The Happiest and the Most Racist: Institutional Racism in Nordic Countries

Of note:

The Nordic countries are well known for topping charts globally in education, equality, and happiness levels. Nordic welfare systems provide citizens with myriad state benefits and free healthcare and education from pre-school to university. However, in The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ “Being Black in the EU” study, Finland has also topped the charts for something far more insidious as well: racism.

Based on the study made in 2018, 63 percent of people of African descent in Finland have experienced racially motivated harassment, compared to a group average of 30 percent in the 12 European Union states surveyed. In both Denmark and Sweden, the number was 41 percent.

Besides the EU survey, another study showed that the coronavirus death rate in Sweden was 220 percent higher among people born outside the country. In an interview with the HPR, Vesa Puuronen, a researcher on racism and sociology professor at the University of Oulu, commented that “it can be partially blamed on the lack of instructions in minority languages. [Without access to adequate information] those individuals could not act in the appropriate way to be spared from the virus.”

A study shows that in Finland views on immigration have become less tolerant in the past five years. In 2015, 65 percent of the Finnish population strongly disagreed with the statement that the “white European race must be prevented from mixing into darker races because otherwise, the European autochthonous population will go extinct”, but in 2020 the number had decreased to 56.

Segregation problems can be found all across Nordic territories. Iceland recently introduced a custom-designed car to carry out border surveillance, which has been used to disproportionately target Albanians and Romanians; such practices have been criticized as racial profiling. In Denmark, the government has compiled a “ghetto list” of neighborhoods for a decade; new proposals of dealing with the neighborhoods have been identified  by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as “hugely troubling and risks heightening racial discrimination against people of migrant origin – further ‘ghettoising’ them.”

In Sweden, segregated neighborhoods have long been considered a major problem, which has also become a tool for the right-wing to oppose immigration. Nationalist parties overall have been on the rise in Europe, and the Nordic countries are at a breaking point. If Nordic nations want to keep taking pride in their progressiveness and egalitarianism, definitive steps against racism must be taken now.

Systemic Racism in Academic and Professional Settings 

Nordic countries have free and well-working education, but there is inequality embedded in the same system that has been admired worldwide. The 2020 OECD report about Finland criticizes that their education is unevenly distributed. In an interview with the HPR, Michaela Moua, a senior officer at the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman in Finland, recognizes racially motivated guidance in schools, especially in the Finnish as Second Language studies: “Black and Brown students are often advised to take these classes even if Finnish is their first language.”

She adds that “this shows how it is still widely thought that one cannot be a person of color and Finnish at the same time.” Even though the original goal of Finnish as Second Language studies was to support equal language learning, downward-guidance deteriorates the development of academic language, which will affect those students’ later studies. Often, these same students are also advised downwards in student counseling. Women, in particular, are guided towards care working, even if they are planning on going to university. This kind of downward guidance could affect those individuals’ income levels in the future.

In the Nordic countries, university admissions work solely on grades, which leaves no room to account for different student contexts. This creates inequality, as it incorrectly assumes everyone to have the same background and opportunities to receive excellent grades. In the interview, Vesa Puuronen agrees that “the Nordic university admissions system does not include any attempts to level inequalities”.

Going from school to the labor market, language skills is one particularly troubling factor. In an interview with the HPR, Fatim Diarra, Vice-Chair of the Finnish Greens Party, noted that the Finnish labor market is not prepared enough to accept people without perfect language skills to “access working life and become beneficial for society”, especially considering that Finnish, for instance, is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.

In the interview, Michaela Moua also mentions a research study by Akhlaq Ahmad from the University of Helsinki. Five thousand fake resumes were sent out from five different ethnic groups: Finnish, English, Russian, Iraqi, and Somali with the same qualifications and language proficiency. The research shows that a foreign-sounding name is a significant factor in job applications; local sounding names received callbacks multiple times more likely than foreign-sounding names.

Moua recognizes that there are two levels of discrimination in the Finnish labor market: Horizontal and vertical discrimination. In horizontal discrimination, a specific group gets stuck in a low paying field even when they often have much higher qualifications than the job actually requires.

In vertical discrimination, a person that is discriminated against might be hired for a job, but career progress is unfairly challenging because of racially-motivated factors. The job benefits, like salary and access to training by the employer, are lower, but despite that, the person that is discriminated against is reluctant to report their unfair treatment even if they experience clear racist harassment. “It is so difficult to get the job in the first place so those people do not want to ruffle the waves, so to say, even when their peers left and right are going higher up the ladder”, says Moua.

