Sweden: The first step toward integration is to change the narrative on migration

By Anna Malmi
A group of young refugees in the Swedish town of Simrishamn.

Young refugees during an excursion in the town of Simrishamn, Sweden organised by the volunteer organization REACT.

It’s been one year now since the “migration crisis” peaked in Europe and over 35,000 unaccompanied migrant children arrived to Sweden in 2015, mainly from Afghanistan and Syria, but also from Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia, nine in ten being boys. I started working in a transit shelter, squeezing the journeys of over a hundred teenager boys aged between 13-17 years old. A sweaty sports hall in the southern Swedish city of Malmö, previously a space for recreation and education, almost overnight turned into a site of crisis and insecurity. Or at least this was the picture people would have of my workplace.

It might seem outdated that I’ve decided to write about this a year later. However, following the events taking place in Calais- children being left sleeping on the streets and confronted by the police with “riot shields, tear gas and taser guns”  as reported by the Guardian, I feel the urgency to comment on the topic.

As I work with migration, it is a part of my daily routine to monitor media reporting on the various migration flows taking place all around the world, often triggered by global inequalities as well as insecurities, war and conflict situations- and it is too vague to say that I am simply disgusted by it.

For example, if you make a quick search of the word “ensamkommande” — Swedish for “unaccompanied or separated migrant child” — on the websites of the major newspapers in the country, you’ll discover a disturbing depiction of the media’s current reporting on those who, willingly or unwillingly, crossed the border without their guardians.

Nearly all articles about unaccompanied migrant children feature sensationalist headlines which report knife attacks, brawling, sexual harassment, increasing insecurity in host communities, budget deficiencies, lack of resources, inadequate living conditions, learning problems, disappearances, Tuberculosis infections in schools, threats and violence.

The reader is left with the impression that the Swedish society is on the verge of a social welfare Armageddon lead by foreign young males with nascent moustaches invading the country, a form of validation to nationalist conspiracy paranoia.

I am stunned, wondering where these narratives are created. There is not denying that problems with integration exist, suggesting otherwise would prompt a kind of blind naiveté that is more harmful than helpful, but the narrative I am presented simply does not correspond to the reality I experienced with these very same children almost every day for half a year. An everyday life filled with young boys ready to learn Swedish, longing to go to school, teenagers who would make their beds every morning and wash their own clothes, with whom we would read books, play games, sing, dance, talk and laugh.

But our narratives are so fixated on differences that we are simply unable to read and interpret the similarities. For some reason, the children arriving by themselves to Sweden are framed and treated as adults, as if they had left their right to be children at the border. The recent evidence of this being the Swedish government’s decision to diminish by a third the daily budget devoted to housing for unaccompanied migrant children, meaning less adult presence to take care of them, to help with home work, to answer their questions or just to talk to about their day. As Malin Claesson a social worker at Malmö Municipality says:

I came one morning to one of the boys, and I would wake him up for school. He is 15 and from Syria and been in Sweden for about 10 months now. He is usually awake when I go to his room to wake him up. I said good morning and we were talking, he put on speaker a voice message he received during the night. It was a woman who was speaking in Arabic, and he smiled eyes full of tears. He explained that it was his mother who is still in Syria, that every morning she sends him a voice message, says that he has to behave well, study a lot, be a good student, and that she misses him. It is those moments, when you realise that these boys are so young… not everyone who comes is 25 and lies about their age as the media prefers to portray.

I continue my search online and find comfort when, despite its rarity, a few articles do tell the story about the outstanding individuals together with migrant children making efforts for integration, organising common activities and creating associations to provide spaces where both the newly-arrived youth and the ones who’ve been there longer can meet together with those who are Swedish by birth.

Malin Claesson, continues explaining that “living with 15-20 other migrant children from the same or other country, some with residency permits others in the beginning of their asylum process, and often constantly being moved from one place to another, makes it rather difficult to become a part of the “Swedish society”. Most of the boys, go to school and have learned Swedish, sometimes they call just to practice, only a few have succeeded in making a Swedish friend. It would be easier if, the Swedish kids would be a bit more open- or better said if there would be more spaces where the youth can meet in a natural and relaxed way”.

The new asylum laws came into effect in Sweden on June of this year, guaranteeing those asylum seekers with identified need for protection and those who are given a refugee status a residency permit for three years. This implies that most of the children are likely to face deportation in the future, which according to Maha Suliman, my former colleague, is not really helpful for integration.

There is so much hate and fear toward the migrant children right now, it is important for integration that a person feels that you are allowed to and you have the chance to be part of the society. If you don’t feel any sense of belonging, it is so easy that instead of integrating you end up in isolation which then leads you to take wrong paths, especially in such a vulnerable age.

It feels quite straightforward that it is difficult to convince anyone to learn the local language and to eat meatballs at Ikea, or whatever parameter of integration is used, if the expulsion letter is waiting you in your future mailbox.

The negative and problem-centered focus of the prevailing political and media discourse on migration is both victimizing and blaming. It ascribes essential attributes to migrants and refugees creating individual and group identities from outside without any necessary basis for their existence. If you are constantly referred in the public discourse as a criminal, as a problem, if at school you are only evaluated in terms of what you cannot instead of what you can do, there is a high risk that you will start assimilating such identity and act accordingly. On the other hand, if you are continuously fed with negative information about migrant children, it is also not a shock that you start seeing them as a threat.

The issue with a singular narrative is that it abolishes the plurality inherent in every person and reduces them to a tag carved with their date of arrival and country of origin. It ignores the subjects behind the numbers, the uniqueness of their everyday lives and migratory trajectories of each one of them. As the praised Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated in her talk at United Nations World Humanitarian Day “No one is never only a refugee”.

It both objectifies and dehumanizes those on the move, but it also criminalizes them without any legal justification to do so, making different forms of subordination appear legitimate- ultimately leading to the loss of ability to feel empathy.

I feel people around me are slowly becoming numb to the atrocities, however it is vital to understand that we are not powerless. We can transform the wave of exclusion, racism and xenophobia swaying over parts of Europe. We can start by telling a different side of the story of migration – changing the narrative. Integration is not only the government’s responsibility on a macro level to design migrant sensitive and inclusive policies. Integration does not acquire meaning on the paper; it is also about enacting these policies on the micro level. It is everyone’s right and concern to give the new neighbours the chance to become part of the society. Integration is about me inviting my new colleague over a cup of tea, it is about you asking the woman with the head scarf on the bus about her day, it is about them inviting the newly arrived to play football on the same team. It is about acknowledging that everyone is a person, with different needs, tastes, stories and dreams, and most importantly that everyone is a person with the right to dignity.


About the author:

Anna Malmi is a Migration and Health professional currently based in Nairobi, with background in international development work and research in Latin America, Central Asia and Africa. She holds a MA in Social Welfare Policies and Management from University of Lund in Sweden and her main interests lie in social development, migration, gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights. She enjoys drinking coffee, hiking mountains and taking photos – preferably all at the same time.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Human Nations and any of its campaigns and projects.

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