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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Sweden : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date September 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Sweden : Overview, September 2009, available at: [accessed 9 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Sweden occupies about two-thirds of the Scandinavian peninsula. It shares a border with Norway in the west, Finland in the north-east, and Denmark in the south-west.


Main languages: Swedish, Finnish

Main religions: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden (87%), Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist

Minority groups include Finns 450,000 (5%), Roma 35,000–40,000, Jews 25,000 and Sami 15,000–20,000 and other ethnic groups such as former Yugoslavs, Iranians, Kurds, Roma, Turks.1

Finnish-speakers have lived in the north of Sweden since before the Swedish state existed. There are also large numbers of more recent Finnish immigrants to Sweden.

Sami are indigenous to Scandinavia. There is a far larger population in Norway, and they are also found in Finland and Russia.

Sweden recruited foreign workers from 1947 onwards to work in the expanding industrial sector. Migrant workers came mainly from Finland, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and, particularly following the 1967 coup, Greece.


Sweden has been a constitutional monarchy since 1809. Norway, its western neighbour, was united with Sweden until it became independent in 1905. When still a predominantly agricultural country in the nineteenth century, Sweden experienced massive emigration; one-fifth of its population left, mainly to find arable land and work in the USA.

Sweden's long tradition of abstention from wars and military alliances, its almost unbroken period of government by the Social Democratic Labour Party between 1932 and 1976, and its apparently successful combination of industrial capitalism with a strong welfare state made it for many years a European model of social and political stability. In the 1990s, however, economic problems led to cutbacks in welfare services, and, for the first time since the 1930s, there was large-scale unemployment.

Except for Nordic citizens and family reunion, worker immigration was regulated in 1967 and stopped in 1972. After 1970, Sweden began to receive refugees from, first, Latin America and, later, the Middle East and former Yugoslavia. More than 50 per cent of the immigrant population are naturalized Swedes.


Sweden recognizes five national minorities – the Sami, the Swedish Finns, the Tornedalers, the Roma and the Jews. Because of their historic presence on Swedish territory, each of these groups is considered to be a part of Sweden's cultural heritage. Minority policy is shaped by the 1998 National Minorities in Sweden Government Act, by the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. Sweden ratified both the European treaties in 2000. Official minority languages are Sami, Finnish, Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish) Romany Chib and Yiddish. Special laws have been adopted which entitle individuals to use Sami, Finnish and Meänkieli in dealings with administrative authorities and courts of law in the geographical areas (administrative areas) in which these languages have traditionally been used and are still widely used today. Children of minority groups in Sweden have a right to teaching in their mother tongue; Finns of Tornedalen, Sami and Roma/Gypsies have special rights in this respect.

In addition to its national minorities, the Swedish Constitution also makes provision for the promotion of opportunities 'for ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own'; and it states that 'a foreigner within the Realm shall be equated with a Swedish citizen in respect of protection against discrimination on grounds of race, skin colour, ethnic origin, or sex'. The everyday racism and xenophobia experienced by members of new minorities are a matter of serious concern. In 2003, the Centre against Racism was established with the aid of government funds. It is a non-profit organization created through a broad association of many different organizations. Its activities include efforts to combat racism, xenophobia including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Ziganism (hatred of Roma), and homophobia and discrimination. That same year, the Swedish government adopted new legislation providing greater protection against discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation and functional disability. An Ombudsman Against Ethnic Discrimination was created to prevent discrimination and monitor compliance with the new regulations.

The unemployment rate among Sweden's new minorities is well above the national average; and despite having a higher-than-average degree of education, non-nationals work disproportionately in monotonous and physically strenuous jobs and for low earnings. In the education and labour market sectors a range of different measures are being taken to increase employment among immigrants, including improved introduction programmes for newly arrived immigrants, more effective Swedish language training, bridging courses, validation of foreign qualifications and labour market policy measures.

