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"I'm forced to live here if I want to see my kids" - Migrant parents marooned in Finland

As Finns increasingly partner with spouses from other countries, local authorities are observing an increase in the number of cross-border child custody disputes. One local NGO says officials need to step up to provide immigrants with vital information about local custody practices. Yle News shares the stories of some migrant parents who have found themselves stuck in Finland to be part of their children's lives.

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Love and family are powerful magnets that take people all over the world - including to Finland. A recent survey by the National Institute for Welfare and Health THL found that more than half of migrants interviewed - some 54 percent - had come to Finland for those very reasons.

The THL estimates that Finland has roughly 70,000 families where one parent was born abroad. It put the number of young Finns growing up in such families at about 150,000.

Many non-Finnish spouses settling in Finland are told that living here can be compared to "cashing a winning lottery ticket". Sadly, relationships may run aground and in some cases migrant parents of Finnish children find themselves struggling to learn about and adjust to local custody regulations, while stuck in a foreign country.

In an unscientific survey, Yle News invited migrants to contribute persoal accounts of being marooned in Finland because of joint custody arrangements or simply in order to be near their children. The online survey ran from 30.9 to 5.10, during which time we received 31 validated responses.

Our respondents shared common experiences, such as distress caused by the substantive custody issues, isolation, unemployment and related financial concerns, and frustration with Finnish social services, among others.

It took six weeks to receive an English translation of the outcome yet I had only four weeks to appeal

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My ex-husband says I will go into hiding if I travel to my home country with my son

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Clear procedures for resolving custody disputes

According to the Ministry of Justice, if a child's parents are married they'll have joint custody. Unmarried mothers automatically become sole custodian. When married parents in Finland divorce, they can resolve custody issues by mutual agreement, but their decision must be validated by a local social welfare board.

In other cases, a social worker may be called in to mediate to help the parents reach an agreement concerning custody. Such outcomes must also be formalised in a contract approved by local social welfare officials.

In extreme situations where parents can't see eye to eye, they may resort to the local courts for an official decision.

I am stuck here if I want to keep things civilised

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My life is now simply existence. I am here simply to be with my daughter


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Parties agree on joint custody in 93% of cases

Joint custody is by far the most common type of custody arrangement in Finland. In 2014 the THL reported that 93 percent of custody agreements settled on joint custody. Just six percent awarded sole custody to mothers and less than one percent to fathers.

The joint custody principle means that the consent of the both parents is required for major decisions affecting a child, but in instances where parents aren't on good terms, it can be taken to extremes. In the eyes of the law, major decisions include education choices, changes in place of residence and obtaining a Finnish passport.

Needless to say, decisions about overseas travel - let alone relocation abroad - often stumble over this legal requirement. According to the Ministry, "neither parent has the right to change the child’s residence abroad without the consent of the other parent, not even if the child is staying with the parent that has removed him or her."

I have applied for full custody but I don't know what will happen next


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I stay because to go would mean leaving my child here. We both feel like hostages

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Hague Convention outlaws international child abduction

Some parents - not only in Finland, but in other parts of the world as well - are tempted to take their children with them and try to rebuild their lives in their home country. But that's just not on.

Finland is one of more than 90 countries that have signed up to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, which seeks to protect children from being unlawfully taken abroad by one parent. The exclusive aim of the convention is to return abducted children to their legal guardians.

According to the Association for Abducted Children, a Finnish NGO, 23 children were abducted from Finland last year, while 20 were abducted abroad and brought here.

In most cases however, migrant parents attempt to go through the official and legal channels available to resolve custody issues and to secure their children's best interests.

It has been two and a half years and counting and there is a lot of simply waiting and being unable to plane

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My Finnish husband kicked me and our child out. We cannot leave this Finnish prison


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Frustration with social services

In Finland, when parents squabble over child welfare or custody issues, the matter usually ends up in the hands of local child welfare workers. Custody decisions are usually confirmed by local social welfare authorities or the courts.

More than a few of the migrant parents who responded to our survey expressed their frustration with what they saw as the inability or lack of interest in their children's multicultural background.

"They are out of their league and lack experience in these mixed nationality custody cases, especially if you live outside of Helsinki central," said one parent originally from New Zealand.

Finnish laws guaranteeing the protection of children's rights highlight "the best interest of the child." Some of our respondents questioned why courts and social workers interpreted the best interests of a multicultural child primarily as maintaining his or her Finnish identity - to the exclusion of any other heritage.

"The courts discriminate against foreigners and fail to ascertain the true 'best interests of the child'," charged another parent from the USA.

Children’s Ombudsman Tuomas Kurttila declined an interview on the issue, but we found he had express strong views on how social workers deal with many of the family cases that come before them in general.

In his 2015 annual report on the state of child-related issues in Finland for 2015, Kurttila pointed to the shortage of adequately-trained employees working on child protection cases.

"In 2013 one in three social workers involved in child protection cases were either unqualified or incompetent. In one-fifth of municipalities fewer than half of social workers met the qualification requirements. And in some municipalities there wasn’t a single competent social worker covering child protection cases."

I am now stuck. There are few job opportunities and I am unable to move outside of this town

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It’s been nine years in the courts, but I am still unable to see my children

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NGO: Lack of information about custody issues

Tarja Räisänen, Executive Director of the Association for Abducted Children, said that many couples simply don't think ahead to consider what might happen if their relationships don't work out and there are children involved. She said that multicultural unions may be especially prone to stress.

"Young people don't know enough about custody issues and there may be differences in how people approach child rearing. Even young people in Finland don't know enough about the roles and practices with respect to child custody," she noted.

She said that the organisation has tried to get funding to develop an info package for multicultural families, but so far to no avail.

"Better integration may be the best way to prevent disputes. We want to publish a booklet about this. And we want to emphasise the value of a multicultural background," she added.

UK NGO recommends a relocation "pre-nup"

Some of our survey respondents were UK nationals. We spoke with the UK-based NGO Expat Stuck Parents, who agreed that national authorities have a duty to inform their citizens about the implications of living abroad. Organisation founder Rosalind Osborne suggested that partners could draw up a kind of pre-nuptial agreement before marriage to define what happens with children and custody matters.

Her group has developed a "pre-emigration" contract that couples can agree on before they settle abroad. The document could be lodged with a British court and would be valid for two years after relocation. However the legal validity of the document has yet to be tested in any jurisdiction outside the UK.

Until that happens, perhaps the best advice comes from one of our survey respondents:

"I can only advise people in future just to check and be prepared ... They should know, because knowledge is definitely power."