Six things Sweden’s politicians get wrong about segregation

As a scholar of integration and an immigrant, Stockholm University associate professor Andrea Voyer is disheartened to see the Social Democrats take positions on integration that are inaccurate and counterproductive. She lists six things they are getting wrong.

Six things Sweden's politicians get wrong about segregation
A Somali woman walks with her child in Rinkeby a "specially vulnerable area" in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / TT

Immigration is looming large as a topic in Sweden’s 2022 general election. The far-right parties have often taken a harsh stance towards immigrants, so there is nothing new in the “Sweden is for the Swedes” brand of ethno-nationalism offered by the Sweden Democrats. What is new is the Social Democrats’ embrace of this harsh rhetoric, combining the complicated social problems of segregation, struggling schools, and gang violence under a single heading: “failed integration”.

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s comments in a recent interview with Dagens Nyheter sum up the view that the visibility of immigrants and immigrant spaces is a barrier to integration and social cohesion.

“We do not want to have Chinatown in Sweden, we do not want to have Somalitown or Little Italy, our starting point is a society where people with different backgrounds, experiences and income live together and meet one another. That’s how we will create a cohesive society.”

Below are six reasons why this is the wrong approach. 

1. The idea that ethnic enclaves are a barrier to integration is inaccurate

The starting point for building a cohesive society is creating places where there is a mixing of languages, cultures, religions, experiences, and economic situations. If this is so, the Social Democrats should be embracing immigrant neighbourhoods instead of condemning them.

Rinkeby, in Stockholm, includes people with backgrounds from Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Ethiopia, Greece, Poland, China, and Sweden, to name just a few. Many who live in the neighbourhood develop a strong sense of attachment and belonging that transcends national backgrounds.

Andersson’s colleague, migration minister Anders Ygeman recently discussed a goal of having neighbourhoods where only about 50 percent of people are foreign-born. According to the statistics on Rinkeby-Kista provided by the city of Stockholm, about 52 percent of the neighbourhood is currently foreign-born. Pretty close to the Social Democrats’ goal!

Of course, an additional 33 percent of the neighbourhood are Swedish citizens with two foreign-born parents. Apparently, these Swedes with foreign backgrounds do not count as sufficiently Swedish, and the Social Democrats are talking about “ethnic Swedes”.

2. Sweden’s suburbs are segregated because Swedes choose not to live there

If there are few ethnic Swedes in Rinkeby or other immigrant neighbourhoods, that is because Swedish people are choosing not to live there.

The self-segregation of the majority population is usually what drives segregation, and it’s the ethnic majority in Sweden, and in most countries, that is the most isolated and the most segregated. Typically, the members of the ethnic majority prefer less neighbourhood diversity than people from diverse backgrounds. Just this difference in preference is enough over a lot of people’s housing choices to drive segregation.

Bennets Bazaar in the Malmö district of Rosengård back in 2018. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
3. Immigrants living near one another is normal

It’s difficult to arrive and adapt to a new country, and immigrants often settle near one another and develop networks with each other. They do this as a way to adapt. Immigrants frequently experience a negative impact on their credentials and their social standing as a result of migration, and people from the home country are more likely to recognise that lost status.

They are also encountering a new bureaucracy, the migration system, and a new set of laws and social norms, often without the benefit of knowing the language in advance. Often other immigrants that have gone through the same thing are the people who are best equipped to help them.

Other immigrants from the same background can also provide comfort in providing connections to the home culture and language, and acting as a surrogate family when it comes to celebrating holidays or managing big events like funerals and weddings in ways that are familiar and comfortable.

4. Immigrant neighbourhoods actually facilitate integration

Criticising immigrant neighbourhoods is counterproductive, since immigrant neighbourhoods have been shown to have a role in helping immigrants into society. One important pathway to integration and social cohesion is through the formation of immigrant organisations and community groups in such neighbourhoods. When governments embrace these neighbourhoods and partner with immigrant community organisations, people feel a greater sense of belonging, they’re more likely to acquire citizenship and to do it more quickly, and they’re more likely to participate in the political process

This is a problem in Sweden. There was a study asking why Somali immigrants in Sweden struggle in comparison with Somali immigrants in the UK, the US and Canada. One of the main conclusions was that Somali immigrants, wherever they arrive, generally feel that it’s important to build Somali community organisations and local Somali identity. In most of the countries studied, the government embraced this. Through their involvement in that organisation, and through the organisation of a Somali community, there was this pathway to more society cohesion at the level of broader community.

What the report concluded was that in Sweden, there has been resistance and suspicion when these groups arise. The perspective on the part of the state has been that the rise of these kinds of groups signals a parallel society and signals social distrust.


5. Stigmatising neighbourhoods as “parallel societies” makes integration more difficult

When immigrant neighbourhoods persist over generations, there are two likely reasons. If there is continued migration, new people are coming to the neighbourhood, keeping the neighbourhood alive, even though many of the children and grandchildren of earlier immigrants have likely moved away.

If neighbourhood residence persists across multiple generations of the same family, then we should become concerned about the persistence of the neighbourhood as a result of prejudice and social exclusion.

