Locked out of utopia: How Sweden’s Roma became a political scapegoat

The snow is beginning to drift against the chain-link fence that separates the railway line from the woods in the Stockholm suburb of Flemingsberg. The thermometer is below zero and people gaze out from the centrally heated apartment blocks that dominate the valley onto the road and railway below.

From the back entrance to the commuter station, a woman in a headscarf carrying a blue IKEA bag stuffed with cushions heads off between the hoardings of a building site and a yard for industrial machinery along the icy cycle path.

Her destination is an abandoned bridge abundment stacked with caravans and wooden shacks. Improvised chimneys kick wood smoke out into the frigid February air. This little parade of homes houses around 40 Roma migrants, many of whom are busy trying to shift a trailer that has slipped in the freezing and thawing mud.

One of the people with their weight under the trailer is Elvis, 23, who is dressed in a woolly hat and thick jacket. It is a name he has adopted as he has moved across Europe – Elvis Presley was supposedly descended from Roma migrants to the US. He arrived in Sweden via Germany. Switching between English, Swedish, German and Romanian, he talks about how he and his family came to be in the tiny ramshackle encampment on the edge of a planned Nordic suburb.

Sweden’s new EU citizens

“We’re all from Romania. We have come to Sweden to earn money, but it is hard to find a job,” he says. Instead, most of the people at the camp get by through begging in Stockholm’s inner city. Coming for a few months at a time, they can then take what they make back to their families. In Sweden’s new Roma communities, children are conspicuous by their absence.

“It gets cold. We live in the caravans together where it is warmer,” he adds. With the temperature usually well below zero, being outside any length of time in the long Nordic winter is not pleasant. He gestures toward the nearest caravan and opens the door, presenting the other members of his family.

Inside, a group of mostly older men and women are sprawled across the tiny space, including Elvis’ father. “He has lost his leg in an accident,” Elvis says, pointing to a man in a knitted cardigan. The big man on the improvised sofa pulls up his trouser leg to reveal where it stops just below the knee. The injury is the result of an industrial accident working illegally in Eastern Europe, they claim.

The inside of the caravan is cosy, heated by the wooden embers in a stove added to the vehicle by some ingenious spatial improvisation. Outside, express trains zip past on the main line from Stockholm to Gothenburg, Oslo and Copenhagen.

The existence of camps like the one in Flemingsberg, and the people who live in them, has become an increasingly divisive issue in Sweden. Legally entitled to be there but often deeply unwelcome, Sweden’s Roma are caught in limbo. They fit into neither the EU ideals of skilled mobile labour, nor into the diverse group of political and economic migrants whom Sweden’s generous asylum policies seek to aid.

Trapped in the cracks

Sweden also has a highly regulated housing market with a low level of private rental. Access to its institutions and bureaucracy often requires a social security number and finding long-term housing from outwith the system can be difficult for non-Swedes. The same is true for non-emergency aspects of healthcare. As a result, those arriving in Sweden without financial means are forced onto an unregulated black market or compelled to live in temporary camps.

Modern Sweden has pursued a strongly integrationist agenda to migration, in recent years extending to higher demands on language learning for new arrivals. It also recruits skilled immigrants to its research and healthcare sectors and has historically had high levels of immigration from Iran and the Middle East. Most recently, the ongoing conflict in Syria has led to an increase in the number of refugees travelling to the country.

Roma have lived in Sweden for hundreds of years and are officially a national minority, enjoying certain legal protections to language and support for culture. The reality, though, is somewhat different. Roma children underperform in school and structural discrimination is common. Roma children were only allowed to enter the education system in the 1960s and knowledge of Roma culture in Sweden is still low. Maria Leissner, the head of a board on Roma issues appointed by the last Swedish government, described their situation in Sweden as “worse than a developing country”. Her report outlined how fewer than half of all Roma children in Sweden attend school.

Niklas Orennius, a journalist for the leading Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, recently revealed the existence of a database of more than 4,000 people with a Roma background compiled by the police. The database included children and pensioners and was en example of “the last sanitised racism”, according to Orennius.

