Roma Civil Rights movement


Jan Selling

Sweden – narrative essay


The history of Romani emancipation in Sweden during the 20th century must be understood in the context of the construction of the post-war, Social Democratic welfare state project, Swedish accession to the European Union in 1995 and the rapid growth in the diversity of the Romani communities in Sweden, during the period 1990 to 2010. Roma were declared a Swedish national minority in 1999 (as were the Sami, the Tornedahl Finns, the Jews and the Swedish Finns), when the Swedish Parliament ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (9th February 2000). The Romani national minority was defined as consisting of five groups, referring to the historical periods of their immigration: the Resandefolket (often Resande or Travellers), the Swedish Romer (Roma), the Finnish Romer (Roma), non-Nordic Roma and recently arrived Rom1. In reality, this diversity is greater and has differing boundaries, than those described in official policy. Today, more than twenty dialects of Rromani-chib, or the Romani language are spoken in Sweden and the Romani population is usually estimated to be between 50,000 to 100,000 individuals2. Members of all these groups have, in different ways, had a political impact on the history of Romani emancipation in Sweden. Sometimes they have had separate agendas, but more often they have shared common goals.

Historical background

The evidence of a Romani presence in Sweden goes back to 1512, when thirty families of ‘Gypsies’ arrived in Stockholm from Helsinki, Finland ‘On Archangel St Michael’s Day (29th September) ...coming, it is said, from Little Egypt...’ and led by one Count Anthonius, as recorded in the Stockholm Tänkebok or Chronicle. The Swedish Romani group who today call themselves Resandefolket, are descendants of this migration and speak Scando–Romani or Resande–Romani.3 Influenced by the Lutheran Reformation in the German lands, Sweden’s King Gustav Wasa renounced allegiance to the Pope and Rome in 1527. The Uppsala Synod in 1593 made Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) Protestantism binding for the country and Sweden established a Lutheran state church.

In the following centuries, Romani people were excluded from society and faced severe persecution, through the official policies of the church and the state.4 Sections from the Romani population were pushed into the Finnish lands, which is one of the reasons for the common relationships (släktskap) between Swedish Resandefolket and Finnish Romani population or Kaale.5 There are many widely-known examples of good relationships between the rural gadje (non-Romani) population and the Resandefolket in Sweden.6 There are also examples from the 17th century of Resande being allowed to settle and take-up trade in cities and Romani men enlisting in the Swedish army.7 However, these examples of successful co-existence mainly occurred at the local level, or as a consequence of ad hoc decisions. The state and the church remained predominantly hostile to the Swedish Romani communities during these times.

At the end of the 19th century, a second group of Romani people emigrated from Russia to Sweden, mainly from Kelderash, Lovara , and Tjurari groups originating in Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia (Țara Moldovei in Rumanian), migrating after the abolition of Romani slavery between 1861 – 64. In Sweden’s implementation of the Framework Convention ... this second group of Roma is described as Swedish Roma.8 During the period from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, nationalism and scientific theories of racial biology, underpinned Swedish policy towards the Roma and Resande. The borders were officially closed for Roma immigration during the years 1914 to 1954, similar to Norway’s exclusion of Roma (from 1933 to 1956). The Swedish anti-Gypsy policy had a two-fold agenda towards these groups: the Resande (described at the time as Tattare), were seen as anti-social, ‘racially mixed’ Swedes and were persecuted through forced assimilation, sterilization and removal of their children into state foster care. The Swedish Roma (labelled as Zigenare, hence ‘antiziganism’) were seen as aliens and denied all civil and social rights, including those of access to housing and school education, with the official goal being to bring pressure to bear upon them, to leave the country. After the immigration ban was lifted in 1954, many Finnish Roma (Kaale), chose to live in Sweden because of the more promising labour market, just as many Finnish people did. During the 1970’s, a limited number of Lovari, Kelderash, Romungri and Tjurara from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland, were allowed to immigrate to Sweden (identified as non-Nordic Roma). Following the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s, several thousand Roma (Arli, Ghurbeti, Ashkali and Balkan Egyptians) were granted refugee status in Sweden. After the EU accession of Sweden (1st January 1995), it became possible for Roma from all of the EU Member States to seek residency in Sweden (becoming ‘recently arrived Roma’ in the official parlance).9

