'White and middle-class bias': Belgian family policy fails international relationships

'White and middle-class bias': Belgian family policy fails international relationships
Credit: Ugo Realfonzo / The Brussels Times

As ever more Belgian residents are from abroad, couples are quickly becoming more diverse than ever. However, partnership policies are slow to be updated leaving many international families in a grey legal zone.

One-third of the country's residents have a non-Belgian background; in Brussels – one of the "most diverse cities in the world" – 75% of the region's residents are not Belgian. This also affects the formation and function of couples and families, researchers from the Centre for Family Studies, Odisee University of Applied Sciences, stated in a new book.

"We have never seen such diversity in families," Dirk Geldof, one of the researchers, told The Brussels Times. "Couples where both partners are of Belgian origin have significantly decreased; on the other hand, we see that the number of diverse couples has never been so high."

The researchers analysed Statbel data from 2000 to 2021. Judging on demographic development, Geldof believes the trend will continue.

"We have to respond to this much more efficiently in terms of policy because the classic image of a family no longer matches the great diversity of society, especially in cities like Brussels. Populations and families are changing much faster than policies."

One size fits all

From family support to relationship therapy and divorce mediation, many services are largely unavailable to people from a foreign background, either because they are only available in Dutch or French, or because they are not tailored to other cultures or religions.

This is reflected in the policy documents from the last two legislations: "What was striking is that in the current family policy texts there is hardly any indication of the growing super-diversity of families," Geldof explained.

The study points out that families from international backgrounds have different counselling needs than average white parents or couples, for instance on how to deal with racism. Geldof explains that discrimination often affects younger generations, with "children from migration backgrounds asking themselves why they are being treated differently... Many parents wrestle with the question of how they deal with this."

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Belgium has a clear need for family assistance services that can respond correctly to issues such as these.

Although the researchers didn't find a direct correlation with the lack of services, they noted divorces among mixed-race married couples are proportionally higher than among couples in which both partners are of Belgian origin.

"This shows that those relationships are statistically more vulnerable than a relationship between two Belgians." Geldof says that this reflects the "white and middle-class bias" of Belgium's relationship therapy and divorce mediation services.

Collective responsibility

The researchers stressed the importance of expanding family policy so that it connects with the various lifestyles of families and communities, strengthened by social and family support workers, as well as, therapists with more diverse backgrounds.

Geldof suggests improving social work organisations so that they offer more diverse and multilingual services, alongside hiring a more diverse staff. "That is also a call to colleges and practical training to attract more people with migrant backgrounds to encourage them to enter the care profession."

However, he stressed that the responsibility should not be placed on individual organisations alone, but should be "supported much more explicitly in policy terms."

"It's up to the government and regionalised family policy to stimulate organisations and high schools to do more and to implement more active policies to fulfil that process of multiculturalism."

The researchers contrasted Belgium with less diverse neighbouring countries, where the process of diversification of family care has progressed more quickly. In particular, on issues of refugee families, Belgium lags behind. They call for the rights of families and of children to start at the moment they enter the country.

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