Stockholm, Sweden – Immigrants in Sweden have reacted with shock and disappointment after a far-right party gained enough votes to become the country’s third-largest in the September 14 parliamentary elections.
“I’m going back to Africa,” said Sadia Xassan Shire, an immigrant from Somalia. “I want my children to feel like first-class citizens. It’s sad but it feels like no matter how well you speak Swedish, and how many degrees and jobs you have, you will always be seen as the black girl with a scarf.”
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The Sweden Democrats (SD), an anti-immigration party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, won 12.9 percent of votes cast – more than doubling the 5.7 percent of votes won in the 2010 election.
Berivan Roozbayani, an insurance company manager who came to Sweden from Iraqi Kurdistan when she was eight-years old, said she felt hurt by the poll outcome.
“I was in mourning, I went to work the following day dressed in black, and many of my fellow colleagues did the same,” she said.
I don't believe that these voters want to throw immigrants out. I think that what they want is for someone to acknowledge the problems of the retired, the working class, the unemployed and so on. No one has really listened to them.
The election saw the centre-left opposition beat the ruling centre-right bloc by a narrow margin. The big gains by SD, which both blocs refuse to cooperate with, have resulted in complicated political bargaining. Social Democrats’ Prime Minister-designate Stefan Lovfen has to make sure he can rule the country without the support of an absolute majority in parliament.
Shire lives in the Stockholm suburb of Bromsten where 10.6 percent voted for SD. She said it is frightening to think that anyone she meets could be a racist under a friendly surface – even neighbours who smile and wave to her from their windows.
“That’s the scary bit, they are everywhere and we don’t know who is real and who is not,” the teacher, who came to Sweden when she was 11, told Al Jazeera.
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Yasri Khan Shamsudin, president of the Muslim Peace Movement, and a member of the Green Party, shares the same sentiment.
“It’s terrible because now when you go to work and you take the subway, you look around and basically one out of six people on the train is a person that doesn’t want you to be in the country,” he said.
“It’s a depressing message, but it did not come as a surprise. We have seen the rest of Europe go in this direction.”
Shamsudin, born in Sweden and of Malaysian origin, said society has not tackled racism in a sufficient way, and the election results reflect that.
Sweden is internationally renowned for its generous immigration policies. According to the Swedish Migration Board, Sweden received about 50,000 immigrants in the first eight months of 2014 – a huge increase from 27,000 during the same period last year. Most of the refugees come from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The Sweden Democrats want to cut immigration to 10 percent of current levels, and help potential refugees in their own countries rather than allow them to come to Sweden. It also wants to issue temporary residence permits for asylum seekers that will be cancelled when the conflicts they fled end.
The party has also spoken out against Islam, calling it an ideology that “destabilises” the world.
While campaigning ahead of the election, Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson said “Islamism is the Nazism and Communism of our time”, and it needs to be treated with the same hatred.
In the lead up to the vote, several party representatives were expelled after revelations of racist comments they made. But efforts to clean up the party’s image have not been enough to convince a majority of Swedes that it’s not xenophobic.
Sumaya Ata Abdulkadir, a recruitment coach who came to Sweden from Eritrea at the end of the 1980s, said: “It doesn’t matter if they deny it, you can see the undertone of Islamophobia and racism in their manifesto.”
But she said she does not believe the almost 13 percent of Swedes who voted for the Sweden Democrats is necessarily racist.
Instead, she attributed the party’s gains to increasing gaps between the middle class and the working class.
“I don’t believe that these voters want to throw immigrants out. I think that what they want is for someone to acknowledge the problems of the retired, the working class, the unemployed and so on. No one has really listened to them.”
A May survey by the Sifo institute of attitudes towards immigration suggested 44 percent of Swedes believe the country has taken in too many refugees. But other surveys of attitudes towards immigration show Swedes have actually become more tolerant of immigration in the last two decades. In 1990, 61 percent agreed the country should restrict the intake of foreigners.
Andrej Kokkonen, a political analyst and researcher at Gothenburg University, told Al Jazeera a sizable minority are dissatisfied with the current immigration policy.
“Even if tolerance has gone up and hostility towards immigrants has decreased, there is still a large minority that is intolerant and doesn’t want too many immigrants in Sweden. I don’t think that these factors have to contradict each other.”
Kokkonen said the SD’s efforts to clean up its image is another important factor behind the party’s success.
“The SD have distanced themselves from their past, especially from the racist grassroots and tried to become more liberal in their campaign language, and I think they have succeeded to a large extent,” Kokkonen said.
In a live 2009 debate on state TV, Sweden Democrats leader Akesson, said: “We need to drastically limit immigration to Sweden, especially from Muslim countries.” When the presenter asked if that meant Muslims don’t have the right to come here, his reply was: “Yes, exactly.”
Despite its anti-immigration policies, SD has managed to attract some supporters with immigrant backgrounds.
The problem is the structure in society that doesn't allow people to ever become fully Swedish. This is the product of a failed structure in society.
One of them is Nima Gholam Ali Pour, a student who came to Sweden from Iran in 1988, when he was five-years old. He is now a Sweden Democrat party member. Ali Pour does not see a contradiction between having immigrated to Sweden and being part of a party that wants to slash immigration.
He also denied accusations that the party is racist.
“In SD’s manifesto we talk about open Swedishness and how everyone can become part of Sweden,” he said.
According to Ali Pour, anyone is welcome to join the party, including Muslims. But when asked if there are any Muslim members, he said, “No.”
Ali Pour said Muslims typically have problems integrating into Swedish society, and that some try to make Islam part of everyday politics and part of Swedish society.
The week after the election, many Swedes reacted with dismay over the result, and anti-racism rallies have been held in the capital.
On Facebook, activists are urging Swedes of immigrant backgrounds to strike and not go to work on October 1. Organisers told Swedish media they want to show the country that immigrants are an asset to Sweden, rather than a burden.
Khim Efraimsson, a native Swede who converted to Islam, said it is good for the 87 percent who do not support SD to understand there is racism in Sweden. But he added it was ignorance more than genuine racism that led to people casting votes for SD.
“The problem is the structure in society that doesn’t allow people to ever become fully Swedish. This is the product of a failed structure in society.”
Efraimsson said to counter the far-right, politicians and ordinary people need to speak openly about immigration and racism, and engage Sweden Democrat voters.
|Sadia Shire [Fatma Naib/Al Jazeera]
“If one in six is voting for SD then it’s important to talk to them. Not all hate Muslims and immigration.”
Shamsudin from the Muslim Peace Movement said in order to prevent SD from gaining more votes in the next election, it is crucial to involve people with immigrant backgrounds to debate openly with SD politicians – to get SD to talk with, rather than about, people with multicultural backgrounds.
Unlike Shire, who wants to go back to Africa, Shamsudin said leaving Sweden is not an option.
“This is my country. I’m going to fight for my right to be here. I’m going to fight for my children’s right to be here and my parents’ right to be here. So that’s totally out of the question.”