interior minister Anders Ygeman.

"There is a clear commitment in international law that Morocco must live up to," he told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, last September.

"We need to clarify Sweden's position and demands on Morocco to take responsibility for their own citizens."

The minister said he summoned Amal Belcaid, a diplomat with Morocco's embassy in Stockholm, to talk about the children. But Belcaid cancelled the appointment and ignored requests to reschedule.

Belcaid told Dagens Nyheter in October: “We would rather speak about Western Sahara than the children.”

After the U-turn

Things changed with the government’s U-turn on recognition of Western Sahara, on 15 January. Three days later, Morocco’s parliamentary speaker visited Stockholm.

Rachid Talbi Alami and Anders Ygeman agreed to work together to make repatriation of Moroccan citizens easier.

”Sweden and Morocco have agreed to establish a committee for solving questions about repatriation,” the minister’s press secretary Victor Harju tells EUobserver.

Swedish media has reported that the government is willing to pay Morocco for providing orphanages and other services for the children.

But Harju says the details are still being discussed, and no money has been dedicated yet.

”Sweden is ready to contribute to the environment these people will return to, how this will look like is something we need to come back to,” he says.

Anders Ygeman also wants to make it easier to lock up Moroccan children in Sweden. He told DN the children were a danger to themselves and others.

In parallel, the Migration Agency has contracted Bayti, a Moroccan NGO working with street children, to carry out research.

Bayti has contacted roughly 30 street children, asking them about their backgrounds and what it would take for them to agree to go back to Morocco. Bayti offers them housing and education.

The Migration Agency was hoping that some would return to Morocco already last autumn and inspire others to follow. But so far, none has agreed to go back.

“The children provide information that cannot be verified and they are not interested in going back,” says the Migration Agency's Kjell-Terje Torvik.

Still, the agency is currently negotiating a new deal with Bayti for future cooperation. This is the agency’s best shot, as the number of Moroccan children on Sweden's streets continues to grow.

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