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Trouble in paradise


A MIXED ENDING: Though the Norwegian authorities returned the two children to the Bhattacharyas, their custody was given to their uncle

Recently the nation witnessed the chilling drama of imprisonment and conviction of an Indian couple in Norway on charges of child-abuse. This came right after the Norway child custody case where an Indian family felt it was being treated unfairly by child welfare authorities. There are striking similarities between the two cases;both occur in a typically small European welfare state, involve citizen welfare authorities and a sense of injustice on the part of the Indian families. While questions about racism and prejudice in these cases are rife in India, it would be worthwhile to consider the broader perspective of discrimination beyond these two cases in these Nordic welfare states that are known to be pristine and fair. 

The question is whether the forces of globalisation sweeping through these countries are exposing the darker aspects of welfare chauvinism and assertion of national identity.

Welfare countries such as Norway, Denmark and Sweden have been characterised by the spirit of universal well-being for all citizens, across social divides, to ensure adequate material security and comfort (healthcare, education, child protection and pensions). These societies were homogeneous in terms of race, religion, ethnicity and the citizens accepted the intervention of state in their daily lives in 'the living room, the kitchen, the larder, the nursery, not to mention the bedroom' to maintain harmony and uniformity. Today, Norway has, roughly, 13 per cent immigrants, Sweden 15 and Denmark 10 per cent.

In recent years, with significant immigration, this harmonious existence has been challenged. This has been observed by many experts and is captured in a recent book by sociologists Anniken Hagelund and Grete Bochmann, Immigration policy and the Scandinavian welfare state which concludes that the relationship between immigration and welfare state is one of tension and unease. There is now a discourse of 'welfare chauvinism' where the universal welfare state is meant to be for the local population to the exclusion of immigrants and foreigners.

What happened to the all-encompassing ideal of a welfare state in case of immigrants? This can be explored through the lens of perceived threat of the 'outsider', where the immigrants are seen as a challenge to the established norms of the Nordic welfare state. Immigrants were not entitled to the same treatment by the welfare state institutions on grounds of being 'different', the new 'undeserving poor', as suggested in the book Immigration and Welfare by Michael Bommes and Andrew Geddes.

The most persuasive indicator of this sentiment is the rise and success of far-right parties in mainstream politics of most of these countries. In Denmark, the Danish People's Party shared power in government for over a decade and influenced some of the most draconian legislations against immigrants. In Sweden and Finland, far-right parties like Sweden Democrats and theTrue Finns made significant gains in recent elections. In Norway, the far-right Progress Party emerged as the second-largest party in 2005 parliamentary elections. Most strikingly, this new generation of far-right parties conducts its campaign not on racist, ethnic divides but on cultural and social ones - the immigrants are unacceptable because they do not share similar values, norms and ethos as the host society.

'Cultural Angst' is one of the most distressing aspects of the Nordic welfare states - the intolerance and apathy towards cultural differences of immigrants. Cultural diversity embodied by the immigrant cultures is not something to be celebrated but eradicated slowly through active participation of the state. Integration of immigrants as 'model citizens' is one of the responsibilities bestowed on the welfare state.

A 2012 study conducted by Ingrid Engebrigtsen, an anthropologist, on integration policies in Norway established the role played by the state institutional structures in enforcing the commonly accepted values, norms, ethos, social practices within the immigrant communities. A similar study (2002) on Finnish administrators concluded that cultural diversity was frowned upon by them while interacting with immigrants. So, are the civil servants engaged in child welfare, medical services as neutral actors or active participants in ensuring assimilation with the dominant national culture? Surely the child welfare services in Norway are not isolated from the larger collective efforts at homogenisation of the cultural characteristics of the immigrants and are perhaps susceptible to prejudices and discrimination as well.

Strangely, family, the most private site is not spared the intervention of state machinery in Nordic societies. In recent years, family has emerged as the site of contestation with the welfare state institutions for acknowledgment of the integration of immigrants within the mainstream society, mostly in the areas of marriage and selection of foreign partners and child-rearing practices. This has led to widespread interference in the private lives of immigrants and their personal choices such as marriage, which are often cited as hindrances towards their complete assimilation into society.

The most glaring instances are the laws and regulations emerging in some of the Nordic states that restrict marriage with foreign partners. Granting of citizenship rights to the spouses has also been tightened. South-Asian families in Denmark and Norway which have been successful in the field of education are rarely appreciated with the debate being turned against the parents for being 'overbearing' and 'ambitious'. This is a classic case of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' where academic achievements of second-generation immigrants as doctors and scientists are perceived as a result of oppressive 'parental pressure' on children who have to attain such goals. This is illogical and reflects their deep-rooted prejudices towards immigrants stranding out in their midst. The discourse of 'integration' needs to evolve in order to counter the forces of the far-right and unwillingly the mainstream political parties are encouraging the rise of far-right parties and legitimising their stance with their tough rhetoric on foreigners and immigrants. The mainstream parties need to project a more positive image of immigrant integration in their society.

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a doctoral researcher at the Cass Business School on organisations and social structures.

Reader's opinion (2)

Triloki BhanJan 30th, 2013 at 01:12 AM

The article is based on facts. Highly commendable ! Of course, the natives have an edge ! Then one has to be one of them, if one loves to be there !

Rivka Dec 13th, 2012 at 20:52 PM

Thank you for this article. After reading this, I will not recommend anybody to go to Europe, especially the Nordic countries.

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