Sweden talks about Roma abuses


Ullenhag, Sweden's minister of integration Photo: government.se

Ullenhag, Sweden’s minister of integration
Photo: government.se


Today, I present the White Paper initiated by the Government on abuses and rights violations of Roma in the 20th century. The White Paper is based on interviews with Roma and Travellers, on archive material and research studies. It provides a description of a dark period in Sweden’s history that is more complete than we have had before.

On several points, the White Paper also shows that the Roma’s own accounts of the 20th century are closer to the truth than the previous historical accounts.

In Sweden, racist beliefs were widespread. In the early 1900s, when the country’s police authorities would describe Roma and Travellers, the responses were clear. “Ugly”, “unreliable” and “good-for-nothing” were the usual judgements of Roma.

The conclusion from several police districts was that Roma were “completely useless people” who should be “exterminated”. In the 1920s, the parliamentary Fattigvårdslagstiftningskommitté (Poverty Relief Legislation Committee) made clear that Roma “intermixing in the Swedish racial group diminishes our race” and advocated the consistent worsening of Roma living conditions so as to induce them to leave the country.

The Committee’s mindset came to shape the policies that affected the Roma during the 20th century. In area after area, we see how Roma were systematically treated as second-class people. A life without a place to live – the “non-existent”. “I was born outdoors in a camp in Norrbotten. I had two sisters – twins – but they froze to death in the tent when they were just a couple of months old.”

Mikael Demeter Taikon’s story is not uncommon. For many Roma, the 20th century was one without permanent housing. Roma were refused housing, forbidden to stay in several municipalities and driven away. In many municipalities, fines were imposed on anyone who rented housing or gave food to Roma or Travellers. Thus, the White Paper refutes the prejudice that Roma did not want to settle down.

The effect of Roma being undesirable was that many were denied the right to register themselves for census purposes. Those who were not registered for the census were seen in the records as “non-existent” and were thus denied child benefit, national basic pension, social security and the right to vote.   The 1954 zigenarutredning (gypsy inquiry) proposed measures to settle Roma. But the prejudices lived on for much longer.

Roma were listed in landlords’ ‘black books’, they continued to suffer overcrowded living conditions and, as recently as 1985, the Real Estate Committee in Stockholm produced a programme of action against public order disturbances in housing that was specifically directed against “gypsies”.

Sterilisation and taking children into care. Previous studies have drawn the general conclusion that there is no support for the belief that sterilisation was a targeted measure against Roma. At the same time, Roma have testified how they were affected: “My mother and my aunt were sterilised.” (Rose-Marie Wallengren). “When my mother was pregnant for the third time, she was given an ultimatum: if you do not agree to an abortion and sterilisation, we will take your children into care.” (Soraya Post).

The review of documents from the mid-1940s confirms many Roma experiences. The idea of “race improvement”, which was the basis for the sterilisation policy, affected Roma. Calculations based on submitted sterilisation documents concerning “vagrants” indicate that at least one in four Traveller households contained someone who had been sterilised.

The White Paper also shows that the National Board of Health and Welfare produced a handbook on maternal help which included the instructions that Roma women were not to have a self-evident right to maternal help. The handbook also stressed that “sterilisation is often the only way to avoid future complex help needs.”

Many Roma and Travellers were were taken into care by society. They give evidence of abuse in society’s care. Hans Caldaras says that as an infant at the orphanage he “was subjected to forced feeding and was bathed in cold water.”

Extensive mapping with racist motives. Mapping and registration of Roma has been extensive throughout the entire 20th century. In the early 20th century, there was strong belief in racial biology as evidenced by the review of the records. Heads were measured, intelligence tests were conducted and negative characteristics of the Roma were sought.   Kurt Magnusson, who was covered by the “inventory of vagrants” on 31 May 1943, testifies that “the inventory was in preparation for Nazi Germany. That’s how I see it. Had Sweden been occupied and the Germans had come here, I would not be alive today.”

The mapping of Roma continues in the second half of the 20th century. Now the purpose is that the welfare state is trying to assimilate the Roma into Swedish society. However, even in the later mapping, the prejudices are a common thread running through the data collection activities of government agencies.

Entry bans particularly directed against Roma. Based on the racial biology conviction of Nordic racial superiority, the ban on Roma entry was introduced and applied between 1914 and 1954. An effect of the entry ban was that Roma living in Sweden could not be sure that they could enter the country again if they travelled abroad. It is particularly noteworthy that the entry ban was in force until 1954. Rosa Taikon aptly expresses this painful fact: “We were considered to be a despised and inferior race. Roma who survived Nazi persecution were not allowed into the country until well after the end of Second World War.”

A discriminatory school system. “During my childhood, we tried several times to get access to schooling. But it was impossible. We were not welcome.” (Singoalla Millon). In the first half of the 20th century, many Roma and Travellers were barred from the schooling that should have covered everyone.

In the second half of the century, Roma children formally received access to education. But it was the rule rather than the exception that they were placed in remedial classes. Roma and Travellers also testify that discrimination and prejudiced teachers were part of everyday life at school.

An essentially closed labour market. Discrimination, lack of permanent housing and a discriminatory educational system has rendered it decidedly more difficult for Roma to enter the labour market. In addition, local regulations on public order have been used as a tool to prevent Roma from conducting business activities. All in all, it may be stated that during the 20th century, Roma lived in a society that systematically limited their opportunities for self-support.

Many of the prejudices that persist against Roma today and much of the exclusion we still see are a result of the historical abuses.

The White Paper is part of the Government’s work for increased inclusion of Roma. A first step in combating Anti-Gypsyism and prejudices today is acknowledging the history that we have long concealed. Roma and Travellers have tried to speak out about what they have been subjected to, but society has largely turned a deaf ear. It is a sad fact that we must note that the White Paper’s comprehensive review of the 20th century shows that Roma accounts of history have now been confirmed.

Erik Ullenhag (Liberal Party), Minister for Integration with responsibility for minorities and human rights.