In previous years, Sweden's refusal to recognize Sami legal and resource rights has made Sami culture and identity vulnerable. Legislation limiting traditional hunting and fishing rights has caused huge protests. Swedish Sami resorted to legal action to defend themselves and their rights, taking cases to the UN Human Rights Commission and the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the national courts. In 2002, a Boundaries Delimitation Committee was appointed by the Swedish government to identify those areas that the Sami could use for reindeer grazing. The committee's remit was to identify both the areas exclusively used by the Sami and also those areas not exclusively used by the Sami but which they nevertheless have historically had access to for their subsistence and traditional activities. In addition to the Boundaries Delimitation Committee, the Swedish government also appointed a Special Investigator to examine the possibility of extending the Finnish administrative district. It later decided that the investigator, Paavo Vallius, should also clarify the grounds for and extent of Sami villagers' and landowners' hunting and fishing rights. It is hoped that these investigations will give rise to new legislation resolving many of the outstanding issues related to Sami lands and their resources.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

In 2006, the Office of the Ombudsman against Ethnic Discrimination received a further SEK 6.5 million to enable it to implement more powerful and far-reaching initiatives. At the same time, the Swedish government established new anti-discrimination bureaus in several municipalities. These bureaus will work to prevent and counteract discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, sex and disability.

A two-year employment package was implemented in 2006–7, which will give around 55,000 people the opportunity of a job, work experience, education or training. Most of the measures will take place within the framework of labour market policy. Priority will be given to long-term unemployed women and men of foreign background.

Both the final version of the Special Investigator's report on Finnish and Southern Sami administrative areas, and the report of the Boundaries Delimitation.

On 4 June 2008 a new Discrimination Act was adopted by the Swedish Parliament, which entered into force on 1 January 2009. The Act outlaws discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, transgender and age. It also established a new watchdog, the Equality Ombudsman. Katri Linna, the former Ombudsman against Ethnic Discrimination took up this post.

According to national population statistics, up to the first quarter of 2009, the largest group who immigrated to Sweden were Swedish citizens (3857), followed by Iraqis (2451) and Somali citizens (1305). The numbers of Poles and Romanians who immigrated has decreased by a third compared to the first quarter of 2008. In total 389 Afghans immigrated during the first quarter of the year, which is nearly twice as many as during the same period in 2008. 49 percent of all immigrants were women and 51 percent were men. There are about 100 568 individuals with African background in Sweden, and the largest African group in Sweden are Somalis, about 25 159 people.2

According to Swedish members of the European Network Against Racism, individuals originally coming from Middle East and Africa are subject to greater levels of racism and discrimination. Roma also face widespread discrimination. According to a 2005 report submitted to the OSCE by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Sweden has the largest number of Roma in the Nordic countries with about 50 000 Roma living in Sweden. In August 2009 MRG raised concerns about the practice of Swedish authorities to force Roma to return to Kosovo where they face continuous discrimination and violation of their human rights. MRG warned, that 'Sweden should ensure that before it returns Kosovo Roma, circumstances are created which allow them to live in dignity and without discrimination, and no-one should ever be returned to a situation where they face persecution. Although Roma under special protection may be offered some return assistance if they 'agree' to return, most are placed on planes without any aid and dropped at the airport in Kosovo without any support in terms of housing, employment or healthcare.'

Amnesty International also criticised Sweden for a low level of protection given to asylum-seekers from Iraq. In their 2009 country report Amnesty International (AI) cited the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) which raised serious concerns about the practice of Swedish authorities to keep asylum-seekers in detention before deportation without any time-limits set by law. According to the AI report, based on the reasoning that there was no internal armed conflict in Iraq, most new applications for asylum were rejected by the Migration Board. In February 2008, an agreement was reached by Sweden and Iraq, whereby rejected asylum-seekers could be forcibly returned to Iraq. Prior to this, majority of asylum-seekers from Iraq had received some form of protection as only Iraqi nationals who agreed to be returned were accepted by the Iraqi authorities.

As regards immigration policies, a new regulatory framework came into effect on 15 December 2008 (included in the Government Bill 2007/08:147), which gives the extended powers to the Migration Board to consider applications for work permits. Furthermore, the new regulations give the employer, and not public authorities, the right to determine whether there is a need to employ a third country national.


1 Statistics Sweden, 31 December 1994, cited in Swedish Report to the Council of Europe on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, 2001, ACFC/SR (2001)003,

2 Statistics Sweden, 13 May, 2009,

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