Despite the long legacy of Roma in Scandinavia, the most prominent in the public eye are the newly arrived EU migrants. Earlier this year, the governing Conservative and Progress parties in neighbouring Norway attempted to introduce legislation that would have banned begging anywhere in the country and criminalised people giving them help. In theory, it would have applied to all begging, but its link to Roma migration was obvious, its critics argued. The legislation was eventually withdrawn after criticism from churches, opposition politicians and the Council of Europe.

Like elsewhere on the continent, Sweden has a chequered history in its treatment of the ethnic group. In 1948, a riot in Jonköping led to vigilantes hunting travelling Roma and attacking their homes, encouraged by a local press and a passive police force. More recently, individual politicians in the Swedish Conservative party have voiced support for criminalisation of begging and the far-right Sweden Democrats posted adverts in Stockholm’s metro system with the slogan “stop organised begging”. The dissonance between the good-hearted, generous Sweden of popular perception and a deeply closed society is tangible.

First steps

On a Monday afternoon, the white tiled passage linking Stockholm’s central station and the metro hub next door is thick with people rushing from overground to underground. As they stream along the corridor, it is the people not moving who stand out. Commuters keen to catch their trains are met by a human wall selling mobile phone sim cards, handing out flyers and, most noticeably, begging for money from the floor of the hallway.

Clutching laminated signs with pictures of their family and stutteringly translated pleas in English and Swedish, the Roma trying to earn enough to stay alive are hard to miss. Many of the people running to the metro will already have encountered them on the local trains where they patrol carriages and will probably encounter them again on the metro. The passage is a prime position – not only is it full of people, but it also offers some respite from the bitterly cold weather.

Another person standing still in the crowd is Sven Hovmöller. A semi-retired chemistry professor at Stockholm University and a Social Democrat in local government, he is the vice-president of HEM, a volunteer group that collects clothes and provides what help it can to Sweden’s Roma. Hem is Swedish for home, but the acronym is symbolic in another way too. It stands for Homeless EU Migrants, the name with which activists have sought to humanise Romanian Roma and highlight the huge inequality in access to help compared to other immigrants from the EU.

In his rucksack he has a stack of magazines and printed paper slips in Romanian explaining what he is doing. “The idea is that they should sell the magazine instead of begging. They can make between two and five times as much.”

Hovmöller has only been working with HEM since last spring, but is now fully engaged in the project.

“You see beggars, you wonder what’s up and what their story is, so I went out to one of the camps where they were living and got to see how poor they were. It started by taking them water and making sanitary facilities. Now we organise Swedish classes every Sunday. These are EU migrants who can’t get any help at all. Occasionally they might get a place to sleep,” he says.

In the coldest months of November and December, when temperatures plummeted, churches across Sweden opened their doors to provide temporary shelter.

“The state could open a place for them to stay, just like with other refugees,” thinks Hovmöller. “They are refugees from a thousand years of oppression and racism. Illiteracy is high, so they are in a worse situation than many of the people who come here from Africa, for example.”

Nobody knows exactly how many EU Roma have come to Sweden. Hovmöller gives an estimate of a few thousand, but even the authorities have little idea.

Telling a different story

The idea of the pamphlet Hovmöller is distributing is to change the way people interact with Roma and to give some context to why they have come to Sweden. It is a similar strategy to that taken by Felicia Iosif, a Romanian Roma immigrant to Sweden, and Sara Olausson, an illustrator and comic writer. After meeting in the Stockholm suburb of Liljeholmen, the two became friends and produced a book, Felicia, about the background of Roma migrants across Europe using Iosif’s own experiences.

Sitting in the white sterile premises of a coffee chain in a municipal shopping centre, Olausson waves to another Roma woman she knows passing by. Further along the pristine white mall, two women sit charging their budget mobile phones. “We told each other about our lives and we couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but you can communicate. With the help of a Romanian friend we translated and got Felicia’s story out,” says Olausson.

Iosif is currently back in Romania, and Olausson is about to join her. This will be Olausson’s fourth trip to visit the members of Roma families who stay at home, with the children left behind the subject of a new series of comics so that Swedish children can learn about their Roma peers. Part of this involves tackling the stereotypes about Roma perpetuated by populist media outlets and online, she says.

