Abigail R. Esman
For most teens, that means vacation, and Amara, 16, looked forward to spending the warm and lazy days with all her friends. The daughter of Somali immigrants to the Netherlands, Amara had been working hard at school while also helping out at home. She was ready for a break.
But her grandmother in Somalia was ill, her mother and stepfather said, and wanted to see Amara one last time; so the girl flew with her stepfather to Africa. Once there, her stepfather suggested she give him her passport and phone for safekeeping. She agreed.
Then he left.
As it turned out, Grandma wasn’t ill at all. Nor had she asked that Amara come and visit. But there she was, without a passport, without a phone, no money, and no way to get back home. Worse, there was no longer any real “home” to go to.
Amara is one of dozens, possibly hundreds, of Dutch Muslim children taken abroad by their parents every year and abandoned there. And the problem, experts now say, is only getting worse. Official figures show that 23 children were left behind in their parents’ land of origin in 2005, and 30 in 2018. But a new report from the Dutch Information Exchange on Integration and Society (KIS) confirms that these numbers don’t tell the real story: in fact, somewhere between 180 and 800 such children are abandoned every year. Most are the second-generation children of Moroccan or Turkish parents. Others come from Afghan, Somali, Kenyan, Yemeni, Iranian, or Iraqi families.
About half of these children do manage to get back eventually, but they are often traumatized. Not only have they been deceived and abandoned by their parents, but often they will have witnessed wartime horrors, extreme poverty and famine, or been subject to sexual or physical abuse. In some cases, they are not even left with relatives, or the family they are to stay with can’t care for them. They may not know the land or the language. Yet they are left to fend for themselves. Their ages generally rage from 11 to 18, though there is one known case of a child as young as 8, according to the report.
And it isn’t only children. Women are even more likely to be brought abroad and left there, usually by their husbands, though often, in the case of younger women, by parents who then force them to marry.
Reasons vary. While it has long been assumed that forced marriage, or occasionally problems orchestrating a new, second family were behind these cases, the new report reveals that discipline patterns between Muslim migrant parents and their young teens play a major role. Parents who find their children “too Westernized” are most likely to pack them off to live in a culture they find more suitable for teaching the “right” values. Other children might have “the wrong sort of friends,” in their parents’ eyes, or exhibit signs of homosexuality.
Similar problems have also been recorded in Denmark, where migrant children are occasionally forced into “re-education” boarding schools abroad out of concern they are becoming “too Danish.” And in the United States, Somali-American Mahad Olad, who is gay, was lured by his mother to Kenya for forced “conversion therapy” that promised to include regular beatings, starvation, and other abuse. With the help of Ex-Muslims of North America, an organization that supports those who, like Olad, have left Islam, he escaped. Yet that the situation occurs in all of these countries suggests that it is more widespread than we are currently aware, possibly occurring in most if not all countries with sizeable Muslim immigrant populations.
More is known about the women who are similarly abandoned, as officials have been aware of this issue for far longer, and the women involved, as adults, have more legal avenues available to them to report and fight against their situation. So common is the problem in the Netherlands that several organizations have been established to combat the practice and lend support to women who have been or fear they will be left abroad. The Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) offers informative booklets, and information about Turkish and Moroccan marriage laws and rights are available through groups like Femmes for Freedom, a foundation that supports women facing forced marriage, child marriage, and polygamy.
As with the children, these women are lured to their homeland with tales of family illnesses or fun family vacations. Their husbands take control of the documents, including passports and Dutch residency cards, and often, too, their phones. The husbands may then return to Holland with promises that they or someone else will arrive in a few weeks to bring the women home.
But no one ever comes.
Complicating the situation is that many of these women are left with their young children. While they may be able to return home, their children usually require the permission of the father – who refuses.
But it is the tales of children who are abandoned on their own that are the most distressing. Dutch social workers caution that the parents of these children are acting in what they believe to be the best interest of the children, not in an effort to abuse them. But what this says, clearly, is that while they may have come to Europe to reap its economic benefits, they reject Europe’s Western, Enlightenment values. What’s more, they will go to any lengths to ensure that their children don’t embrace them, either. In this, it is a practice that endangers not only the children, but the future of Europe, with them.
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands Her next book, on domestic abuse and terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books. Follow her at @radicalstates.