Sweden: Homeless Roma and other EU migrants face widespread discrimination and dangerous conditions

Thousands of homeless and destitute EU migrants, mostly of Roma origin, are living in desperate and dangerous situations across Sweden while the country’s authorities deliberately deny them access to the most basic services, a new report from Amnesty International has found.

Sweden: A cold welcome: Human rights of Roma and other “vulnerable EU citizens” at risk finds that marginalized EU migrants face insurmountable obstacles to access shelter, sanitation and health services, something that violates their human rights which Sweden has an obligation to honour for everybody living in the country. Authorities are effectively abandoning people, who have exercised their right to freedom of movement within the EU in search of a better life, to their fate.  

Thousands of Roma face a constant struggle for food, sanitation and health care. In winter, when temperatures plummet, this becomes a struggle for survival
Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International

“Sleeping in tents, cars or temporary settlements on the outskirts of cities, thousands of Roma in Sweden face a constant struggle for food, sanitation and health care. In winter, when temperatures plummet, this becomes a struggle for survival,” said Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Europe.

“Harassment, discriminatory treatment by the police and the failure of Swedish authorities to recognize the rights of these EU migrants and address their basic needs echoes a wider anti-Roma prejudice, discrimination and racism that persists across Europe.”

The report is based on 58 interviews with EU migrants all of them from Romania and the majority of whom are Roma, together with numerous civil society organisations and public officials across the country. Its key finding is that inadequate legal and policy frameworks mean that many in this group fall through the cracks, with serious consequences for their health and lives. In several towns they lack access to shelter, water and sanitation and health services. The lack of access to shelter exacerbates other problems including the fact that lacking a permament address, their ability to find employment is severely limited, compelling many to resort to begging.

Authorities estimate that there are around 4,700 people in Sweden categorized as “vulnerable EU citizens”, even though the figure remains uncertain. Many, although not all, are Roma. The Swedish government’s approach to homeless EU migrants has been that they should leave Sweden after three months, that even during this period they have very limited access to social support, and that only their country of origin can be held accountable for human rights violations affecting them despite the fact that the abuses are occurring on Swedish territory.

According to EU and Swedish law, EU citizens can stay in Sweden for three months with no other condition than being able to display a valid identity card. Amnesty International’s research shows that, in their search for a better life, many “vulnerable EU citizens” stay for much longer, with or without the occasional visits back to their home countries.

Harassment, discriminatory treatment by the police and the failure of Swedish authorities to recognize the rights of these EU migrants and address their basic needs echoes a wider anti-Roma prejudice, discrimination and racism that persists across Europe
Fotis Filippou, Amnesty International

Some homeless EU migrants described to Amnesty International how they lived without water, sanitation and electricity in shacks in the woods, or slept under bridges despite temperatures below freezing. One man in the north of Sweden spent the nights in the bus station until it closed at 2am, after which he wandered around the city in sub-zero temperatures in order not to freeze to death.

Roma EU migrants in Stockholm, are also subject to intimidating and disproportionately harsh treatment by the police. A number of women interviewed in the city described how they had been repeatedly moved on from where they were begging or even forcibly driven to random locations outside of town where they were abandoned. The Stockholm police confirmed this practice, claiming that the women disturbed the public order, in spite of the fact that there was no evidence of such behaviour and that begging is not banned or subject to licensing.

While many homeless EU migrants are being denied their fundamental human rights, this is not the case throughout the country. In some municipalities simple policy changes at the local level are making a real difference in the protection of homeless EU migrants’ rights, enabling them to live lives with dignity. In Lund and Gotland year-round shelters were available where people could stay longer term. Having a stable place to sleep is a huge relief for those in need offering security and stability that enables people to plan ahead including looking for work and as well as having a positive impact on the wider community.

Swedish authorities must honour their legal obligations to ensure that all destitute EU migrants have access to shelter, water and sanitation services and subsidized health care
Johanna Westeson, Amnesty International Sweden.

“People have been forced to live in appalling conditions for years, based on the official but misplaced justification that they are here temporarily and that the state has no obligations toward them. But another, more humane and welcoming, approach is possible,” said Johanna Westeson, Legal Adviser at Amnesty International Sweden.

“Swedish authorities must step up efforts to end discrimination against Roma and honour their legal obligations to ensure that all destitute EU migrants have access to shelter, water and sanitation services and subsidized health care.”

BACKGROUND

Sweden has ratified a range of human rights treaties that guarantee civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights for everybody without discrimination within its territory including the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the European Convention on Human Rights.