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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How Sweden’s gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off

Sweden is often lauded as being gender-equal, reflected in Swedish divorce law. But that doesn't mean that Sweden is the best place for women to get divorced, as Sarah Jefford discovered following her split three years ago.

How Sweden's gender-equal divorce law can leave women worse off

Moving to a new country can bring enough turmoil, stress, and culture shock to put a marriage through its paces.  Causes of divorce and separation among native Swedes and immigrant partners include emotional estrangement, loneliness, and a lack of independence in a new country. But what happens when a Swede and foreign spouse decide to split up in Sweden when they share a child?

For expats enduring a divorce to a native in Sweden, separation can be especially acrimonious if children are involved and one of the plaintiffs is financially and civically dependent on the other.

Immigrant divorce rates in Sweden are around 15 percent higher than native Swedish divorce rates and marriages between a Swede and a foreigner are between a quarter and two-and-a-half times more likely to end in divorce than those between two Swedes, according to a study by Martin Dribe, Professor of Economic History at Lund University.

British expat, Sarah Jefford, considers herself, since her split nearly three years back, to be trapped in Sweden, destitute, and fighting to be able to leave the country with her son to return back home to family and friends to rebuild a life for themselves. She would like other expats to know what they’re getting into with regards to absence of alimony and child support in Sweden.

“It’s not that good towards women”

She tells the Local that “expats should realise this because Sweden is super popular at the moment, you hear constantly in the papers that it is such a civil society–fantastic for women, the kids, and an equal society? Well, these are the disadvantages of an equal society. And the truth is that it’s not that good towards women.”

She met her Swedish husband, a pension fund CIO, in Switzerland and they married in the UK. Happy with the course their burgeoning family was on, she agreed to put her own job as a winemaker on hold and move to Sweden to follow her husband’s career together with their child in 2014.

She could never imagine it would end in divorce, let alone that she would find herself struggling to make ends meet and look after her child after her husband walked out amidst an office affair nearly three years ago.  Though they share joint custody and despite his wealthy career managing a top Swedish pension fund, her ex refuses to financially support their son, now 14, who lives with her.

Photo: Sarah Jefford

“It did not occur to me that were I to get divorced it would be the law of the country of residence that I would be subject to and not the UK, my home country, the country where I got married.”

Swedish law stipulates that joint assets (those acquired during the marriage) are split in half when a couple divorces in Sweden. Unlike in the UK or North America, there is no division of pension and alimony is not available. There is no child allowance if the children spend one week with one parent and one week with the other (regardless if one of the parties has no income).

Should a child live with one parent full-time, the other must pay child support.  The amount varies according to the child’s age. 1,673 kronor until the child becomes 11, 1,823 kronor till the child turns 15, and 2,273 after that. Försäkringskassan (the Swedish Social Insurance Agency) estimates how much the non-custodial parent must pay to Försäkringskassan. 

In Sweden, there are other options for dealing with issues regarding property partition and child custody arrangements, family mediation and constructive dialogue are advised tactics. The European e-Justice portal includes a comprehensive description of divorce law and settlement procedures in English.

In Jefford’s case she claims 1,823 kronor (about €170) a month for her 14-year-old child through the agency.

“So the Försäkringskassa pays me and then goes after my ex for the money.  As a result, there is no child support or alimony depending on the parent’s income. How should I bring up a teenager with that? I mean it it barely pays for the fancy sneakers that teenagers like so much, and definitely does not cover their food and they eat like horses at that age.”

Jefford’s business as a wine educator has suffered immensely during the pandemic, and she finds it near impossible to keep up with the price of living in Stockholm whilst supporting her child.  She has been scraping by working as a substitute teacher and doing sporadic odd jobs which she says she can’t survive off, or pay rent with, or get bank loans for a mortgage. 

Feeling completely stuck, Jefford says that had she known about Swedish divorce laws and the fact that they are legally binding in the place of residence, she would have “never moved here, or got married.”

Jefford recalls friends in France and Switzerland being gobsmacked by her predicament:

“Foreigners are envious of Sweden’s generous parental leave, and that’s talked about a lot. So the focus is on Sweden being an amazing country, because you get this parental leave, right?”

“But it blurs the fact that other problems with the system going towards total equality are actually misguided in a way. Great, you know, equal pay and opportunities for men and women. I’m all for that, of course.  But it doesn’t always work–you have to take into consideration circumstances.  I think the system of equality works if everybody is equal in life, or has the same advantages and has the same kind of life and opportunities.”

“But if you don’t have that, if you don’t come from that, then that system doesn’t work and is unfair. That’s how I see it. And I think it’s really scary.”

By Matthew Weaver