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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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.