INTERVIEW: Why immigrant families in Sweden might distrust social services

Sweden is currently the target of a global disinformation campaign claiming that social services 'kidnap' Muslim children. These claims are false, but the distrust of social services is more complex. Here are some reasons behind that distrust.

INTERVIEW: Why immigrant families in Sweden might distrust social services
Socialstyrelsen, or the National Board of Health and Welfare, is the authority responsible for the Swedish social services. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

A scattered but global campaign against the Swedish social services has united several actors and made headlines in Sweden and beyond in recent weeks. When social media accounts with links to violent Islamist organisations got involved, it prompted Swedish authorities to warn of disinformation, violent threats made against the social services, and a possible risk of terror attacks in their wake.

In a series of tweets, the Swedish Foreign Ministry warned of a disinformation campaign, stating the following: “This information is wrong. It is seriously misleading and aims to create tensions and create mistrust. Swedish social services do not kidnap children. All children in Sweden are protected and cared for equally under Swedish legislation, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

PART ONE: ‘We don’t kidnap children’: Why Sweden is worried about a new conspiracy theory

Children in immigrant families ‘twice as likely’ to be taken into care

But while claims about a systematic kidnapping campaign are false, the bigger picture is complex.

“There’s been a fear of the social services in certain immigrant groups in Sweden for a number of years, and at its core, this is an integration problem,” Julia Agha, CEO of Alkompis, an Arabic-language news organisation, told The Local.

“We’ve seen that people feel as if they’re being discriminated against. Obviously we don’t know if it’s officially discrimination, or if it’s just being experienced as discrimination, but you can never take that feeling away from someone, that they feel unfairly treated, and we’ve seen a lot of that,” said Agha, whose organisation reports Swedish news and helps its readers navigate Swedish society.

The fear does not come out of nowhere. Figures suggest that social services are twice as likely to take children from immigrant groups into care, according to statistics provided to public broadcaster Radio Sweden by the National Board of Health and Welfare and Statistics Sweden in December (it is not clear what percentage of these families were Muslim).

There’s a multitude of possible reasons behind this, including that Swedish law may in many cases be stricter than what some parents are used to.

Agha said it was important that families who are worried about the social services understand what the law says, and then follow it.

“In plain terms, that means that you should look after your children and meet their needs,” she said.

“There are some things which are less simple – not everything is black and white – and some things that are very clear: for example, corporal punishment isn’t permitted in Sweden, and if you hit your children, that’s wrong. That’s very black and white.”

But more vague cultural differences can also raise issues, for families and authorities alike.

“For example, ‘honour’ in a Swedish context is very controversial, and the debate has almost become infected,” said Agha. “But in some families, it’s very closely linked to religion, so there are some nuances which are more difficult. We often talk about these things at Alkompis.”

‘People don’t know that social services help as well’

Addressing those nuances is important, because it’s hard to identify one single factor that affects such a diverse community.

Agha points out that around 420 million people around the world speak Arabic, with the only thing in common being the language, and in some cases a few cultural aspects. 

“One example of that is that, in terms of values, the family is almost more important than the individual. I’ve seen comments saying ‘it makes no difference what the parents do, you can never take children away from their parents’,” she said.

“There’s this belief that the best situation for the child is always for them to be with their family. Whether you call it ‘kidnapping’ or not, that makes no difference. Just the fact that children are taken away from their parents, there’s friction there.”

So simply dismissing the conspiracy theories as wrong, may not help.

“That’s why this has spread, and why people, in some way, believe this, even if they don’t believe that children are being kidnapped by definition. They know that children are taken into care, and they think that’s wrong,” said Agha.

“It’s not true that they take children so easily. My family got help,” a man named Kamal told newspaper Sydsvenskan at a protest against the social services in Malmö. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

It becomes a vicious circle, with the knock-on effect that some of these families may be less open to cooperating earlier on if social services feel a need to intervene, as they distrust authority, and they are scared that the Swedish social services will take their children away from them.

People don’t know that social services help as well. That they’re there to help,” Agha said.

In general, before taking a child into care, social services will offer voluntary help, such as a consultation with families to address issues. Immigrant families are more likely to turn down this help, academic research has found. This, in turn, means that it is more likely that their children will be taken into care, as the situation worsens until social services have no other option.

Birgitta Persdotter, a Karlstad University expert in social work who has researched the issue, told public radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio last year: “Children with a Swedish background receive voluntary help to a much greater extent than children with an immigrant background, whereas children with an immigrant background to a much greater extent are taken into immediate care.”

Additionally, not all newly-arrived parents are aware of how the system works and that they, too, have rights. They are allowed to appeal any decision with the help of a lawyer, and if they don’t speak Swedish they are entitled to an interpreter. But they may be less likely than parents with a Swedish background to use these channels to argue their case.

Another aspect is that while not all immigrant families are the same, some of these families may be more likely to have other risk factors which increase the risk of their children being taken into care.

“Immigrant families are overrepresented in vulnerable areas, where people are worse off, there’s higher unemployment, people are less healthy, there are lots of other background factors here which can affect family relationships, and these statistics as well,” said Agha.

“You need to be aware of that as well, when you’re looking at these statistics. It’s very easy to just say ‘it’s because they’re Muslims’.”

What can Swedish authorities do to combat this?

“They need to listen. They need to take these families’ fears seriously, these fears have been there for a number of years,” Agha explained. She said that although the current debate has been hijacked by forces with ulterior motives, at its root there’s valid criticism.

The Swedish Care of Young Persons (Special Provisions) Act, known as LVU in Swedish, is the law regulating the circumstances in which social services can take a child into care.

“From the beginning there has been a fear and distrust of authorities, and also criticism of how the social services work, and how LVU is applied. We know that there are lawyers, other opposition from within Swedish society who agree with this criticism – not just immigrants or families who have recently arrived in Sweden who have had their children taken into care,” she said.

“There’s a factual issue here which needs to be discussed.”

She argues that Swedish social services need to be more specific when talking about some of the legal terms they use, and improve how they communicate what these terms mean in practice.

“Train social workers more in the kinds of problems these families are experiencing, so they learn to talk more about the issues which affect these groups. Adapt communication, and above all, get rid of this fear, because there are a lot of families who need help from the social services who are afraid of reaching out or decline help, and then time passes and maybe it’s too late,” she said.

This article is part of an in-depth report by The Local on the disinformation campaign against the Swedish social services. Read part one HERE.

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Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected]