Jasenko Selimovic of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet). "/> Jasenko Selimovic of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet). " />
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IMMIGRATION

‘Swedishness can’t only be about herring and potatoes’

Without a concept of "Swedishness" that can be shared by all, integration won't succeed in Sweden nor will it be a country that has a place for immigrants, argues argues Bosian war refugee Jasenko Selimovic of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet).

'Swedishness can't only be about herring and potatoes'

“Where are you from?” I ask the taxi driver who takes me to the airport in Sweden.

“Somalia.”

“Where is ‘home’? Somalia or Sweden?”

“Somalia.”

“Do you feel Swedish?”

“No, not in the least. It takes several generations to become Swedish.”

When I land in Washington, DC to study integration in the United States, I pose the same questions.

“Is ‘home’ Afghanistan (where the taxi driver comes from) or here?”

“Here, of course.”

“Do you feel American?”

“Of course. What else would I be?”

This is discouraging. The Americans, and several other nations, have obviously been better at developing a sense of belonging; both among their immigrants, and among their majorities.

Sweden has failed to do so.

If one views integration as a process that isn’t just about jobs, but also about a sense of community; of shared identity and belonging, then Sweden is lagging behind. The problem is that without this feeling, without a common identity, without a “Swedishness” that we can share, we will not succeed with integration or manage to create a country that has a place for immigrants.

The reason we have failed is that we have assumed that refugees (who have dominated Swedish immigration) have fled misfortune in their countries and want to return when the opportunity arises. We opened our doors to offer protection, but as a result we saw these people as a diaspora that was more focused on what they had left behind and less on their future in Sweden.

We handed out subsidies to help people return and ensured mother tongue language education, but the idea that we should create a sense of shared identity has almost been viewed as some sort of assault.

My own proof of citizenship dropped into the mailbox in a wet, beige envelope. The next day I was informed that Sweden offered “return subsidies”.

Was that really a way to be welcomed into a community?

Immigrants have also made mistakes.

Since their stay in Sweden was regarded as temporary, many lived with suitcases in the hall; partly because it was hard for them to break with the past, partly because the signals from Swedish society were ambiguous. The myth of a return to one’s country of origin became an obstacle to integration.

I know people who, after thirty years in Sweden, do not have Swedish friends, who socialize only with their fellow countrymen, and are more engaged in events that take place in their home countries than in Sweden. You live in some sort of “standby mode”, in a no man’s land, belonging to neither the country you live in nor the country you came from.

Satellite dishes maintain the illusion of contacts with your country of origin and a return – but a first return visit on vacation shows what a stranger you are.

It’s time to get beyond the myth return and begin to focus on creating a common identity that we can share. We should create a new “we”, a new Swedishness, transparent and inclusive, that both Swedes and immigrants can be proud of; an identity that unites us and doesn’t divide us. It should give immigrants a sense of belonging that they often miss and offer them an opportunity to stop wandering.

A country must have a social glue that serves as the basis for solidarity among citizens. It gives legitimacy to state institutions and officials, it makes the exercise of power be seen as legitimate. The social glue is portrayed in the ideal of citizenship as it answers the question of who constitutes “we”.

But there are different ways of defining “we”.

The Sweden Democrats and other nationalists have made their pitch: what keeps us together, gives us power, strength and identity are the thick ties of ethnicity and culture. Therefore, according to them, rootlessness is a sin, cosmopolitanism crippling, Brussels the enemy, and the EU a foreign power.

According to them, we belong together simply because we are ethnically and culturally similar.

Zlatan and Loreen need not apply in the land of the Sweden Democrats.

If the rest of us want to deal with the nationalists, we need to formulate our response. By infusing civil citizenship with meaning; by talking about the values that should form the basis for society, we can create a common future and a unified country.

At the citizenship ceremony I attended in Washington, Madeleine Albright (the former US Secretary of State) told the new Americans: “The magic of this moment is not just that today you get your license to dream the American dream. The magic of this moment is that your name is now a part of us, a part of America.”

Until we learn how to send such an inclusive welcoming signal, no immigrants in Sweden will feel Swedish.

We need to think through our integration policy, make the necessary changes, and begin to regard immigrants as part of the collective story of this country’s future, not just its past. I don’t need to do more than gesture a little with my hands for someone to come up and say “oh, how wonderfully un-Swedish you are”.

Immigrants, for their part, must step forward and begin to imagine their future in this country. Neither the myth of return nor stories of discrimination can be the dominant narratives.

If we don’t rise to the challenge, we’ll be capitulating to those who want Swedishness to be defined ethnically or culturally.