In Sweden there is both continued immigration and documented discrimination against people with foreign backgrounds in many areas of society, including the job market, access to credit, and involvement in politics. Stigmatising these neighbourhoods makes integration even more difficult.

6. Gang criminality and immigrant neighbourhoods are linked, but not in the way the Social Democrats think.

There certainly is an observed link between gang involvement and immigrant neighbourhoods in the literature. The research consensus is that marginalisation of immigrants in the new country facilitates the rise of gangs in immigrant neighbourhoods. Young people are also most vulnerable to gang recruitment. So, if you have a young immigrant population, you tend to see more of these problems.

Stigmatising immigrant neighbourhoods, and even policies to eliminate these neighbourhoods, doesn’t get at the underlying problem. Instead of taking a sledgehammer to entire communities, a targeted response identifying key actors in criminal networks together with programmes for the youth who are most at risk for joining gangs is shown to decrease gang violence.

Again, the key to immigrant integration and social cohesion is actively embracing and working with these communities. So instead of them being isolated and stigmatised, immigrant neighbourhoods, that the ethnic enclave becomes a bridge into Swedish society. 

Member comments

  1. “Many who live in the neighbourhood develop a strong sense of attachment and belonging that transcends national backgrounds.” Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to live in Rinkeby…

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OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 

Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are stopping Russians from leaving Russia. It would be a tragedy if Sweden did the same, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 
An iron curtain is descending across Europe. But in contrast to the beginning of the Cold War, the curtain is being drawn down by EU countries – not Russia. 

Any day now, Finland is poised to ban Russians from entering the country on tourist visas, to keep out men who want to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Announcing the policy, the country’s foreign minister said Finland was becoming “a transit country for Russians who want to leave their homeland for fear of being forced into war, and this traffic could harm Finland’s international position”. Opinion polls put 70 percent of the public in favour of a ban.

The number of Russians entering Finland doubled following Putin’s imposition a week ago of a “partial” mobilisation of men for the war effort in Ukraine. Finland’s Border Guard service is demanding a border fence 2.5m to 4m tall, topped with barbed wire, to keep the Russians out – an idea that taken seriously by the government.

Our Nordic neighbour is following a trend: the Baltics and Poland have already put an end to visas for Russians, including conscientious objectors to the war. The Czech Republic said last week that Russian deserters will not receive asylum. 

“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the New York Times. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”

Latvia’s foreign minister chipped in: “Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors. There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go to.”

The EU is under pressure from some of these countries to ban Russian tourists, and has already made it much harder for Russians to get tourist visas. But the bloc is divided. Politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany, for example, want to offer asylum to Russian deserters. 

Sweden is starting to debate this question. As a shiny new member of Nato, some Swedes feel we need to show how tough we can be towards the Russian threat. And with a new government keen to stress its anti-immigration credentials, Stockholm may also be tempted to punish Russian travellers because of their brutal government. 

In a situation already tragic beyond the imagination, banning Russian draft dodgers would only add to the tragedy in Europe.

Men of fighting age have been brought up on a diet of state propaganda, pumping nationalism, racism, militarism and hatred of the West into the Russian mainstream. Access to independent and social media has been extremely restricted. Opposition to the “military operation” in Ukraine is punishable by 15 years in jail.

In these circumstances, the mood has changed slowly, fuelled by snippets of official information, incidents such as the death of a friend, social media posts and kitchen conversations. But the steady drip drip of doubt and fear has filled the cup to overflowing. 

Then came last week’s mobilisation, and the pace of change accelerated. Family men without military experience are being dragooned into the army and sent to the front line. A wave of anger has swept across the nation, with arson attacks on army recruitment offices, thousands of arrests and a revolt in Dagestan. The country’s security service itself says 261,000 men fled Russia in barely a week. At one point there was a queue of cars 13km long at the border with Kazakhstan.

For EU nations to turn away Russians who don’t want to fight in Ukraine is to abandon them in their hour of need. At they very moment when they are most open to alternative facts about the war in Ukraine, we would conform to the Kremlin’s propaganda picture of the West as hostile, self-interested and Russian-hating. 

Denying draft dodgers the right to get out of Russia means painting them all as representatives of an enemy with whom we are at war. There might be some short-term political benefits in terms of “uniting the nation”, but this would leave a deep scar on the European psyche.

The debate in Europe has not gone unnoticed in the White House, where the US National Security Council has cautioned against seeing all Russians as universally responsible for the disaster in Ukraine. 

“We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times. “We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.”

Sweden has a history of welcoming men who don’t want to fight in unjust wars. Between 1967 and 1973, Sweden granted asylum to around 800 Americans fleeing the Vietnam war. Fifty years later, the decision by the European Court of Justice that Syrian draft dodgers can claim asylum in Europe gives Sweden the legal basis to extend this right to Russians.

What is happening now in Russia could be the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of the Putin regime. Sweden should welcome with open arms all Russians who would rather get out than be sent to kill Ukrainians. And we should pressure other EU countries to do the same. 

It is likely that Russia will soon close its own borders to stop men from escaping. But let’s not give them an excuse to do so. 

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.