NORWAY faces accusations ranging from cultural insensitivity to child theft as an increasing number of immigrant children are seized by officials and handed over to foster families.
Of 6,737 children taken in 2012 – the latest available data – some 1,049 were immigrants or born to immigrant parents. That compares to 744 children of immigrants taken away, of a total of 5,846, in 2009.
The authorities insist they are acting in the best interests of the children. But their perceived heavy-handedness has stirred disputes with several eastern European countries and India.
All western European countries assert the right to place children, both of nationals and foreigners, in foster care when there is evidence of abuse. And complaints of unfair seizures, allegedly for cultural reasons, are known to arise. But Norway is the only country where it has become as major issue – both due to the scale of the phenomenon and the fierce criticism of the government. The child welfare agency insists children would never be removed from their families unless they were considered to be in danger.
“There are some culture differences between families coming to Norway,” said Solveig Horne, minister for children and families. “All children who come to Norway have the same rights as Norwegian children ... If they are neglected or abused or if there is violence in the family the [child protection] agency should protect the children first of all.”
Statistics show children born abroad are more than three times as likely to be removed from their homes as native Norwegians, with nearly 3 per cent of foreign-born children in foster care.
In May, hundreds of people marched in the capital Oslo to protest against alleged human rights abuses by child welfare officials. The demonstration was organised by human rights campaigner Marius Reikeras, who has denounced Norway’s child protection agency in television interviews in the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Turkey.
Mr Reikeras accuses the agency of depriving children and their parents of “their fundamental human rights.”
“The aim should be to reunite children with their families as soon as possible,” he said.
Brushes with the authorities have led to several cases of foreign nationals escaping across borders with their children. It is estimated that almost 500 children have been illegally removed from Norway in the past ten years, usually by their parents.
A Turkish mother says she narrowly avoided having her small children removed from home after a tip-off. Instead of showing up at a meeting with officials, Sedef Mustafaoglu made a dash through Denmark to Germany with her two youngest children, aged six and eight, and boarded a plane to Turkey.
Speaking by phone from Ankara, she said an earlier visit from the agency, when her daughters were toddlers, left her terrified.
“They came into my home and filmed how I woke up and how I woke my children, how I fed my children, how I gave them a shower and how I played with them,” she said. “Having a child in Norway is like being in a scary movie,” she added.
Her husband, Feridun Mustafaoglu, who stayed behind in the coastal oil town of Stavanger, said their problems started in 2011 when their son started having severe fits, which he believes officials mistook for signs of neglect.