The Roma (or gypsy) community of Sweden are reeling over revelations that the national police force kept a secret file with information on nearly 5,000 Roma, including 1,000 children, many of whom have never committed a crime. The Local newspaper reported that the database not only likely breaks several national laws, but also raises questions about the rights of this unique minority community that has called Sweden home for five centuries.
The Dagens Nyheter newspaper reported that police confirmed the existence of the file, after denying it, then added that they did not “sanction” its creation. DN explained that the files include a family tree showing the inter-relationships between hundreds of individual Roma, as well as identity numbers for each. In addition, the file was marked by the Swedish word "Kringresande," meaning “itinerants,” a likely reference to the stereotype of the Roma’s nomadic lifestyle.
The file was apparently created by police in the southern Swedish city of Lund in May of 2012, but includes information that long precedes that date. Police across Sweden, including Skåne County police, the National Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm, and intelligence agencies in various cities, reportedly use the data in various investigations. "A record for the sole purpose of describing the Roma and their relations with each other is not in line with our conditions and is not something that has … been commissioned by the authorities," Lars Förstell, a spokesman for the Skåne police, told the Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT) news agency of Sweden. Thus it remains unclear which police authorities endorsed the creation and monitoring of the data.
Nonetheless, attorneys told the newspaper DN that the files violate the European Convention on Human Rights, police data laws, and the laws that generally forbid police surveillance registries. "Is 'itinerants' a euphemism for being Roma and if so a registry based on ethnic background? It's prohibited to create a registry solely based on those grounds," an expert in constitutional law named Johan Hirschfeldt told DN.
Roma in Sweden are outraged. "Why are the police keeping tabs on Roma?” asked a Roma woman named Sandra Häkansson, whose entire family is listed in the database, according to The Local. “It's racism. It's creepy that my children are in there.” Indeed, children as young as 2 were found in the registry, as well as the names of hundreds of dead people. Ralf Novak Rosengren, a prominent Roma musician, warned the database raised the specter of Nazi Germany, which persecuted and killed many Roma. "This shows that people are not learning from history," he told BBC. "Outside in Europe there are a lot of right-wing people, fascists, people like that, and that's what we're afraid of."
Marcello Demeterak, a 42-year-old Roma man who lives in Stockholm, found out that he, his wife, three children and at least three grandchildren were all on the police registry. "My first thought was of [Adolf] Hitler and of what has happened in the past. It is terrible," Demeter told Associated Press. "If it is a crime registry, do they mean all Roma are criminals? And my grandchild, in what way is she a criminal?"
The list also includes white-collar professionals. "When I saw this I got scared," a journalist named Adam Szoppe with Sweden’s Romany broadcaster, who found his and his family’s name and addresses on the list, told BBC.
But police deny that the list was driven by any ethnic considerations at all and that the registry is used to fight violent crime and gang warfare in the southern part of the country, suggesting most of the names were somehow linked to criminality. "This mapping register is all about fighting a criminal network. It is not about ethnicity," police spokeswoman Monica Nebelius told DN. However, DN Editor Peter Wolodarski rejected this assertion. "We've been in touch with a lot of people in the database and clearly it's their Roma identity which is the common denominator here," he told BBC.
The larger issue, beyond the legality of the police files, is the precarious place of Roma in Swedish society. Niklas Orrenius, the reporter who first uncovered the list’s existence, told BBC that Roma represent the last ethnic group in the country against which it is “acceptable” to discriminate. "I have met many Roma people on the list, and they said they don't believe the police [are] preparing ethnic cleansing or something like that, but they're scared because this is a state-controlled register of thousands of Roma, and who knows who'll be in charge of Sweden in 20 years and what they will use it for," he said. The former head of the liberal Folkpartiet, Maria Leissner, characterized the register as a "hate crime.”
As in most parts of Europe, Roma in Sweden suffer from high unemployment (80 percent), poor education, substandard housing, and social isolation and deprivation. "When I was about 13 and went to seventh grade they were asking me, 'Why are you going to school, what do you think you're going to be when you get older? You're a Roma, a gipsy,'" Szoppe explained. "The teachers did not believe in me, even when I went to high school. They would ask me if I can dance and sing and they didn't believe that I could graduate from school like other people."
The Roma community is Sweden is believed to number some 50,000, but it is impossible to verify since many Roma do not publicly admit to their ethnic heritage to avoid discrimination. The actual number may be as high as 120,000,
Indeed, as recently as in the mid-1970s, some Roma women were forcibly sterilized in Sweden while some Roma children were removed from their parents. "Roma are pushed to the margins of society due to discrimination in relation to housing, employment and education … and used as scapegoats for wider societal problems," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's European Institutions Office.
"We are not criminals," added Demeter. "Who is going to protect us when police think all Roma people are criminals?"
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.