Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Whilst historically nomadic, the majority of Roma in Sweden live sedentary lives. They represent a diverse population with approximately 20 dialects of the Romani language in use in Sweden today. Some 25,000 of the approximately 50,000 Roma living in Sweden are descended from an initial wave of migration in the early sixteenth century, with the rest of the population originating from several subsequent groups arriving since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Roma are one of five officially recognized minorities in Sweden, with the Romani Chib or language officially recognised as a minority language in Sweden. Despite this official recognition, Roma represent one of the most marginalized communities in Sweden.
Roma have been in Sweden since at least the early sixteenth century. In more recent times there have been several waves of migration, including from Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, Finland in the 1960s, Poland in the 1960s and 1970s, and most recently from locations such as the former Yugoslavia and Romania.
Between 1934 and 1975, the Swedish state implemented a policy of sterilization of people who were seen to be lacking capacity, whether from a mental, behavioural or physical standpoint. Along with a policy of forced removal of children, this policy was seen as having a significant ethnic bias inherent in its implementation, with Roma – especially travelling Roma – being actively targeted. Between 450 and 500 travelling Roma were forcibly sterilised, which meant that about a quarter of travelling Roma households included at least one person who was a victim of the practice. However, researchers consider that the real number may be far higher; they also emphasise that a quantitative focus underplays the negative impact of the policy on the Roma community as a whole, given the atmosphere of fear it created. Whilst claims that this was ethnically based have long been downplayed, a 2015 Ministry of Culture white paper entitled ‘The Dark Unknown History’ acknowledged the ethnic bias of these policies as part of a broader state culture of disdain for the Roma minority.
These policies did not however take place in isolation, with Roma subjected to registration and monitoring in many forms throughout the twentieth century. The targeted registering of Roma was performed with various different rationales, from concerns about their living conditions, to employment and child welfare. Behind such policies, though, there was an underlying political ethos of biological racism that saw Roma as inferior, unwanted and in need of eradication.
Whilst Sweden has struggled to come to terms with this history, some advances were made in the relationship between the Swedish state and the Roma community towards the end of the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 1999 along with several others, the Romani language was officially recognized as a minority language of Sweden under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Under this charter, the Swedish government is required to protect and encourage the use of the Romani language.
Most significantly, 2014 saw the Swedish government establish the Commission on Antiziganism to report on the Roma experience in Sweden. In the creation of this commission, the state acknowledged that Roma are ‘victims of prejudice and discrimination’ and that this has been ‘expressed in forms such as acts of violence and harassment’.
In recent years, with inclusion of new member-states into the EU, there has been an increased level of migration of Roma into Sweden, largely from eastern EU countries. This has inflamed both official animosity and social prejudice towards the Roma community.
In part due to this increased migration, but also due to significant underlying prejudices, Roma are notable targets of hate crimes in Sweden. Most commonly these hate crimes take the form of threats and abuse, and are not limited in where they take place. The number of hate crimes against Roma that are actually reported is low. According to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå), only 160 complaints concerning anti-Roma hate crimes were registered in 2016, out of a total of 6,415 incidents that year. However, Brå emphasises that this should not be taken as accurate picture of the prevalence of anti-Roma hate crimes. According to the third interim report of the Commission on Antiziganism, hate crimes often go unreported by the victims as there is a belief that they will not be taken seriously. This too is borne out by the large gap between the number of cases reported and those that are solved. According to the Commission on Antiziganism, only one per cent of cases lead to prosecution.
Roma are also the victims of more institutional racism. Racial profiling of Roma remains a significant concern in Sweden today. In 2013 it was revealed that police in Skåne, southern Sweden had established a large database of people, the majority of whom had Roma heritage, though they denied that this was established based on ethnicity but rather was a measure to address criminality in the region. In 2015, the human rights organization Civil Rights Defenders, on behalf of members of the Roma community, filed and won a suit against the Swedish government over this database. Following an unsuccessful appeal by the Swedish state, in 2017, the Svea Court of Appeal found that it had engaged in ethnic registration and discrimination of members of the Roma community; the government was ordered to pay compensation.
Roma suffer from lower levels of education and high levels of unemployment than the wider Swedish community. In recognition of such discrepancies, the Swedish government launched a coordinated long-term strategy for Roma inclusion 2012-2032 with the professed goal to provide Roma youth with the same opportunities as their Swedish peers by 2032. This strategy prioritises areas of education, employment, housing, health, social care and security, culture and language, as well as Roma organisation and participation in civil society. Additionally, the government pledged SEK 58 million in additional funding between 2016 and 2019 for measures increasing engagement with the Roma community.
Updated April 2018.