What's up with you, Sweden?
It started a couple of weeks ago. Friends of mine found a leaflet in their mailbox. It looked nice at first glance, like an ad from a travel agency, depicting a little white airplane soaring up into a vast blue sky, and a heart coloured like the Swedish flag, yellow and blue. It looked nice until you read what was written there in fat white letters. 'Dags at åka hem' (time to go home), it said, and the Sweden heart turned out to be the symbol of the Alternativ för Sverige, a newly emerged neo-Nazi party connected to the violent white-power movement. These friends had last names from Syria, Rwanda, Palestine, Ghana. So first it seemed like they were exclusively targeting households with non-Swedish sounding names but apparently, also people called Larsson or Frederiksson have by now received the unsettling flyer (1). It is, of course, an eerie attempt to spread fear and gain attention before the elections, and in all its cruelty and absurdity, it is, in a way, successful in doing so.
On Sunday, 7.3 million voters will go to the polls in Sweden, electing a new parliament and government. Since the dawn of civilization, the Social Democrats have formed the largest party in the Swedish Riksdag, averaging around 45% of the votes during their peak times. However, the political landscape has shifted towards the center-right over the last two decades and, besides rather traditional parties becoming stronger, new ones have surfaced. Similar to other European countries, these parties started out on the fringes of the political spectrum, like the feminist party F!, the Piratpartiet on the left, or the Alternativ för Sverige (founded 2017 as a splinter of the Sweden Democrats) on the far right. Whereas the momentum of the Pirates has entirely faded and the feminist party is struggling to reach the 4% threshold, the right-wing has been on the rise.
It is a depressing prospect. I was disillusioned and scared when in 2015, the Danish People’s Party gained 21% of the votes, becoming the second-largest party in Denmark. That was only a few weeks after I had moved to Copenhagen and the thought of living in this kind of political climate made me feel ill. I was glad that I had left Germany when the Alternative für Deutschland rose to be the country’s third strongest party during the elections 2017. (Recent opinion polls (2) indicate that by now, they cut out the Social Democrats as the second largest party, something unheard of since the Second World War.) And now, the exact same thing is happening in Sweden, where I have lived on and off since 2013. Current opinion polling suggests that the Sweden Democrats will emerge from this election as the second largest party. This means that every fifth voter shares their aggressively xenophobic opinions. Moreover, the 23% voting for the Moderaterna also support an anti-immigration agenda and hope for more police forces around town, the chasing-out of beggars (clearly targeting Roma), and other policies that remind of the rightist history of the party.
' Stop refugees. Stop begging. For a safe Gothenburg.' Election poster of the Moderaterna in Gothenburg. (Foto: private)
Immigration is the key topic around which this election evolves. The political climate has shifted and seems to be dominated by fear and skepticism towards non-white immigrants. Although it mainly targets refugees, the discourse hardly draws a line between refugees, other types of non-white immigrants, and non-white Swedes who have lived here for years. Because I am generally seen as a “good immigrant” (ideal you could say, at least that is what I sometimes think sarcastically: exotic-looking but culturally white middle class), so my personal life remains more or less unaffected by this; however, the heated political atmosphere does subtly seep in. When I encounter unfriendly white Swedes, there is always the thought in the back of my mind: ‘Are they just grumpy or do they simply not like me or do they simply not like me because I am an immigrant?’ I try to be extra-friendly, extra-polite, extra-thankful, speak extra-good Swedish motivated by an odd sense of guilt and responsibility. A few weeks ago, I suffered a light allergic shock while sitting by the water and although I was surrounded by people, nobody came over to help or ask if I was OK – not even when an acquaintance came, tried to talk to me and called an ambulance once she realized how bad I was. Of course I know that there is this general barrier of stepping up to help people in public which we all struggle with sometimes but since this incident, I cannot stop wondering if the bystanders had reacted differently if I was a blonde-haired Swede. There is no way to find out and although I tell myself that the answer most likely is NO, the fact that I keep on thinking of it is still painful. Every non-white person in a predominantly white society knows these nagging doubts, the hyper-self-awareness, the anxiety, the frustration that comes with the constant uncertainty to what extent your environment is capable (and willing!) to disconnect your person from your race.