Hiding Racism Won’t Make It Disappear

Shouldn’t the Nordic states that take such pride in their supposed progressive values be above such behavior? Yet, there is still widespread reluctance to accept racism as an actual problem, which is reflected in the current history curriculum.

It is typically thought that one major reason for racial discrimination is that Nordic societies have long been homogenous, blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who have only gone through rapid demographic changes due to increased immigration since the 1990s. However, the idea of homogenous Nordic societies can be contested. Michaela Moua told the HPR that Finland’s racist history towards Roma and Sami surprises most people because it has not been written about in the school books and it is not part of common knowledge to know about the extreme measures taken to assimilate those minority groups. The Finnish nation is largely considered homogenous, even though there have been people like Tatars, Sami, and Roma for hundreds of years. “Global nationalistic phenomena have affected how our narrative was switched into a strong belief of homogeneity”, comments Moua, but “studying these historical events gives a lot of answers to why things are here how they are now”.

Moua adds that based on the reports sent to the Finnish Ombudsman office, Romas are a group that suffers widespread discrimination in Finland: for instance, restaurants and other services refuse to let them in or they are demanded to pay beforehand. Romas often end up changing their name to get a job or an apartment more easily, even though they have been living in the region for hundreds of years and do not typically consider themselves outsiders. According to Moua, “this is a strong example of ethnic profiling happening here.”

Diarra said in the interview that “it is dangerous to squeeze the situation in the US straight into our context, and this challenges the activists in the Nordic countries to understand how hundreds of years of oppression elsewhere affect our culture.” There are basically no slave owner statues to loot in Helsinki or Oslo, but the thought is prevalent in the region that immigrants come to the Nordic countries just to idle with the state benefits supported by the welfare system.

According to Diarra, studies show that the system currently blocks certain people from truly accessing the supporting net, which entraps people of color in cycles of unemployment and poverty. It must be more widely pondered how the system favors the people born inside the country and fails to give adequate support to minorities who are not able to access the network on their own. Neighborhood segregation has long been a problem in Sweden in particular, but segregation is a threat to the whole region. If that isn’t addressed, the supposed multiculturalism of the region will only be lip service as people become estranged from people from different ethnic backgrounds.

A major problem in the Nordic countries is that racism is not properly recognized. Puuronen noted that “the term [racism] is loosely used and there are people who express racist opinions but get away with them by saying ‘I am not a racist, but…’” In his opinion, an ordinary citizen’s perception and understanding of racism are highly incomplete. According to Diarra, political discussions about racism are outdated and engage in discourse that  “had been done in other countries 50 years ago”. Moua notes that “in Finland racism is understood only as a conscious and deliberate act, but simply not shouting racist slurs on the streets does not make you an anti-racist.” The discourse must be switched from whether there is racism to how to abolish it.

Looking Forward

Recent happenings in the US have brought the issue of racism into wide discourse worldwide, including the Nordic countries. Even though the survey discussed at the beginning of this article shows that trust in police was highest in Finland and happiness appears to be high among immigrants, Black Lives Matter protests in the region demonstrate that things may be more turbulent than the data initially suggests. Policy initiatives to improve workplace equitability have also been spearheaded recently, acknowledging a deep-seated institutional problem. For instance, Helsinki city has introduced an anonymous recruiting policy, meaning that job applications for the city are sent without name, ethnicity, age or gender.

“Globally, we are on the top, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have things to do”, says Michaela Moua. According to her, it is crucial for the Nordic governments to be committed to the human rights programs they are currently pursuing and promote decisions that will affect people’s everyday life in a positive way. Vesa Puuronen adds that more well-conducted and comprehensive research should be made in order to understand the current issues deeper. Those who do not have to experience racism themselves must try to consider how others experience it, and the illusion of Nordic exceptionalism must be broken.

The Nordic countries are in a situation where they still can choose their direction, but action must be taken now and it won’t necessarily be easy. “Our welfare state system truly can ensure opportunities for everyone, but it should be updated and developed further. We are proud of our society and when someone points out flaws, it challenges us to think critically of ourselves, which is extremely difficult”, says Diarra, but “the era of self-reflection has now begun.”

