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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Country by country: Where do Sweden’s newest foreign residents come from?

More people moved to Sweden last year than the year before. But where do they all come from?

Country by country: Where do Sweden's newest foreign residents come from?

Immigration to Sweden increased year-on-year in 2021 for the first time since 2016, when around 163,000 new residents were added to the country’s population register, according to fresh data by national number crunchers Statistics Sweden.

In total, 90,631 people moved to Sweden last year, up 9.8 percent on 2020.

The largest group of immigrants, 11 percent, were Swedes returning to their country of birth.

This was followed by people born in India. A total of 6,017 people born in India moved to Sweden last year, an increase of 48.2 percent on the previous year.

The next largest groups were from Syria (3,538 people born in Syria became registered as residents last year), closely followed by Germany (3,501) and Pakistan (3,240).

Fewer people emigrated from Sweden last year, with 48,284 people moving out – a decrease of 1.3 percent compared to 2020, according to Statistics Sweden’s data.

Again, most of these were native Swedes – 16,975 in total – of whom 10.4 percent moved to the UK, 10 percent moved to Norway and 8.3 percent moved to Denmark.

More than half of all emigrants last year (55.9 percent), at least the ones who were not born in Sweden, returned to their country of birth. This was particularly common among people born in Finland, with 1,609 Finnish-born people returning to Finland from Sweden.

The number of foreign-born residents in Sweden grew to 2,090,503 people last year, an increase of 2.1 percent. Syria, Iraq and Finland make up the top three countries of birth. Sweden’s total population stood at 10,452,326 at the turn of the year.

If you are new to Sweden, welcome! We hope you’ll like it here. The Local has plenty of guides, analysis and features aimed at newcomers and long-term residents, and if there’s a topic you’ve got questions about or think we should cover, you’re always welcome to get in touch. And for anyone wondering how they can stay in Sweden forever, here’s our guide.