INTERVIEW: How to ‘leave no stone unturned’ in fighting segregation in Sweden

Sweden's new Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has pledged to leave "no stone unturned" when it comes to fighting segregation in Sweden. We asked Ahmed Abdirahman, one of Sweden's leading anti-segregation activists, what he would do.

INTERVIEW: How to 'leave no stone unturned' in fighting segregation in Sweden
Ahmed Abdirahman stands outside the offices in Rinkeby of The Global Village, the organisation he founded and runs. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

Sweden’s government has made vända på varje sten, or “turn every stone”, its chief slogan when it comes to segregation and gang crime. 

In late January, the country’s labour ministry announced that it would from now on concentrate spending on ending segregation on the 74 municipalities it believes have the biggest problem. 

Ahmed Abdirahman is chief executive of The Global Village, the organisation that runs Järvaveckan and the Järva Film Festival, which bring Sweden’s political and cultural leaders to Järvafältet, a park on the edge of the Stockholm suburb of Husby. 

He believes that better data, building a sense of strong identity around Sweden’s cities, and events that draw ethnic Swedes to immigrant areas, are three of the most important steps. 


Data should be broken down by country-of-origin  

Sweden’s government agencies have in the past been reluctant to collect and publish data linked to residents’ country of origin, out of fear, perhaps, that this information will be used by groups or politicians opposed to immigration, and that it would end up increasing discrimination against people with a background in certain countries.

The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, which provides Sweden’s crime statistics, last year published its first analysis of criminality broken down by background since 2005, and even then it limited the data to whether suspects or their parents had been born in Sweden or born abroad. 

Abdirahman believes that this data needs to go deeper.  

“I think we need to have data not only for people who are foreign-born, but to break it down by their country of origin, to see where there is a mismatch, and where the biggest challenges are,” he says. “We have to put our resources where we can make the biggest change.”

As an example, he points to Sweden’s unemployment numbers, which show that unemployment is higher among people who were born outside of Europe. If government agencies could establish that, for example, people of Somali, or Iraqi origin, were at the highest risk, then interventions could be more targeted. 

“So the focus has to be very strong there. There have to be guidelines for the government agencies, as well as the business sector, on how to help those groups as much as possible, and then we have to follow those numbers every year, so we can see if the measures we are taking are making a difference.”

Abdirahman said he did not believe data on Swedish residents’ country of origin would be misused by those opposed to immigration.   

“I don’t see it as racist. All of us who are from other countries are proud Swedes, we are proud to be part of this nation. But we are also proud of our heritage, and it’s something Sweden should celebrate. But if we don’t have these numbers, we are, without knowing it, allowing further segregation.”

Supporters of Malmö FF football club at a match earlier this year. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Focus on building city identity before national identity 

Abdirahman remembers meeting Bart Somers, Vice-Minister-President of the Government of Flanders, Belgium, when he was the celebrated mayor of the city of the heavily segregated city of Mechelen, where roughly half of all births are to parents born outside of Belgium. 

“We brought him to Sweden to visit Rinkeby and other places, and he said that we have to create what it means to be from this city,” Abdirahman remembers. “In Mechelen, he much took over the public spaces everywhere and put up pictures with many different faces and said, ‘this is who we, the people from Mechelen, are. This is our city. This is all of us’.”

But to change people’s perceptions like this, he adds, would take sustained effort and focus. 

At the national level, more effort needs to be put into better representing people with foreign backgrounds. It is particularly important, he says, to show them simply living normal lives. He argues that the Swedish media too often only depicts and interviews Swedes with Somali, Middle Eastern, or other foreign backgrounds in the context of social problems such as segregation, crime, and unemployment. 

“There has to be a decision around that and a willingness to work on that,” he says. “We have to look at how diversity looks in music, culture, the movies, and TV shows, because that’s where we can be most affected.” 

Moderate Leader Ulf Kristersson accepts flowers from Ahmed Abdirahman at the Järva Week festival in 2019. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

Find ways to bring other Swedes to majority immigrant areas 

Abdirahman also supports events that draw ethnic Swedes to areas where the majority of inhabitants are first- or second-generation immigrants, such as the Järva Week and Järva Film Festival, which he founded and which each year bring Sweden’s political and cultural leaders to Järvafältet, a park on the edge of the suburb of Husby. 

“That’s what we are doing with our work,” he says. “We are creating reasons to meet across cultural, economic, social, and political barriers.” 

He said that government and city authorities should fund events where people in Sweden can share the cultural wealth of their various cultures. 

“People from other countries, we have so much to offer. We have food, culture, music, but we need to get those resources and a city that is willing to invest, and we don’t see that enough, sadly.” 

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OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

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

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.