Source: The Happiest and the Most Racist: Institutional Racism in Nordic Countries

COVID-19 takes unequal toll on immigrants in Nordic region

More on racial disparities:

The first person in Sadad Dakhare’s two-bedroom apartment in Oslo, Norway, to show symptoms was his 4-year-old niece. Next, his mother, his sister and he himself fell ill. Then, about a week after his niece became sick, Dakhare heard his 76-year-old father coughing heavily.

Sadad Dakhare (R), his father Mohamed Dakhare Farah and niece Safa Mohamed Hassan (L) who fell ill with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) but have now recovered pose in a photo taken in Oslo, Norway April 23, 2020. Picture taken April 23, 2020. Samsam Muhammed Dakhare/Handout via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY

He found his father lying in bed, gasping for air. “Just call an ambulance,” the father told Dakhare.

At an Oslo hospital, Dakhare’s father tested positive for COVID-19 and was treated for a few days before he was discharged to finish his recovery at home.

The Dakhare family’s story is a familiar one among Somalis in Norway and other Nordic countries, where the pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on some immigrant groups. Governments in Sweden, Norway and Finland are taking extra steps to try to slow the spread of the disease in these communities.

Across Europe, little is known about who is affected by the virus because governments are releasing limited demographic information about the sick and those who die. But a Reuters examination of government data in three Nordic countries where more details are available shows that some immigrant groups are among those affected at higher rates than the general populace.


In Norway, where 15% of residents were born abroad, 25% who had tested positive for COVID-19 by April 19 were foreign-born. Somalis, with 425 confirmed cases, are the largest immigrant group testing positive, accounting for 6% of all confirmed cases — more than 10 times their share of the population.

Somalis are the most overrepresented immigrant group among Sweden’s confirmed cases, as well. Their 283 positive tests account for about 5% of the nearly 6,000 cases documented between March 13 and April 7. That’s seven times their share of the population. Iraqis, Syrians and Turks also made up disproportionately large shares of positive cases.

In Finland’s capital city of Helsinki, the mayor said it was “worrying” that almost 200 Somalis had tested positive by mid-April. They accounted for about 17% of positive cases — 10 times their share of the city’s population.

More than 100,000 Somalia-born live in the three countries, mostly in Sweden and Norway, one of the largest Somali diasporas in the world. Many arrived as refugees of war in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Several factors place them more at risk of getting sick, public health officials and researchers say.


It is common in all three countries for multiple generations of Somalis to live, like the Dakhares do, in crowded apartments, making it easier for the virus to spread from one family member to the next. They also tend to work in high-contact jobs — healthcare workers, drivers and cleaners, for example — with a higher risk for exposure.

Language barriers also are at play, and some have criticized governments in Sweden and Norway for failing to move fast enough in communicating about the virus to immigrant groups.

“By the time information translated to different languages was spread sufficiently, the infection rate among minority groups was already very high,” said Linda Noor, a social anthropologist who is managing director of Minotenk, a think tank focused on minority-related politics in Norway. She said a lot of information in Norway was distributed through national health authorities’ websites that are unfamiliar to many people in immigrant communities.

Public health officials in both Norway and Sweden pointed to COVID-19 information they published in multiple languages, including Somali, in early to mid-March. But they acknowledged that they did not reach some immigrants fast enough.


“I think it is clear from the epidemiological situation, especially looking at the high proportion of Somalis with COVID-19, that we did not reach this group in time,” said Hilde Kløvstad, department director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Once the virus started to spread, officials realized they needed to be more focused in their outreach, she said, adding that the spread of the virus among immigrant communities is slowing.

In Oslo, officials contacted leaders in immigrant communities, who helped them get the word out via social media, word of mouth, posters and online videos targeting Somalis, said Hanne Gjørtz, head of communications for the city. Health alerts in Somali aired on the radio, and text messages with translated information were sent to Somali residents.

“We saw that this led to increased traffic on our websites,” she said.

“But we are constantly learning,” she added. “It would definitely have been an advantage to have videos and posters in place earlier in this crisis. This has been and still is a crisis of great speed, and it took some time for us to find the right ways to reach different groups.”

Sadad Dakhare (R) and his niece Safa Mohamed Hassan who fell ill with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) but have now recovered pose in this photo taken April 22, 2020 in Oslo, Norway. Picture taken April 22, 2020. Samsam Muhammed Dakhare/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.


