Swedish Parliament at Twilight from Eric Kilby flickr photostream

Demonstrations against Swedish Social Services’ treatment of children from immigrant families outside parliament buildings in Stockholm are the visible aspect of a battle that is largely taking place on social media. Some of the demonstrators are parents campaigning to have their own children, removed by Social Services, returned. The campaign is focussed on how the law that allows children to be taken into care (known as LVU – Lag med särskilda bestämmelser om vård av unga) is being used and abused. Children are said to be removed from family care for reasons that are vague and not legally sound and that do not necessarily benefit the child’s wellbeing and, crucially, this is happening disproportionately to immigrant families.

The suspicion that Swedish Social Services treat immigrant Muslim families unfairly is not new. Rumours that ‘the Social will take your child’ have long been in circulation and mean that parents have been reluctant to seek support from social workers, even when their children are in distress or engaged with criminals. Some parents say that they cannot discipline unruly children for fear of losing custody. Forced migrants say that they would not report gendered abuse in their own family in case their children were taken.

New arrivals to Sweden are expected to integrate, with the ‘good immigrant’ learning Swedish rapidly and adapting to local customs and expectations, particularly when interacting with health and welfare services. The general Swedish population has long shown distinctively high levels of trust in authorities, which is not necessarily shared by communities that are newly arrived and marginalized, particularly if they come from totalitarian or corrupt regimes. Since statutory data is not collected around racialized or ethnic categories, there is little public data to confirm or refute that children of immigrant background are disproportionately removed from their families’ custody. The strong suspicion is that parents who are Muslim and / or not Swedish are more likely to be seen as unsuitable parents and so more at risk of losing custody of their children.

Immigrants’ fears about Social Services are being amplified and animated by a social media disinformation campaign, apparently coordinated from beyond Sweden’s borders.  This campaign is spreading a message in Arabic that Sweden is a fascist state and that social services kidnap Muslim children. The speed with which these rumours have spread has taken Social Services by surprise. Conspiratorial accounts of Swedish Social Services selling kidnapped children to paedophiles have been shared by at least one Imam. The main aim of the social media campaign seems to be reducing social trust and disrupting the smooth functioning of society.

The real injustices perpetrated by Social Services against people of immigrant background, who may also be Muslim, are not going to be undone as a result of the ongoing malicious social media campaign. The Swedish state has long ignored claims for justice from minority and migrant groups who experience racialised injustice, creating fertile ground for conspiracy theories about the kidnapping of Muslim children. The social unrest that the disinformation campaign aims to create will not benefit marginalised groups who feel victimised by social services. But there are other political actors within Sweden who could gain from a shift in voting patterns among disenfranchised immigrants.

Swedish democracy has space for a new political party that explicitly addresses the conspiracies about kidnapped Muslim children. ‘Partiet Nyans’ or ‘The Nunace Party’, under the leadership of Mikail Yüksel, is organizing around immigrant families’ concerns about social services. The vague reasons which Yüksel says are used to justify taking children into care means that parents of Muslim background are suffering. Yüksel does not doubt that Social Services takes some children into care who are in need of protection from their families, but there are also parents who are justifiably outraged.

During an interview with Swedish National Television (SVT) on 11th February, Yüksel was asked:

“What would you think of a Muslim child being placed in a Christian foster family?”

Yüksel replied:

“I would turn the question around. It is not OK to place a Christian child in a Muslim family and raise the child as a Muslim.”

‘The Nuance Party’ avoids describing social services as ‘kidnapping children’, but it’s also clear that this political group is benefiting from the outrage fuelled by the social media campaign. Film clips of parents crying and distressed because their children have been removed by social services are highly emotive and provoke outrage. Accounts of children being removed because they were hit, or had minor injuries and suspicion that ‘extremism’ is used as an excuse to remove children from Muslim families are widely shared on social media.

A spokesperson has defended Social Services asserting that the cases named on social media involved removing children from homes where criminal activity was ongoing. ‘The Nuance Party’ could pick up votes from marginalized neighbourhoods who dislike the intrusive role of social services in family life: the exact details of specific cases are less important than the general suspicion that immigrant and Muslim families are routinely treated more harshly than other families. How racialized inequalities are silenced and ignored in a system of government that supports a feminist egalitarian practice is a complex historical and sociological question. The conspiracy theories currently circulating on social media are a symptom of long-standing injustices.