Sweden faces up to past discrimination against its Roma minority in a new ‘White Book’

by Rhodri C. Williams

One week ago, the Swedish integration minister Erik Ullenhag presided over the long-awaited release of a government “White Book” documenting the country’s treatment of Roma during the 20th century. As appropriate to the aims and nature of this inquiry, the initial publication was a Swedish family affair; while the context of broader European antiziganism – or racism against Roma – is discussed and acknowledged, there has yet to be an official translation of the White Book in English (let alone romani ćhib), although a summary and fact sheet are now available.

Greater accessibility and dissemination will no doubt follow, if for no other reason than to show compliance with Sweden’s EU-mandated integration policy, and respond to specific criticisms of the Advisory Committee for the Council of Europe Framework Convention on National Minorities. However, for the time being, coverage, dissemination and discussion of the White Book have been in Swedish, with the exception of the Local and Swedish Radio. While this has emphasized the extent to which this effort is driven by and aimed at addressing local concerns, it has also resulted in a limited and eclectic international reception to date.

Given my own ongoing research interest in autonomy and minority rights in the Nordic countries, I have been working my way through the White Book and will be writing two posts on it here in TN. The first one, will address the general approach to truth-seeking set out in the White Book, and how it has been received and debated in Sweden. The second will focus more narrowly on the fifth chapter of the White Book, and, in keeping with the concerns of this blog, discuss the historical obstacles to property ownership and secure tenure to housing for Roma in Sweden.

As an outset observation, the White Book is a remarkable document, stating clearly and with an unassuming Swedish sobriety how far the country has come in the integration of its Roma national minority and how far it has yet to go. Its goals are two-fold, namely to provide recognition to the victims of a century of systematic discrimination, and raise awareness among the majority population regarding the severity of these abuses and their enduring effects (12). While the White Book represents a major step toward meeting both goals, some questions remain about both their sufficiency and their relationship with the prospectively oriented Swedish strategy for Roma inclusion.

In fact, the current relevance of the White Book was underscored with near-Hollywood timing by a set of recent scandals involving Roma in Sweden. Most recently, one of the Roma experts interviewed for White Book was bundled out of the restaurant of the swanky Stockholm Sheraton when she turned up for breakfast in traditional Roma garb. The incident was particularly piquant given that the expert in question, Diana Nyman, was being put up at the hotel (breakfast included) by the government in order to allow her to participate in the launch of the White Book.

What followed was a cringe-inducing PR fiasco, as the Sheraton, facing the loss of its lucrative government business, denied having racist policies while simultaneously opening an investigation into whether they had racist policies, provided a disingenuous non-apology to Ms. Nyman (who was told she had unwittingly received a “special offer” to order her breakfast instead of going and picking it from the buffet, and eat it by herself in the lobby), and was subsequently patronized by the manager who had developed a deep connection with “how Diana Nyman is feeling”. Swedish blogger Christian Munthe summed up a perfectly logical conclusion to be drawn from the affair:

I hold more than likely that the staff actions are perfectly in line with longstanding practice at the hotel with regard to Roma people, it’s just that they never had anyone of them so visibly as a guest before. …. One might add, moreover, that the behaviour of the hotel staff is perfectly in tune with the deeply embedded culture towards Roma people in my country, documented by the White book launched today.

A second, earlier, and more ominous demonstration of the lingering prejudice in Swedish society came last September, when the Swedish broadsheet Dagens Nyheter published explosive allegations this week that police in the southern region of Skåne broke Swedish law by keeping a secret register with personal data on 4,000 Roma, of whom many were not suspected of any crime and a quarter were children as young as three months old. Although the registry was confirmed as illegal under Swedish law, and persons wrongfully included ruled eligible for compensation, the damage had been done, with Roma trust in the Swedish police described as “under zero”.

With all this – and a monotonous succession of other confirmations of prejudice against Roma – in its luggage, the expectations on the White Book have been high. In fact, the White Book is a culmination in a process that has been pursued for some time and along numerous fronts. The Roma were recognized as one of Sweden’s five national minorities in 1999 and their language, romani chib  received greater legal protection in 2010. Meanwhile, successive Ombudsman institutions have not only reported on discrimination against Roma in 2003 (here in pdf) and 2011 (here), but taken cases on their behalf.

However, the White Book itself results from a parallel political commitment to the integration of Roma via systematic guarantees for conditions of equality. First in 2010, a “Roma Delegation” issued its report, finding chronic marginalization and recommending a set of measures to bridge the gap in trust between the Roma and the rest of Swedish society. This led, in turn, to the 2012 adoption of a twenty year Strategy on Roma Inclusion (summarized here in English) with the goal “that a Roma who turns 20 years of age in 2032 is to have the same opportunities in life as a non-Roma.”

As will be described in the next posting, the White Book itself represents a component of this strategy that looks backward 120 years in order to justify both the necessity and the nature of the aims proposed for the next 20 years.


One response to “Sweden faces up to past discrimination against its Roma minority in a new ‘White Book’

  1. Pingback: TN mellows out at five | TerraNullius

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