In Rinkeby-Kista and Spånga-Tensta, two Stockholm boroughs where immigrants and their children make up most of the population, rates of infection are more than two times higher than in the city overall. Trying to slow the spread of the virus in these areas, where Somalis are the biggest minority group, the government is offering temporary furnished rental apartments to at-risk-groups, such as elderly people who live in multi-generational housing, said Benjamin Dousa, chairman of the Rinkeby-Kista district council.

Government workers who speak a variety of languages, including Somali, have hit the streets in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods — near libraries, religious buildings, municipal offices, metro stations and grocery stores — to warn people about COVID-19, said officials from government body Region Stockholm.

In a statement to Reuters, Region Stockholm said it could have been faster in distributing multilingual information before the virus began spreading disproportionately among immigrant groups.

“However, we are working in the middle of a situation which is before unseen,” the statement said. “Therefore, it is difficult to be as fast as is needed and to foresee all needs.”

The statement added that the infection rate is slowing in Spånga-Tensta and Rinkeby-Kista.


Helsinki is gearing up for similar outreach.

“The situation demands enhanced teamwork, continued development of multilingual services and effective targeted communications,” said Mayor Jan Vapaavuori. “We have entered into discussions with the Finnish Somali League about new measures to improve the situation.”

Somalis themselves also are trying to spread the word about how to stay safe.

Ayan Abdulle posted an informational video on Facebook, but she found she wasn’t reaching the people who needed the information most.

Abdulle, 29, who was born in Somalia and came to Norway at age 9, heads a non-governmental organization in the city of Bergen called Arawelo, which usually focuses on helping young immigrants apply for jobs and find friends. After the coronavirus outbreak, Abdulle started to focus on the elderly as well, helping them with grocery shopping. When she spoke with elderly Somali women out shopping last month, she learned they were not getting enough information about the coronavirus because they weren’t using social media and not all of them understood Norwegian.

“In Somali culture, most information is spread by word of mouth,” Abdulle said. “Now we are going from door to door and hanging posters informing people about the symptoms and how dangerous the disease can be.”

Citizenship in Scandinavia – What are reasonable demands for full membership?

Interesting comparison, showing despite the different approaches, the underlying views on citizenship requirements in all three countries were very similar:

In 2018, together with our colleagues in the other Scandinavian countries, we undertook a representative survey in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Young people from ages 20 to 36 were interviewed – just over 7500 in total. Individuals from the majority populations, descendants of immigrants from Iraq, Pakistan, Poland, Somalia, Turkey, and Vietnam, were included. Immigrants from Iraq and Somalia also participated in the survey in all three countries, while immigrants from Pakistan, Poland and Turkey were included, in addition, in the Norwegian sample. All respondents were asked what they considered reasonable requirements for citizenship, what they thought of the existing rules in their respective countries, and to what extent they felt they were recognized as members of the national community.

Citizenship is the last stop on the way to formal membership in a new homeland. Before this, immigrants with legal status already enjoy many rights. New members of Scandinavian societies have access to some civil and social rights, from day one in the country. Still, citizenship is regarded as important and attractive, especially among those who come from countries with greater legal, economic, and political uncertainty. Citizenship in Scandinavia protects them from deportation, in principle at least. It bestows help overseas, grants the right to vote in parliamentary elections – and not least, gives access to a Scandinavian passport, with all the rights to travel freely and work in the entire EU region.

In the last few years there has been a trend to implement stricter requirements for citizenship in many European countries, such as knowledge tests (language, history, and society), proof of self-sufficiency, and longer waiting times.

Among researchers, these stricter requirements are often interpreted from either a control or an integration perspective: Recent increases in immigration have made authorities keen on finding legal ways to control access to citizenship. On the other hand, concerns over integration have raised the bar for competence in language and knowledge about society, and those who are permanent residents and seek citizenship are required to meet this higher bar in order to become full members.

Regardless of how one interprets the politics, these laws create indisputably higher barriers. There has been an (implicit) assumption among researchers that the stricter requirements are not in immigrants’ interest, but no empirical research has been done. This new survey is the first to investigate these issues empirically.

The three Scandinavian countries are interesting to compare because they cover the entire scale when it comes to citizenship requirements. Denmark is one of the strictest countries in Europe when it comes to citizenship. Sweden is on the liberal outer edge, while Norway – as is often the case with immigration and integration policies – finds itself somewhere in the middle.