So this is me, speaking from my privileged position. But I wonder: what about the others? What about those whose opinions, experiences, and feelings we do not get to hear or read about? What about those who get racially profiled, publicly insulted, ridiculed, threatened, abused? What about those knowing that certain white people avoid sitting next to them on the bus? Those desperately trying to find work, receiving one rejection after the other, while many Swedes complain about welfare-immigrants? Those being deported, chased out, abandoned to their fate in poor and war-torn countries? What does it say about a society when former refugees vote for far-right parties because they fear that the newly arrived refugees (that may come from the same country) will take away the modest achievements they have struggled so hard for (3)?
I am not trying to romanticize anything or to ignore the challenges that immigration is posing to society and state. I read the news, I know the statistics. And yet, I am full of disbelief. How, in the face of so much injustice and violence around the world, people turn against those who suffered most. When Germany opened its borders to over one million refugees in 2015-16, it was the first (and perhaps only) time in my life I felt pride towards the country I grew up in. When Sweden did the same, it made me feel warm and hopeful and even more attracted to the country. It has been three years. THREE YEARS. And it is not only since yesterday that the hostility towards refugees, and other immigrants/non-white persons is rising. What did people expect? That without any individual effort, the society as an abstract entity would magically swallow all the newly arrived within a couple of months, giving them shelter, work, support without any delay, integrate them, make them perfect little Swedes (or Germans) only with a darker complexion? It is not about integration let alone assimilation but basically about transforming a whole society and of course this takes time! And it requires both collective and individual will and work and yes, it also requires money and sharing and the ability to approach and discuss problems. In order to avoid that poverty, trauma, and hopelessness lead to lethargy or crime, and in order to avoid that half of the population turns aggressively against a fuzzy, undefined group of despised “Others”. I know that it is always easier to fight a visible, tangible, potentially weaker enemy but why does it not seem to occur to more people that it is the system that may be flawed? That most refugees would never have ended up here in the first place, had their countries not been torn apart by misery and war caused or at least fueled by vested interests of powerful nations? That the deteriorating health system, the huge pressure on the (urban) housing market, the growing gap between rich and poor are a result of the increasing privatization initiated by eight years of liberal-conservative politics? That the exploitation, excuse me: employment of immigrants would not send local wages into a downward spiral if there were better and stricter laws protecting them? Of course, a boy from Afghanistan would skip school and work black for 50 Swedish crowns (ca. €4,70) an hour when his entire family back home cannot afford enough food or medicine to survive. Of course, a man from Syria would accept just about any job if the decision about the reunification with his wife and kids stuck in the misery of a refugee camp depends on his ability to support them. Would you act any different? And who would be the last person to blame in these scenarios, these scenarios that are reality in Sweden for thousands of people? Why does everyone seem so terribly afraid of losing what they have when everywhere I look people are consuming, spending, buying, and throwing away, and the income averages around 28.000 Swedish crowns, about 2650 Euro?
Sweden could do so well, I believe. This big country with so few inhabitants, so much vastness, calmness, and open land, whose inhabitants speak in their cute singing language, value quietness, personal space and introspection so highly, see solidarity, democracy and mutual respect deeply rooted in their heritage. Even though that is clearly more common myth than reality, my general image of Swedes still is one of gentle, kind, curious, polite, if rather shy and distanced people, and xenophobia, racism, and greed do not fit into that image. In my imagination, Sweden could do a great job at making their society more welcoming, inclusive, and solidary towards people in need. There is space, there is resources, there is a relatively strong state that people still seem to put a lot of trust in, compared to other countries. And I know that there is so many excellent individuals out there who put time, effort, and money into helping refugees and other immigrants, I know because they are around me, opening their homes, sharing what they have, engaging in discussions and demonstrations and solidarity protests, refusing to give up hope and to shut up. This is what I hold on to, as well as all the people from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire etc. that I have met while living here, people who struggle against so many daemons and adversities and yet, against all odds, are some of the gentlest, kindest, most curious and polite human beings I know.
This is what I hold on to in the light of an election that will confirm that about half of this country, the 8th wealthiest country in the world, wants to close its borders completely, refuse immigrants to get in and at the same time banish others, thus refusing to help some of the most vulnerable, desperate people of our time.
Children as young as 10 attempt to commit suicide in the dire conditions of Moria refugee camp in Greece