And as for me, I’d rather see a thin, constitutional solidarity that specifies within the contract of citizenship what immigrants should do to become a part of society (like the US) than thick, cultural affiliation requirements that allow me, after 19 years in Sweden, to still be called “wonderfully un-Swedish” when I gesture a little with my hands.

Rather precise requirements for citizenship than the obscure and life-long requirement to love herring and potatoes.

Rather a debate on what Swedishness should be, than the vague and unspoken consensus on what it is.

Jasenko Selimovic came to Sweden in 1992 as a refugee from the war in Bosnia. He is currently a State Secretary within the Swedish Ministry of Labour, but is writing here in his capacity as a member of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet).

This article was first published in Swedish in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper.

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IMMIGRATION

Swedish Iranians complain of ‘drastic drop’ in visas for relatives

Iranians living in Sweden are complaining that relatives are no longer being granted visas to visit, causing pain and heartbreak for one of Sweden's most established immigrant communities.

Swedish Iranians complain of 'drastic drop' in visas for relatives

“This has affected our community very greatly,” Kamran Chabokdavan, spokesperson for the Swedish-Iranian interest group, or Intresseföreningen för Svensk-Iranska frågor, told The Local. “There’s so many people who are feeling depressed or mistreated.”

He had planned to marry his Swedish partner in 2019, but has still not been able to as his parents have not been able to get a visa to come to Sweden, despite visiting, and returning back to Iran several times before. 

“If it was the first time that my parents came here, then it would be more reasonable to say that we cannot be sure that you will go back,” Chabokdavan, who works as a vet in Gothenburg, said. “But if the person has been here ten times before, and suddenly you decide to reject the application, that is a little bit odd.” 

The group now has 2,000 members on Facebook and has contacted the embassy in Tehran, Sweden’s foreign ministry, and MPs in two of Sweden’s political parties, who Chabokdavan said had promised to raise the issue in their parties and to the government.

Chabokdavan told The Local that many Iranians were suffering from the shift to a stricter visa policy. 

“Another member in our group had a sister who was a late-stage cancer patient at the hospital, and her parents couldn’t come here to say goodbye to her.” 

Rozita Akrami, a data scientist at Ericsson, also a group member, has collected data showing that Sweden is now the worst country in the Schengen area for giving visiting visas to Iranians, with only 35 percent of visa applications by friends and relatives of citizens accepted. 

She claims there was a “drastic drop” in the acceptance rate, from 55 per cent in 2018 to 35 percent in 2019, with France accepting 75 percent of visa applications from residents’ relatives that year and Switzerland 79 percent. 

“It seems that the Swedish embassy in Iran has decided to apply stricter criteria, which are really, really unclear,” Chabokdavan said. “It’s really not clear what’s the criteria is here, or why they are rejecting so many documents.” 

In a judgement from last week, the Migration Court ruled that the tougher approach taken by the Swedish embassy in Tehran was justified by a recent rise in the number of Iranians granted visas to Sweden who had then decided to stay and apply for asylum.  

“The embassy further notes that in recent years hundreds of Iranian citizens have applied for residency in Sweden after travelling in on a visa that had been granted,” the court said, justifying its decision to reject an appeal. 

“The embassy can point to the Migration Agency’s reports that a several of these people had had been granted visas previously, even several visas. As a result, visas previously awarded are not a strong indicator of an intention to return.” 

In its judgement, it also noted that sanctions against Iran had resulted in a “severely worsened economy”, with “high unemployment and a weakened currency”, while also pointing to growing “repression of religious minorities” and “imprisonment of political dissidents”. 

In a letter to the embassy in Tehran the group complained that there was no mechanism to replace documents rejected by the Swedish authorities, or to send in missing documents. The group also called for clarity on how applicants’ economic situation was assessed and how relevant it was, and called for the embassy to publish its official statistics from 2015 to 2022. 

“This is about parents who have lived for 60 to 70 years in their homeland and visited Sweden several times while always leaving the Schengen region before their visa has expired,” they wrote. 

Chabokdavan said that in some of the rejection letters, applicants had been told that the worsening economic situation in Iran made Sweden’s authorities worried that visiting relatives would not now return. 

Other rejection letters, he said, had stressed that just because the applicant had visited Sweden and then returned home to Iran many times before, did not mean that they could be relied upon to do so again. 

He said that it was unclear what documents would be enough to prove how well established and tied to Iran the visa applicants are. 

Iranians, who came to Sweden both after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, are one of Sweden’s most successful migrant groups, with 60 percent getting a university education, and many working within universities, or in high skilled professions.   

“These are people who are really established in Sweden by their job or their studies,” Chabokdavan said. “And their parents usually have a strong, economical base in Iran, otherwise, they couldn’t get this kind of visa from the beginning.”

The Local has contacted the Swedish foreign ministry and the embassy in Tehran for comment. 

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