Early Swedish Romani activism

As early as 1933, the Swedish Kelderash spokesman, Johan Dimitri Taikon wrote a petition to the National Board of Education and demanded that the right of Roma children to attend schools was recognised, which was being denied at the time. He also offered to become a partner in the dialogue between the Swedish Roma and the state, in matters concerning Roma civil rights and responsibilities. This offer was turned down by the state, but following renewed petitions, Taikon secured a pilot project for the education of Romani children living in their encampments, over a period of three months of 1943.10 The constructive result from this pilot project was that some state officials realised, for the first time, that the Swedish Roma were willing to attend school. In 1947, a second Roma initiative was launched, by the less well-known Romani activist, Rupert Bersico. In a petition to the National Board of Justice, he urged a thorough state investigation into the situation of Swedish Roma. He regarded the temporary encampment schools as educationally worthless and insisted that the Roma must become permanently domiciled. He argued for housing projects, but also advocated a repression of the Romani ‘ambulant lifestyle’, as necessary and offered himself as a supervisor for this policy to be implemented.

This suggestion was also refused by the government but the impetus for change was now in place. In 1953, a parliamentary motion from the Swedish Communist Party demanded the investigation Bersico had asked for. Additionally, for the first time this also addressed the issue of the racial discrimination against Roma, arguing that it must be investigated and put to an end.11 The Social Democratic Party, in government at the time, answered this demand by setting up a major commission of inquiry in 1954. For the first time, the object of such a ‘Gypsy’ inquiry was not repression. The aim was declared to be the inclusion of the Swedish Roma in the over-arching welfare state project. The principal reason was that the old repressive policy had failed; Roma hadn’t left the country. Instead, the Roma minority, consisting of only around 700 individuals at the time, had now become an inexcusable illustration of remaining inequalities, challenging the notion of an equitable and modern society produced by the Swedish welfare system. Full citizenship and the recognition of Roma rights, including those to education and housing, were promised. Notably, this revision did not have any impact on the discrimination against Swedish Resande,12 who were not mentioned in the final report.

The centuries-old policy of open repression and anti-Gypsyism, enacted by the state had come to an end; however, the new policy was based on assimilation, which neglected minority rights and did not treat the Roma as equal partners. No work was done to challenge the continuing discrimination and wide spread anti-Gypsyism by authorities at all levels and amongst society at large. Most importantly, this new policy failed to fulfil its own goals. It is against this background that political activism amongst Swedish Roma emerged, during the 1960’s.

Katarina Taikon (Katharina Maria Taikon, Katarina Taikon-Langhammer, 1932–1995), Kaldarash Romni and the sister of the jeweller Rosa Taikon, …

The influence of Katarina Taikon

The importance13 of the author and activist Katarina Taikon for the Swedish Roma rights movement cannot be over-stated. Beyond Sweden, her influence was felt in other countries, especially Finland. She was not allowed to attend school as a child and learned how to read and write as an adolescent. Against all the odds, she became one of the most discussed authors of the 1960’s. Her autobiographical books Zigenerska (‘Gypsy’, 1963) and Zigenare är vi (‘Gypsies Are We’, 1967), effectively challenged prevailing stereotypes in Swedish society and Swedish discrimination towards the Roma, but she also criticised patriarchal structures within the Kelderash community. With an exceptional intellect and sense of passionate engagement, she appeared just as the time was ripe for demands to recognise Roma rights in Sweden.

Gellert Tamas | Taikon | Non Fiction | Sweden | 2015 | fil_00378 Rights held by: Björn Langhammer | Licensed by: Birgitta Langhammer — Anna Sigurðardóttir Langhammer | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 4.0 International | Provided by: Birgitta Langhammer – Private Archive

