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Does Sweden have a racial profiling problem?

A recent campaign by Stockholm police to crack down on illegal immigrants by racial profiling at the city’s subway turnstiles has formed the backdrop to a reignited debate about racism, as Sweden struggles to match a welcoming refugee policy with the task of deporting those who are refused.

Under Swedish law, foreigners are required to carry their passport at all times, and can only be asked for them by police if there is a reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime.

But despite that restriction, police in the Swedish capital reportedly began conducting stops this year of subway commuters they “suspected of being in Sweden illegally” in an effort to crack down on illegal immigration.

“I had a ticket to be in the subway,” Gonzalo Munos, a Swede whose parents are from Chiletold Swedish Television after a police officer had asked him in English to see his ID in the subway. “He said ‘I would like to see your passport, you are suspected of being in Sweden illegally.'”

Several parties in parliament have decried the reported police methods as illegal. “We know that there is structural racism in Sweden,” says Christina Höj Larsen, spokesperson on migration issues for the opposition Left Party. “When the police do these things on political orders, they amplify discrimination.”

In the Stockholm subway, Inspector Larsson with the city police, who declined to give her first name, says she has not been ordered to target illegal immigrants. But, she admits, “we do perform ID checks on people suspected of crimes.”

And the subway ID checks follow explicit instructions from Justice Minister Beatrice Ask of the Moderate Party to “markedly increase” the number of deportations, a priority for the government over the past five years.

Immigration crackdown

Increasing the number of deportations and streamlining the administrative process surrounding them has been a priority for Sweden’s center-right government over the past five years. In that time, the number of police ID checks on foreigners inside the country’s borders has gone up tenfold – from just over 1,000 per year in Stockholm in 2007 to nearly 12,000 last year. 

With the police’s subway presence now on the public’s radar, even police officers have expressed concerns over a waste of resources, and of racial profiling.

Minister Ask told Swedish Radio she isn’t worried by accounts of profiling by appearance, and said in parliament that anyone who has been refused asylum or residence permit must leave Sweden for the country’s system of regulated immigration to work.

“If we are to maintain a migration policy which from a European perspective is one of the most humane, and one of the smartest, those who are denied the right to stay in Sweden have to leave,” says Johan Pehrson, migration spokesperson for another government coalition party, the Liberals.

Still, the public backlash has caused the police to rethink their approach. In March, the unit responsible for around half of the ID checks on foreigners in Stockholm in January – the city’s border police – announced it would stop checking IDs in the subway.

‘Blonde and blue-eyed’

The backlash has also sparked a wider debate on the status of illegal immigrants and racial prejudice.

Author Jonas Hassen Khemiri, son of a Tunisian father and Swedish mother, suggested in daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter that he and Ask “swap skin” to experience other forms of discrimination – he as a female politician and she as a non-white Swede.

In response, Ask told Swedish Television she did understand and condemned oppression on the basis of skin color, citing a stint as an exchange student in the 1970s in AkronOhio, where her host family was African-American.

And in an interview with daily Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s Migration Minister Tobias Billström said those who hide refused asylum seekers from authorities aren’t “at all blonde and blue-eyed” but rather are “countrymen” of the migrants who exploit them as labor.

Outrage followed, with Twitter users showing their discontent with a customized hashtag. “Not blonde and blue-eyed. Tobias Billström can never be my minister,” read a tweet from journalist Maria Georgieva.

Sweden’s shifting demographics

OECD figures show a steady increase in Sweden’s foreign-born population between 2000 and 2010, jumping from about 8 percent of the population to nearly 12 percent.  In 2010, nearly 80,000 foreigners immigrated to Sweden: a number comparable to neighboring Norway but significantly higher than in Denmark and Finland. In 2010 and 2011 the annual number of asylum seekers in Sweden sat between those of the more populous United Kingdom and Germany  although only a third of the 36,000 asylum applications handled by the Swedish Migration Boardlast year were granted.

By the end of 2011, around 15 percent of Sweden’s population was born abroad, an increase of nearly two percent since five years ago, with Finland as the most common country of origin followed by Iraq and Poland.

Such figures, or exaggerations of them, have made up the core rhetoric of the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party in parliament since 2010 that formed from racist movements during the 1990s.

Ms. Höj Larsen of the Left Party sees the police’s turnstile presence as a tangible result of the debate on immigration issues shifting in recent years.

“As a Dane, I saw the same developments there a number of years ago. The xenophobic party isn’t welcomed into party politics as such, but others begin to adopt its ideas and rhetoric. What arises is a clearer distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I did not like that in Denmark, and I do not like it here.”

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