Deporting Roma: A Critical Case in Sweden No-man’s-land

In the winter of 2010, the Swedish Border Police served refusal of entry orders to 26 Roma and initiated their immediate deportation (Justice Ombudsman 2011/12: JO1). En route to Romania by bus, the Roma were left on the Oresund Bridge, a 16-kilometre bridge that connects Sweden to Denmark, hovering 57 metres above the strait. The Oresund Bridge is a powerful marker of globalization, a technological feat that eases the flow of people and goods across places, connecting the continent to Northern Europe across the Baltic. Since 25 million people cross the bridge every year with little or no impediment and with no passport checks, the bridge represents the possible erasure of the border. Except that it does not. On the night of the deportations, the bridge became the border again, backed by the full force of the law, marking the Roma as ‘foreign beggars’, unwanted, unworthy, tinged by criminality, and, as such, subject to expulsion. They were literally cast out as violators of the Swedish Aliens Act, which prohibits the presence of non-nationals who cannot support themselves by ‘honest means’, an interpretation of the law that would later be found ‘obsolete’ and unlawful (Justice Ombudsman 2011/12: JO1, 728).

On that night, they were mobile poor people, global vagabonds, subject to scrutiny, selection, and ejection (Weber and Bowling 2008). The bridge became a twenty-first-century ‘no man’s land’, a site where migrants were subject to the repressive side of criminal and immigration law but denied international law’s protection of human rights to safety, security, and human dignity. It was enforcement without protection. In that moment, the Oresund Bridge became a ‘frontier zone’, a place where the rule of law is sometimes suspended but sometimes used strategically to create illegality (Weber and Pickering 2011). No-man’s-land is not a legal black hole but instead is created by the presence and absence of law. As Catherine Dauvergne (2008) has shown, only the law can create an ‘illegal’ person. In this case, the Swedish Aliens Act engendered the illegal status by fusing criminality to mobility to justify the deportation. In so doing, it created what Agamben (1998) has identified as ‘bare life’, when human beings are banished from society but completely subject to sovereign power.

The deportation of Roma from a place like Sweden makes no sense. Sweden is well known for its human rights tradition and egalitarian values which propel public policy towards inclusion and make it an unlikely place for regressive mobility practices. And yet, the deportation makes perfect sense when we consider how Sweden is swimming in the paradox of democracy. The Roma expose this rift in society by making visceral the centrality of membership in contemporary democracies. Deportation was possible because they were not members and, with their removal, they were forcefully prevented from becoming members. Although this case certainly represents old forms of hostility and antipathy toward the Romani people, who have been subjected to some of the most aggressive forms of social marginality across Europe, including forced sterilization, homelessness, hate crimes, and mass extermination during the Holocaust, this particular case also signals new forms of exclusion. It is part of an emerging pattern of exclusion based on the criminalization of mobility, particularly for poorer ethnic minorities, whereby mobility is perceived to disrupt the naturalness of territory and people, and deportation is perceived to restore order, putting displaced people back in their rightful place.

The deportation of the Roma indicates the high price of non-membership. Consider that the indigenous Swedish Roma, who have been on the territory over 100 years while still subject to internal social marginality (despite their official designation as a recognized and protected ethnic minority), are in fact not subject to deportation—the repressive use of state power that severs all ties of obligation and demeans migrants’ status. Similarly, Sweden has deported permanent residents who have committed a crime because, as Lisa Westfelt explains, the ‘question of “belonging”’ was not fully resolved until or unless they became Swedish citizens, ‘affiliated with a new sovereign’ (Westfelt 2008: 288). In the Roma case, the perceived offenders were outsiders, they were ‘foreign beggars’ with no right to remain, their presence on the streets of Stockholm an affront to Lutheran asceticism and violation of the principles of the welfare state where everyone works to build the society. Like worker ants, arbetsmyra, everyone works to build the nest, everyone benefits and everyone is equal. By begging, they had failed to show their contribution, their moral worthiness, and failed to uphold their moral obligations and duties that have been pivotal to the development of welfare states, as Ugelvik (Chapter 10 in this volume) has illustrated in the Norweigan case. It was their foreignness and presumed cultural distance that magnified the insult.

The dynamics of the welfare state intensify the centrality of membership. Historically, the boundaries of democracies became more fixed as membership became more meaningful, a move that countered an earlier nineteenth-century trend toward fluid and open borders and the relatively lower value of membership. With the expansion of the welfare state and social rights, the meaning of membership, along with its thicker sense of belonging and citizenship, raised the barriers to entry, forging stronger boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Ironically then, as democracies became more equal and welfare states expanded social rights even for non-citizens, they became more selective and more exclusionary in another sense, narrowing, restricting, and blocking entry. The welfare state may be universal and generous toward insiders but not necessarily for outsiders.

In the Swedish case, this situation is further compounded by the fractured nature of the welfare state itself, Folkhemmet—the People’s Home. The People’s Home is based on a split foundation of demos and ethnos: demos, the people, who are free and equal, is inherently inclusionary, whereas ethnos, a people by blood, is exclusionary (Tragardh 1997). These dual and competing conceptualizations of membership and national belonging have major ramifications for the incorporation and exclusion of non-ethnic Swedes. In the inclusionary mode, Sweden resembles a republic offree and equal citizens regardless oforigin or ethnicity. In the exclusionary mode, ethno-cultural blood ties and heritage impede incorporation and repulse outsiders. In its most extreme form, the ethnocultural mode essentializes democracy as an ascribed status of Swedishness—democracy is in the blood of the people, according to Prime Minister Hanson, founder of People’s Home (Andersson 2009; Schall 2012). This construction becomes even more problematic when it seeps into the penal realm, defining crime committed by foreign nationals not as social or moral deprivation but as confirmation of difference, un-Swedishness, providing further reason to exclude or reject non-members (Barker 2013). This discourse underpins much of the platform of the far right party, including its demands for compulsory deportation for aliens: ‘We do not think it is legitimate for an alien to have the privilege to stay in Sweden if he or she cannot respect Swedish laws and regulations’ (Socialfbrsakringsutskottets 2010/11: SfU6). It informed the speedy removal of the foreign Roma.

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