When Bernt Herlitz’s factory job was transferred from Gotland, Sweden, to Hungary in 2003, he and his wife thought a career change was in order, and both spent the next three years becoming certified as dental hygienists.
Over the ten years Herlitz, now 56, practiced his new profession for the Public Health Service in Visby, he saw his stream of patients change from native Swedes to an increasing number of Muslim migrants – “unaccompanied” Muslim minor migrants, to be precise.
Except he wasn’t convinced they were minors.
“I would probably estimate that up to 80 percent of them were obviously adults,” Herlitz told the Swedish paper Samhallsnytt. “This can be seen, for example, on wisdom teeth that were fully grown – something that is only seen in adults.”
In Sweden, newly arrived asylum seekers receive preferential treatment if they claim to be minors. Unlike adults, they cannot be denied asylum and returned to a part of their country deemed safe while their case is under review. If approved, they are allowed to bring their families to join them, further incentivizing migrants to lie about their age and making Sweden a prime destination for “unaccompanied minors.” Despite growing pressure to medically test migrants using dental, knee or wrist-bone X-rays, which are said to yield age estimates accurate within one year, Swedish authorities have resisted.
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To better educate himself and confirm his suspicions, Herlitz and his wife attended a seminar in July 2016 focused on assessing age in both the judicial and sports worlds. At the time, a national debate was underway regarding the high cost of supporting the influx of migrants from the Mideast. Herlitz, upon consulting with a unit manager of the Swedish Migration Board, was told the government indeed wanted to be sure migrants were the age they claimed and that he should report any suspicions to the board.
So, upon returning to work in August of last year, Herlitz began passing on his suspicions to the Swedish Migration Board, based primarily on the wisdom teeth he was observing when treating “minors” and advising that the age listed in their records was wrong, in his expert opinion. He expressed concern that adults posing as minors could put children at risk if they were housed together.
Eight emails later, Herlitz found himself under investigation. The board never responded to his notices, but a guardian for one of the migrants he questioned notified Herlitz’s employer.
“The manager asked me to come to a single room where there was also another senior manager from the employer, Region Gotland. They told me I will not go to work tomorrow, that I’m turned off and that there will be an investigation,” he said.
Certain he would be backed up by the unit manager at the migration board who told him to report suspicions, Herlitz was unprepared 14 days later when told he was fired from his position of 10 years for violating patient confidentiality. And he wasn’t ready for the roasting he took in Gotland’s three local newspapers who branded him – without printing his name – a “right-wing extremist” and zealot who “age-rated refugees on his own.”
“They wrote about me on the first page without even contacting me,” he said. “One felt so enormously exposed. Sure, they have not printed my name, but Gotland is a small place and everyone knows everyone, so it’s not hard to figure out who it’s all about.”
Herlitz has spent the past year fighting to get his job back while trying to find employment to support his wife and their child. He managed to get a temporary position on the mainland where he commuted by ferry from the island for three-day shifts. At the same time, his wife, who worked in the same facility he had been fired from, had to go to half-time and then resign completely.
“She suffered from health problems because of this whole sad situation. It became impossible to proceed simply. It also did not help some colleagues start looking at her,” Herlitz said.
The verdict of the Gotland District Court was in Herlitz’s favor – mostly. Its assessment was the dental hygienist was fired without cause, but the employer had the right to terminate him. The court agreed there had been a breach of patient confidentiality, but emphasized no one had suffered an injury as a result and that there could be exceptions to confidentiality.
Herlitz was awarded a small compensation of $4,200 and five months salary – which would have brought the matter to a close, except Region Gotland has appealed the decision, hiring one of the top labor lawyers in Sweden. In Stockholm’s Labor Court, the loser is responsible for the full costs to both parties – a figure Herlitz estimates could cost him as much as $180,000 he does not have.
“It will be a death sentence for us, for the whole family – even for my five-year-old daughter,” said Herlitz, contemplating a loss. “We do not have one million kronor, we are unemployed now. You will pay it within 30 days of the judgment otherwise, the Kronofogden will come. They will take our apartment, our car, all the furniture … We will be barred.
“I also think it’s all so immoral. They have unlimited resources, with our tax money. And they choose to spit on those resources to crush me and my life. I’m afraid of this society.”
In June 2017, the London Daily Mail reported the Swedish Migration Board submitted 4,200 cases of migrants without papers claiming to be children to forensic experts to determine their age. ninety-six percent of the cases were men. At that time, 581 of the individuals had been medically tested, with 447 of them proven to be 18 or older.