Racist violence reveals Sweden’s xenophobic underbelly
For thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe there is only one goal — to get to Sweden, a country known for its acceptance and tolerance of those escaping war and persecution.
But Sweden may not be as welcoming as they had hoped. A recent stabbing at a school in the small industrial city of Trollhattan, which killed a 20-year-old teacher and a 17-year-old student from Somalia, was described by police as an attack against “people with immigrant backgrounds.” There have also been 20 fires at refugee asylum centres.
The Scandinavian country has an underbelly of racism and xenophobia that could make life difficult for newcomers, says Daniel Poohl, managing director of Expo Foundation, an organization designed to shed light on racist ideas and organizations in Sweden.
Known for its civility and social cohesion, Sweden has seen an influx of immigrants, from the Balkans in the 1990s and more recently from Iraq and Afghanistan. But the latest wave of Syrian refugees — 190,000 are expected this year alone — has triggered an “agonizing” debate both politically and culturally, says Marie Demker, a professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg.
One outspoken anti-refugee and anti-immigrant group is the Swedish Democrats — a right-wing party that won 13 per cent of the vote in the September 2014 election. Now the third most powerful party in parliament, it is calling for a referendum on whether Sweden should close its borders to refugees and immigrants.
“Sweden is a country that is divided by the idea of us being a multicultural society,” says Poohl. Those who oppose the acceptance of refugees and immigrants are mobilizing and making their voices heard, he says.
Sweden is “very schizophrenic” when it comes to attitudes about racism and xenophobia, he says. “If you look at the majority of Swedes and their attitudes, Sweden stands out as an open and accepting country and people.” But, he adds, it is also clear people with “another skin colour” do not have the same opportunities.
“We’re very good at opening the first door for people, but very good at closing the next doors.”
According to a recent UN report, the rising level of racist violence and “Afrophobic” hate crimes is triggering “an extensive social problem” in Sweden, where 16 per cent of the population is foreign born.
“There continues to be a general Swedish self-perception of being a tolerant and humane society, which makes it difficult to accept that there could be structural and institutional racism faced by people of African descent,” the report says.
The report also called on the Swedish government to “better recognize and combat the recurring patterns and everyday occurrence of racial discrimination, which has deep historical roots and makes Africans and people of African descent in the country particularly vulnerable.” It condemns Sweden for being blind “to the structural racism faced by Afro-Swedes and Africans.”
With a population of about 9.7 million, Sweden is home to about 154,000 people who were born in Africa, the largest group being from Somalia, followed by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Morocco. Some Afro-Swedes can trace their roots in Sweden back to the 17th century and the slave trade. Yet they are treated as second-class citizens, say Poohl and others.
Jallow Momodou, vice-chair of the European Network Against Racism and a city councillor in Malmo, can trace his roots in Sweden back more than four generations. His family was originally from Gambia. He sees himself as a Swede. But many of his countrymen don’t share this view.
Refugees and immigrants who come to Sweden are always said to be refugees and immigrants, even if they have Swedish citizenship, he says. “Even though we’re Swedish citizens we’re not seen as such,” he explains. “People grow up in a country, spend their entire lives here and never feel like they belong.”
Momodou was the target of a racist attack after he spoke out against an incident at Lund University in 2011 where students re-enacted a slave auction.
“Apart from threats against me and my family, a manipulated picture of me as a slave in shackles was made into posters bearing the words, in Swedish: “This is our runaway n—– slave and he answers to the name Jallow Momodou,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian. “If you should find him please call this number.”
Momodou worries about the future if the Swedish Democrats continue to gain popularity. “This is my home … (but) I worry about that every single day. I wonder what am I going to do about my children. These people would definitely not want me here.”
Poohl confirms “there is structural racism which we don’t discuss because we’re so proud of our tolerance.” And there is also the organized racism of political organizations (like the Swedish Democrats) that want to exclude people of colour, he says.
There is no easy way out for Sweden or other European nations when it comes to dealing with the wave of refugees who are seeking a new home now and the growing phenomenon of worldwide migration in the future, he says. “I think the last years have shown you can build walls very high, but people will still try to climb over them.”