“I was lucky enough to already have a publisher, and to tell her story we had to go there… you hear about big palaces in the media and there are indeed some beautiful houses that families build, but inside it is just as poor as everywhere else. Racists use this as proof, but these are people who have never commanded respect at home. It is understandable that some of them might like to live in a good house, like anybody else.”

This, believes Olausson, is the real battleground – to get both the public and politicians to better understand how and why Roma have come to end up on Stockholm’s streets. This balance of cultural understanding and economic assistance is tricky, though.

“Sweden has come a long way, but just as the goodwill has increased, so has the hate,” says Olausson, ominously. Another female activist working to integrate newly arrived Roma was forced to stop media engagement because of threats and misogynist hate speech, while Olausson herself was manhandled by bailiffs when trying to rescue clothes and blankets from a Roma camp being torn down by the authorities.

A Romanian government minister recently caused consternation when she visited Sweden and claimed that Roma are not discriminated against in their home country. A changing Europe and changing domestic politics in Sweden mean that even in a society viewed as a model of tolerance and integration, old prejudices have re-emerged.

Sweden’s new right

As they have become increasingly visible, the Roma have become an easy target for Sweden’s resurgent populist right. In the autumn elections, the Sweden Democrats, who emerged from Sweden’s neo-nazi movement in the 1980s, became the third biggest in parliament. They also won their first seats in Stockholm’s city hall. Their pledge to ban beggars was a central plank of the campaign.

In her centrally heated and publicly funded office Maria Danielsson sips a cappuccino on the sofa, surrounded by her American college diploma and photos of her family. The group leader for the party in Stockholm switches between California soccer-mum English and Swedish as she explains why the party think a begging ban is needed.

“The begging issue has gone from somewhat problematic to immensely problematic… it is causing problems with sanitation. We’re the only party in Stockholm that wants to ban begging.”

Danielsson goes to pains to point out that she and her party have nothing against Roma immigration, but claims that it is not Sweden’s job to deal with the “systematic problem” created by poverty in Eastern Europe. “I have members of my own party and others contacting me and saying ‘I am tired of this, I want to hit them’, and people are pushing them around.” In the logic of the Sweden Democrats, immigration rather than ignorance causes racism.

Danielsson does not think that her party or politics are being treated fairly, yet the Swedish media is dominated by discussions of immigration. In November 2014, the Sweden Democrats very nearly toppled the government by backing the opposition budget. Her arguments are the same used all over Europe by the new populist right.

“We want to be able to be nationalist without being called fascist, and talk about immigration without being called racist,” she says. “I would actually say that right now Sweden is not a democracy.”

She has ambitions for the Sweden Democrats to become the biggest party and form a government that “puts Sweden first”. Her role model is Norway and the success achieved by the anti-immigration Progress party. All four of the mainland Scandinavian countries have seen the growth of such parties, with the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns in Finland also commanding support on a populist message of economic realism, cultural exceptionalism and resistance to globalisation. The Sweden Democrats, though, are unique in emerging from the traditional white power movement.

Not all members of the Sweden Democrats are as diplomatic as Danielsson. Previously, candidates have described Roma in Sweden as a “cancer” and the party has engaged in a process described by Danielsson as “cleansing” to expel its most outwardly racist members.

Even without the Sweden Democrats, Sweden can be a tough society for newcomers. It is the ultimate irony that a system specifically designed to provide security for the majority acts as a barrier to the integration of those outside it. This is just as true of those within Sweden as new arrivals from outside.

The Swedish government, meanwhile, has restated its opposition to racism and emphasised the place of Roma as one of the country’s officially recognised national minorities. The previous administration also instituted a commission on anti-Roma prejudice, due to report next year. The new minister for culture, Alice Bah Kuhnke, who also bears some responsibility for integration and multicultural policy, has said that increased crimes against both Swedish Roma and newly arrive EU migrants “are further proof that the measures we are taking are needed”.

The question of whether restating a commitment to multiculturalism can solve the complex structural inequalities affecting Swedish and EU Roma, though, remains largely unanswered. Swedish civil society has begun to show a will to understand its suddenly prominent minority. The real test will be whether the Swedish government can reach a solution different to the ones being touted by populist politicians across Europe.

Originally published in Contributoria. 

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