Tobias Hübinette is a lecturer in intercultural studies at Karlstad University and the main author of the report on afrophobia requested by the Swedish Government in 2013. One of his research areas is critical race theories and Hübinette is a proponent for the use of minority statistics as a tool for examining discrimination and doing something about it. The RWI had a chat with Hübinette during the Swedish Forum for Human Rights in Malmö in November.
You carry out extensive research on minorities in the Swedish society. How would you describe the situation for minorities in Sweden today?
Due to immigration, Sweden is today an inherently heterogeneous society compared to what the situation was one century ago, or even half a century ago, when the country was relatively homogenous. Today, around one third of the total population has a foreign background, whether they are born abroad or have parents who were born abroad. About half of them have a Nordic, European and Western background while half of them has a background in the postcolonial world and in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
On a legal and on a policy level, Sweden is almost always ranked within the OECD as the best country in the Western world and in Europe, when it comes to securing equal rights for minorities and migrants and to protecting them from discrimination. In other words, Sweden’s worldwide reputation and Sweden’s self-image as an open, tolerant, inclusive and even antiracist society is well deserved in terms of its laws, regulations and policies.
However, particularly when it comes to the inhabitants with origins in Africa, Asia and Latin America, there are strong indications that these minorities in Sweden are faring worse, compared to the native majority Swedish population, than minorities in many other Western countries with regards to unemployment, housing, poverty etc.
In fact, Sweden is the OECD country with the biggest difference in employment rates between native and foreign-born inhabitants, and this huge disparity mainly concerns the minorities originating from Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the moment around 2,5-3% of the native majority Swedish inhabitants are unemployed while between 20-30% of the inhabitants born in Africa, Asia and Latin America are unemployed.
You are also devoted to providing numbers and statistics to examine how minorities are doing in Sweden. Why are numbers so important for this purpose?
In comparison to other countries, Sweden is excelling when it comes to numbers, data and statistics due to its population register which covers biological sex, chronological age and former or present country of origin. This means that very few countries in the world have such excellent data on women and men, and on various age groups and age cohorts, as Sweden has.
However, when it comes to country of origin, what is registered in the Swedish population register is only the former or present association to, and origin in, a sovereign state that has been recognized by Sweden, and this information is not updated. This means that there are tens of thousands of people officially registered as being from Soviet Union or Yugoslavia in Sweden, although these states do not exist anymore. And minorities such as Kurds and Christian minorities from West Asia, such as Syriacs and Assyrians, do not even officially “exist” as they are registered as Turks, Lebanese or Iraqis etc.
At the same time, Sweden recognizes seven grounds for discrimination, but among them only two are more or less fully accounted for in the population register – discrimination based on biological sex and chronological age. When it comes to all the other discrimination grounds, disability, sexual orientation, transgender identity, religion and ethnic origin or skin color, there is no data at all. The statistics on the minorities originating from Africa, Asia and Latin America are based on the population register but it is impossible to divide between religion and ethnic origin or skin color. This means for example that it is impossible to prove in numbers that Black people or Muslims are faring the worst in Sweden in terms of for example poverty rates.
At the same time, in a country like Sweden which is one of only a dozen sovereign states in the world with such a population register, numbers mean everything for the formulation of policies and new laws as it is possible to generate statistics and data on a level that few countries in the world can do and not only when it comes to sex and age but also for example on socioeconomic background, regional background etc. as practically everything is registered in the Swedish population register such as income level, place of residence, civil status and so on.
This means in practice that numbers, statistics and data permeate Swedish society to an extent which few countries in the world can be compared to except for the other Nordic countries which all have similar population registers. In other words, numbers matter and numbers ”rule” in Sweden.
Apart from a dozen or so countries having a population register like Sweden, more or less the rest of the world instead use a method to collect statistics on the population based on the principle that the inhabitants themselves are asked to anonymously self-categorize themselves when it comes to everything from sex, religion and ethnic and racial background. This method is usually called equality data and it makes it possible to also generate data and statistics on the five discrimination grounds mentioned above which Sweden has no data on at all at the moment.
What do you think should be the government’s first step towards making it possible to effectively examine the situation minorities in Sweden?
The government has already investigated the issue of equality data, and it has been fully established that it is not just a serious problem that there are no statistics at all on five of the seven discrimination grounds but also that practicing equality data is fully in accordance with both Swedish and EU legislation. Sweden has also received harsh criticism for lacking adequate numbers and statistics on the situation for minorities from both the UN, the EU, and the Council of Europe as well as from several NGOs.
This means that it is already legally possible to do so and it is also required of Sweden to do so to complement the population register data when it comes to five of the seven discrimination grounds – it is only a matter of just starting to do so. Any municipality, authority, work place, company or association can in other words already now start to collect statistics based on for example religion or ethnicity or sexual orientation and based on the principles of equality data – self-categorization and anonymity.
However, as Sweden is still a strongly centralized country, what is needed is a government that explicitly recommends and encourages Swedish society as a whole to start practicing, conducting and collecting equality data. Unfortunately, in spite of the criticism coming from abroad and also in spite of a growing demand among minorities in Sweden to collect data on them, the government has so far avoided to recommend the use of equality data. In the future, it is therefore necessary that the Swedish government starts to openly recommend and encourage the use of equality data and not the least in relation to the country’s municipalities which are the ones providing the bulk of social welfare services to the inhabitants of the country.