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OPINION

IMMIGRATION

‘Swedes shouldn’t accept being called racist’

Former Afghan public servant Zulmay Afzali feared the ”racist Sweden” other asylum seekers warned him about, but instead found kindness that confused migrants and refugees who blamed everything on racism.

'Swedes shouldn't accept being called racist'
Swedish National Day celebrations in Stockholm. File photo: Jessica Gow/TT

"They give you a false smile and pretend that they care about you. The only thing they like and care about are themselves. Swedes are the worst racists in the world."

Those were the words uttered in a conversation between four asylum seekers who were awaiting word from the Swedish authorities while living in a migrant housing facility in Alstermo, southern Sweden. The date was Thursday, March 10th, 2011.

When I lived at the residence I met very few Swedes. I started to believe that what I was hearing was true and I wondered if I'd committed the worst mistake of my life by travelling to such a racist country. Yet when I met Swedish staff at the residence facility, they were always very friendly. Why would the Swedes have to play-act pleasantries and pretend they cared about asylum seekers?

I didn't know what to believe. I only heard negative opinions about the Swedes, never anything positive. In April 2011, I was granted asylum and readied myself to go out and experience how racist the people in my new country were.

I asked others who had been granted permanent residency (permanent uppehållstillstånd – PUT) why Swedes, if they were so racist, allowed people from other countries to stay in their country and become part of their society? They said: "Just because Swedes give us a residence permit doesn't mean they are not racists! They had to give us residency because our asylum stories were so good and Sweden doesn't want to be called a racist country."

I have now lived three years in Sweden and have a completely different image of the Swedes than the one held by most other asylum immigrants that I have met and spoken with. For the past year, I have had a good job as a teacher and I support myself. From my first day in a state-funded Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) class with Swedish teachers; travelling on buses and trains; in shops and cafés; at the homes of Swedish families I have gotten to know — in all these places I have observed how Swedes behave. So far, I have not once met anyone who comes close to displaying racism.

Unfortunately, many of my countrymen and others who have immigrated feel both hatred and contempt in their hearts for Swedes. They don't want to adapt and integrate in the land that gave them opportunities. If their social insurance payment comes one day late, they call it racism. When the bus driver asks them to show their ticket, he is a racist. If the doctor doesn't give them the medicines they want, the doctor is a racist. And so on.

The Swedish asylum process has to become strict, clear, and consistent, and the Swedes should not accept being called racists on such flimsy grounds. If they do, they will become hostages in their own country, and the contempt that refugees feel risks growing.

Most refugees are used to public servants and teachers in their home countries being authoritarian, rather than nearly self-effacing, which is an approach many of them encounter here. The Swedish kindness, the way it is expressed in how Sweden handles refugees and integration, confuses many new arrivals and creates a bad foundation for building mutual trust and respect.

Zulmay Afzali  worked for the government in Afghanistan before seeking asylum in Sweden three years ago. He is a teacher and author. His forthcoming book, Hederlighetens pris ('The price of honesty') will be published in February by Mummelförlaget publishers. This article originally appeared in Swedish in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper on January 26th, 2013. English translation by The Local.

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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