We began our study with the assumption that these marked political differences would be mirrored in the immigrant groups and descendants’ attitudes in the three countries – that immigrants and descendants in Denmark would be more critical of the country’s rules, than corresponding groups would be to Swedish policies in Sweden, for example. We also thought the majority populations would want stricter requirements than the minorities would, especially in Denmark. The results did not meet our expectations though, and in many ways were very surprising.

Overall the survey does not show big differences between the three countries, and when it comes to attitudes toward how the rules are and should be, there are barely differences between the three groups (majority, immigrants, and descendants). The prevailing attitude is that it is legitimate to set requirements for new members of society who become citizens – the majority across groups believe these requirements should include five years of residence, a simple language and society test, an oath, and being part of the work force. At the same time, they think it should be legal to keep one’s original citizenship when naturalizing. In other words, there should be clear requirements to become a full member of a Scandinavian society, but these should be reasonable and possible to meet. The results paint a picture of consensus on what “reasonable” means – a framework that lies somewhere between the extremes represented by Denmark and Sweden.

Other institutions, like the education system, labor market, and health care system are probably more important as a basis for attitudes toward membership in society than citizenship.

How should we interpret these findings? The alignment in attitudes across our survey respondents is a pointer to the fact that life in Scandinavia is not so different across the three countries, despite the respective states’ different policies on immigration. In fact, other institutions, like the education system, labor market, and health care system are probably more important as a basis for attitudes toward membership in society than citizenship.

The survey does not tell us anything about emphasis placed on different institutions’ importance for feelings of membership, acceptance, and belonging. But we do see indications of experiences of both discrimination and of lower levels of trust among minority groups.

The consensus on requirements, nevertheless, suggests that the citizenship institution continues to matter as a framework for togetherness. The survey also indicates that minority members of society are reflected actors, alongside majority society members, when it comes to guarding the last ticket into society – and what should be demanded, in order to ensure the functioning of an increasingly diverse society.

Source: Citizenship in Scandinavia – What are reasonable demands for full membership?

How Does Immigration Drive the Success of the Radical Right in Europe? New Report Assesses the Record in Nordic Countries – MPI

Another relevant report from MPI:

Though elections in Austria, Germany and France in 2017 and recent electoral outcomes in Italy and Hungary have demonstrated the rising power of radical-right parties in Europe, the phenomenon is hardly new in most Nordic countries. Denmark, Finland and Norway have radical-right parties that trace their roots back to at least the 1970s. And more recently, the Sweden Democrats established themselves at the national level in 2010.

Even as the Sweden Democrats, Danish People’s Party, the Finns Party and Norway’s Progress Party have been a far cry from capturing a majority of the vote in recent elections, their rise has been accompanied by an observable shift in public attitudes toward migration. The result: a hardening of asylum and immigration policies over the last decade, especially since the European migration crisis began in 2015. Nordic governments have introduced—and in some cases loudly celebrated—policies to reduce family reunification, restrict access to refugee and other protected statuses and limit access to public assistance benefits for non-nationals.

A new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration, The Growth of the Radical Right in Nordic Countries: Observations from the Past 20 Years, analyzes the rise and current dynamics of radical-right parties in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

In all four countries, immigration has become a core policy area for the radical right. But as author Anders Widfeldt notes, the electoral success of such parties cannot be tied neatly back to shifting levels of immigration or to public opinion of immigrants. A web of other factors—including how the parties are managed and the personalities of their leaders—are also at play.

“The marriage of a populist economic agenda that prioritizes welfare support for nationals in need with deep skepticism of immigration has proven to be a potent recipe for success, though the exact formula that parties adopt varies,” Widfeldt writes.

In responding to the radical right’s growth in popularity, mainstream political parties have taken three main approaches: co-opting radical-right policies in a bid to win over their opponents’ voters, accommodating the parties in government or isolating them by excluding them from governing coalitions. Yet, the author notes, there is little consistent evidence of which of these approaches (if any) are effective. And just as immigration is likely to remain high on the political agenda, radical-right parties are likely to continue to influence migration policy debates.

Read the report here:

It is the second in a Transatlantic Council series, “The Future of Migration Policy in a Volatile Political Landscape.” As governments in Europe and North America grapple with growing skepticism about immigration and a rise in populism, the Council examined whether and how this new political reality has changed immigration policymaking.

Additional reports will be published over the summer and collected here: