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Sweden's dirty little secret

Swedish police authorities have secretly established illegal databases of Romani people in a program originally designed for counterterrorism operations. Sadly, this is nothing new in Sweden's century long campaign against the Romani people.

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Swedish police authorities have secretly established illegal databases of Romani people in a program originally designed for counterterrorism operations.

This revelation came as a series of documents were leaked to a major Swedish daily in late September 2013. The largest racial registry contained 4,029 individuals, of which 842 were pre-teens. The registry includes 52 babies, entered during their first months.

When the news broke, police communication officers first denied the existence of the illegal database and then suggested that it was regular police intelligence, linked to an ongoing investigation of suspected criminals. What criminal activities a seven-month female baby could possibly be suspected of besides being born Romani was never explained.

Remarkable too, was the filing of people long since dead. Monica Kaldaras, 63-year old teacher and author of Piss Off F**ing Gypsy Bastard, a novel recounting police-enforced, anti-Romani persecutions she experienced during her childhood, found her whole family, including children, grandchildren and her parents - dead since 38 years - in the illegal registry. Her family had been pursued all her life, and now she realized that the police kept chasing her parents also beyond death, as if Romani people were not entitled to eternal rest.

Another racially based register included 997 Romani people, including Soraya Post, chairwoman of Roma Women's Network and Council of Europe expert on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Like the Kaldaras family and hundreds of other Romani people included in the database, Post had no criminal record. She was not monitored because of anything she did, but because of what she was: Romani.

When the news hit the public, Swedish government representatives were appropriately aghast. Parliamentarians, heads of police, ministers of interior, of integration, of justice, and of European affairs were all publicly perplexed. Not all Romani people were equally baffled. Much like when Snowden leaked NSA documents confirming what many already thought they knew, Romani-Swedes I spoke with found their suspicions justified.

Yet, the revealed documents played into intra-Romani discussions between a category of Romani people who, informed by historical experience, held it dangerous to reveal their Romani identity to the public (and quite detrimental to the prospects of getting decent work and housing), and a category of Romani people who insisted that times had changed, saying that it was possible to be openly Romani and get a fair chance in society.

Sadly, the latter lost face. Registration of Romani people on the basis of “biological race” is not new. Romani people have a documented 500-year presence in Sweden, and still are considered “aliens”. Antiziganism is typically cast as a case of “xenophobia”, as if Romani-Swedish people were foreigners, not natives. Concurrent with the process of modernization and democratization of Swedish society, the theological justifications of excluding Romani people as the swarthy seed of Ham, allies of the Prince of Darkness, and masters of black magic, gave way to constructions of Romani people as racially inferior others.

A historical prejudice

A ban of Romani immigration was introduced in 1914 and remained in effect until 1954. Romani people seeking to escape the industrialized genocide campaigns in fascist Europe were denied entry. When the Swedish Red Cross sent the White Buses to rescue Scandinavians and Jewish people from the Nazi concentration camps, Romani people were excluded. Some Romani people saved their lives by claiming Jewish identity, some by claiming to be Polish. Romani families, at the time typically named “tattare” (Tatars, lowlives), “zigenare” (Egyptians/Gypsies) or “resande” (Travelers), living inside Sweden’s closed borders became of increasing concern to the state and the good-and-decent citizens.

In the 1923 government official report Tattare och zigenare (Tatars and Gypsies), the commissioner saw the integration of Romani people as an “unsolvable problem”. Therefore, the “only solution is to have them out of the country, one way or another”, possibly by “imposing such strict limitations on their freedom of movement that that they themselves find it to their own advantage to leave the country”. During the 1930s, the press ran headlines such as Tattar Terror, Tattar Plague, The Final Solution of the Tattar Problem, and editorials called for the authorities to “liberate the country from these asocial elements”, and a “humane extermination of the tattar race”.

A succession of Swedish governments decided that the Romani problem had to be mapped, registered, monitored, and controlled. Systematic inventories of the Romani “stock” were implemented in 1907, 1922, 1943, 1954-55, 1962-63, and 1965-66. The registry method was similar to the one used in Germany during the Weimar Republic 1919-1933, the data of which was later utilized by the Nazi administration when the Romani people were to be exterminated.

During the massive Romani race-inventory of 1954, the police invaded Romani camps throughout the country in orchestrated raids. Every Romani individual was interrogated, assigned a “Z-number”, and specific details regarding “personality type” (e.g. “cunning”, “lazy”, “violent”) were properly recorded. All Z-files were then compiled in a national Z-registry, used by the State Institute for Racial Biology at Uppsala University in their studies of the inferior Romani “race”, and by state and municipal authorities handling issues regarding Romani families, including compulsory sterilization programs, and the taking into custody of Romani children to secure their “Swedish” upbringing.

The negative eugenic programs was, according to Swedish authorities, intended to prevent “unviable individuals” from spreading their undesirable traits. Often, Romani women were forced to sign their acceptance of sterilization under the threat that their other children otherwise would be taken from them. As Romani people were listed in the Z-registry and not the civil registry, they were in effect excluded from civil rights. Romani-Swedes did not get full citizen rights, including the right to vote, until the mid-1960’s.

Officially, the Z-registry was taken out of use in 1975. Unofficially, Z-registrations continued, at least in certain police and social service departments. At least until 1996, Stockholm municipality sported a Z-section complete with its own Z-registry of “full”, “half”, and “quarter” Romani individuals. Each individual Z-file included personal data and administration observations such as “simple-minded, but nice”, “jovial, though without great intelligence”, “dark as the night”, “retarded, in some sense”.

Truth and reconciliation?

In 1998 the European Union Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities came into effect, and was ratified by Sweden in the year of 2000. After half a millennium in Sweden, and much thanks to EU deliberations and international pressure, the Romani people was officially recognized as one of five national minorities (Jews, Roma, Sami, Swedish Finns and Tornedalers). In 2011, the Minister of Integration, Erik Ullenhag, appointed a commission of the atrocities committed by the Swedish authorities against the Romani people, but only before the year 2000, as if the atrocities were history.

“To move forward”, the Minister of Integration explained, “it is important to put an end to what has been and that the state recognizes the wrongs committed”. With the exposure of the secret programs of registration it was evident to all that an end was never put, and the Swedish state seems to have a hard time recognizing the wrongs still ongoing. The exposed program raises many critical questions. Are there more racial registries and classified programs? Are more departments involved? How are the racial Romani registers used? Is there any exchange of information between different municipal and state authorities in regards to the registered Romani people? Do Swedish police share information with police abroad? Why, exactly, are small children registered? What system made the racial registry possible?

In 2009, the Delegation for Romani Issues timidly suggested an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to heal the wounds. To save its face as the champion of human rights and equality, the Swedish government would be well advised to seize the opportunity, open the archives, and establish an independent commission with a mandate to turn every stone .

About the author

Mattias Gardell holds the Nathan Söderblom Chair in Comparative Religion at Uppsala University, Sweden. His research focuses on the instersections of religion, politics, and racism.


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