Xenophobia and Antiziganism on the Rise in Sweden

Written by Alexander Armbäck

Sweden and other Nordic countries have long been viewed as exemplary in terms of the protection of minorities. By the public they are seen as the quintessential tolerant and human rights-based countries. Recently, however, the international press and media have also reported on the rise racism and hate crimes in Sweden.

Although Sweden remains the only European country in which the majority has a positive attitude to non-EU immigration (European Commission, 2015), the growing number of racist attacks in the country have raised alarms recently. Recently, a host of examples for the growing racism in Sweden were highlighted by a UN report, published on August 25, 2015. The text revealed that “the group most vulnerable to racist hate crimes is that of Afro-Swedes”, with 1,075 Afrophobic hate crimes having been reported last year in the Nordic country, which marks a rise from the previous year’s 980. The paper also revealed the structural and institutional racism people of African descent face in Sweden, noting that “a general Swedish self-perception of being a tolerant and humane society” might obstruct the recognition of these barriers to racial equality (United Nations, 2015).

Besides having the highest per capita inflow of asylum seekers among OECD countries (OECD, 2015), Sweden also faces a new wave of immigrants from the newly accessed members of the EU. The latter group, arriving mostly from Southern Europe, has also “tested limits of Swedish tolerance”, as The New York Times has put it recently. It refers to both the rise in the popularity of the right-wing populism and the escalating number of attacks against Roma beggars, who provide a novel sight in the streets of Swedish cities (Castle, 2015). (European migrants without employment are not eligible for social welfare benefits in Sweden, but begging is not illegal in the country. – The ed.)


Roma immigrants from Romania at their camp in Huskvarna, Sweden. Photo: © Mikael Good, 2014. See further items of Mikael’s photo series “Sa o Roma Daje, Sa o Roma Babo” on Flickr.

The government estimates that approximately 5000 migrants are begging in Sweden. Many of them live in camps or on the streets (Castle, 2015). Most of these camps are located in the outskirts of cities, but some of them also in downtown areas, like in Malmö. There have been numerous attacks on beggars and in Roma camps lately in Sweden. During 2014 300 attacks were reported, an increase of 23% compared to the year before (Dickson & Von Hildebrand, 2015). Recent attacks include a camp in Malmö, which was set in fire; in Boras a beggar got ran over by a moped, in a camp in Skara another was wounded with an air rifle and in a public park Stockholm a corrosive fluid was doused on a 27-year-old Roma from Romania in his sleep (Castle, 2015).

Far-right parties also fuel xenophobia all over Europe. In 2010, the anti-immigrant party Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) entered the Swedish parliament with 5.7% of the votes, which increased to 12.7% in the 2014 elections. A poll in September 2015 showed that the Sweden Democrats, for the first time, became the most popular party in the country, with 25,2% of the voters supporting them (TNS Sifo, 2015). It was preceded by their anti-begging campaign a month earlier at a subway station in central Stockholm. Their controversial banners, receiving international publicity, read: “Sorry about the mess here in Sweden. We have a serious problem with forced begging! International gangs profit from people’s desperation. Our government won’t do what’s needed. But we will! And we’re growing at records speed. We are the Sweden Democrats! Welcome back in Sweden in 2018!” (Bolton, 2015).

These texts were shown together with pictures of people sleeping in the street. The next day, thousands of Swedish people demonstrated in downtown against the advertisements. The organizers of the event stated that the campaign of the Sweden Democrats “kicks at some of the most vulnerable in our society”. Two people were also arrested for trying to tear down the adverts (Bolton, 2015).

Anti-nazi protest, Stockholm, September 15, 2014. Photo: © Björn Pettersson, bildad.se. Thousands protested in Stockholm against racism and fascism the day after the 2014 elections, when the far-right party Sweden Democrats received nearly 13% of the votes.

Demonstration against the far right, Stockholm, September 15, 2014. Photo: © Björn Pettersson (bildad.se), 2014. Thousands protested in Stockholm against racism and fascism the day after the 2014 parliamentary elections, when the far-right party Sweden Democrats received nearly 13% of the votes.

Earlier the human rights abuses of the Swedish police against the Roma stirred a similar controversy. On March 5th 2015 the Swedish human rights group Civil Rights Defenders sued the Swedish state for breaking a number of human rights laws. The group represents 11 Roma Swedes of the thousands who have been registered in a police registry based on their ethnicity.  In 2013 the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter revealed that the police in Skåne County, the southernmost region of Sweden has secretly registered nearly 5000 Roma people, mostly with no criminal record, and 1000 of them children. The registration was declared illegal by the Swedish Commission on Security and Integrity Protection, but the authority did not consider it as a case of ethnic discrimination, endorsing the claim that the basis of the registration was familial ties to criminals. Although the Parliamentary Ombudsman Cecilia Renfors accepted this framing, she nevertheless claimed that the database also “acquired a character of an ethnic register” (Civil Rights Defenders, 2015; Löfgren, 2015).

Despite the registry having been declared illegal, no one was held responsible for its creation. The Swedish national police commissioner made an apology and the people registered were offered an indemnity of SEK 5000 (500 EUR), a measure some of the affected felt offensive. Critics of the illicit actions suggest these events significantly damaged the trust of Roma Swedes towards the Swedish police and justice system (Civil Rights Defenders, 2015). The chairman of the Commission against Antiziganism of the Swedish Government, Thomas Hammarberg stated:

“This has been a huge shock among the Roma themselves. Some of them had begun to believe that the time to be especially singled out was over. Roma are concerned that the registration itself plus the police’s attitude that the register was justified, should be perceived as a confirmation of the prejudices about the Roma being more criminal than other groups. Moreover, it leads to Roma people not going to the police when they are victims of crime” (Nylander, 2015).

Campaign video by Civil Rights Defenders, 2015.

The issue came to light just in the wake of efforts by the Swedish government to reveal “the abuses, neglect and discriminatory measures inflicted on the Roma minority in the 20th century” (Ministry of Employment, 2012). According to the authors of a 2010 government report, a close examination of this part of history is necessary to rebuild the trust between the Roma and the majority society that was eroded by systematic discrimination.

In the history of Sweden ethnic registries were made by the church and state institutions, which later provided the ground for the mistreatment of the Roma. For example the practice of forced sterilization, of which the public has been made aware by the government report The dark unknown history: White paper on abuses and rights violations against Roma in the 20th century (Ministry of Culture Sweden, 2015). The recent events in Sweden can also remind us of what happened in other countries before and during World War II, an experience affecting many Roma who arrived to the country in the second half of the 20th century. In Germany the registration of Roma started already in the 1920s, due to the so-called “Law for the Fight Against Gypsies, Vagrants and the Workshy”, which banned the Roma from a travelling lifestyle, subjected them to surveillance and ordered the unemployed Roma to be sent to forced labour. Some years later, the same registries provided the ground for the enforcement of the racial purity laws of Nazi Germany, culminating in the persecution and genocide committed against the Roma (Barsony & Daroczi, 2008).

Alexander Armbäck is an intern at Romedia Foundation in the Fall 2015 semester. He is a student of the Ethnic and Minority Studies Master Program at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.


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