She was fearless in confronting leading politicians during debates. The basis of her engagement was the fight for recognising human rights, inspired by the civil rights movement of that era, in the USA. Her activism was secular and inclusive, in the sense that she engaged herself not only on behalf of her own community, but also forged alliances with other, non-Romani communities. In 1964, she founded the Roma rights organization Zigenarsamfundet, together with the publicist, Evert Kumm and the physician John Takman. During the years 1965 – 1973, Zigenarsamfundet published a journal called Zigenaren: Amé Beschas. In 1967 she successfully led protests for the rights of Polish Roma and Italian Roma refugees, to be granted leave to remain in Sweden. She described herself as a Social Democrat; however, as the SD government in 1969 expelled a group of French, Italian and Spanish Roma to an uncertain destiny, she lost confidence in the ability of political institutions to achieve change. She described this as the reason why she started to write autobiographical books, inspired by her own childhood, about the Swedish Romani girl Katitzi, which became an international success. She later wrote, ‘If things are to change, we need to start with the children’. In 1982 she suffered a heart attack and never regained consciousness before she died in 1995.

Angelica Ström | The Rosa Taikon Lecture at Södertörn University | Non Fiction | Sweden | Nov. 27, 2014 | rom_00012 Rights held by: Rosa Taikon (lecture) / Södertörn University (video) I Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International I Provided by Södertörn University (Huddinge/Schweden)

Amongst her closest allies in civil rights activism were her sister, Rosa Taikon and Hans Caldaras.14 Thomas Hammarberg, was also a close colleague and ally from the non-Romani society. Another activist to be mentioned in this context is the Finnish Kaale, Aleka Stobin, a key figure of the organisations Stockholms Finska Zigenarförening and the Nordiska Zigenarrådet during the 1970’s and the 1980’s.15

National minority rights and the policy of inclusion

In February 2000 the Swedish parliament ratified the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, which came into force 1st June 2000 and guaranteed political, social and cultural rights. Roma were acknowledged as a Swedish national minority.16 In contrast with Norway, who ratified the Framework Convention... in March 1999, the Swedish decision included the Tattare or Resandefolket, as part of the Romani minority. One result, which distinguishes Sweden from Norway in this case, is that the exonyms Tattare and Zigenare disappear from official language, in favour of the terms Romer and Resandefolket. Another was that the Resande group, which had officially been unrecognised since 1945, yet suffered continuous discrimination, were finally recognised.17 A final result was that the wider society was forced to critically deal with the history of the anti-Gypsyism of the past. In 2000, the Swedish Church and the government officially apologized for their treatment of Romani people. In 2014, a White Paper on the Abuses and Violations of the Rights of Roma During the 1900’s18 was published, and a Commission to tackle anti-Gypsyism established. Even though these measures could be criticised as unsatisfactory, the issue of anti-Gypsyism has been established on the political agenda.

Looking ahead

Notwithstanding the improvements in many areas, important issues remain unresolved. The life prospects of Romani people in Sweden are still limited by structural anti-Gypsyism19 and discrimination, Roma organizations in Sweden are weak and nobody could overlook the situation of EU migrants begging in Sweden, reflecting the European dimension of anti-Gypsyism and re-activating stereotypes, which are exploited in the populist discourse in Sweden and the Nordic states.

However, the former policies of assimilation and integration, as a means of pursuing ‘inclusion’, have been officially abandoned – if not always so in practice. The recognition of national minority status started a process of developing policies at the local level. Special attention was given to the issue of the revitalisation of suppressed cultural identities and languages, particularly through language education.20 Södertörn University in southern Stockholm began programmes for Roma mediators and Romani language teachers. A growing number of Roma activists, representing differing sub-groups, have been consulted during policy processes, gaining a public voice, among them Soraya Post, who was elected in 2014 to the EU Parliament, as a member of the Swedish Feminist Initiative. Several Roma organizations have established a permanent structure, whilst Romani literature in Swedish and Rromani-chib is growing. There is also reason to believe that the efforts for Roma inclusion in higher education will provide a basis for higher social mobility. The long march for Romani recognition by Swedish institutions has only begun.

Soraya Post comments on the Swedish government's 'White paper' on Romani and Travellers rights | Non Fiction | Sweden | March 25, 2014 | rom_00010 Licensed and provided by: Swedish Government — Cultural Department of the Government Office I Licensed under: Rights of Use

Rights held by: Jan Selling | Licensed by: Jan Selling | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 3.0 Germany | Provided by: RomArchive