The assimilation of zigenare seems to us an impossible quest.[1] The only possible solution is to get them out of the country in one way or another. Most of them are likely Swedish subjects, and in any case it will be difficult to ascertain their citizenship status elsewhere. Therefore, their disappearance from the country cannot be achieved in any other way but by circumscribing their freedom of movement so that they will find it in their own interest to leave to country and emigrate to a country where conditions are more favourable for them.

(Final report of the Committee on the Poor Relief Act, SOU 1923:2, p. 89, cited in DS 2014:8, pp. 167-168, my translation)

The above quote is from a 1923 report of the Swedish Committee on the Poor Relief Act (Fattigvårdslagstiftningskommittén). However, it could just as well describe the ethos of current attempts by Swedish authorities to curb the immigration of racialized Roma EU-citizens exercising their putative right to freedom of movement. Given that their “disappearance from the country” cannot be achieved through direct and formal restrictions on their right to freedom of movement, the state and municipal authorities attempt to discourage and otherwise manage their mobilities by regulating their access to social rights, as well as by controlling how they are able – or rather unable – to access and use public space for securing shelter and livelihoods.

To better understand the current situation of mobile Roma EU-citizens in Sweden today, it is useful to consider the historical connection between the regulation of mobility, the administration of poor relief, and moral discourses of undeservingness. As William Walters (2010: 278) reminds us, the notion of a collective “social enemy” or “threat” to the state (i.e. various categories of socially ‘undesirable’ persons, often racialized) emerged precisely at the moment when poor relief was being nationalized and rationalized (see also Anderson, 2013).

The 1923 report by the Committee on the Poor Relief Act was the outcome of a sixteen-year-long inquiry, appointed by the government in 1907 to review and propose amendments to the much-criticized Vagrancy Act of 1885, and to make suggestions for how to further rationalize the then-existing poor relief system. The committee consisted of members of the so-called ‘fattigvårdsfolket’ (’the-poor-relief-people’), a close-knit network of liberal-minded social advocates and policymakers. Their shared political project was guided by a belief that the problem of poverty was fundamentally rooted in the individual traits and moral shortcomings of the poor themselves (Lundquist, 1997, cited in Ericsson, 2015:108). Thus, they believed that social policy should aim to educate the poor, and to instill in them a strong work-ethic. The committee took upon themselves to map the vagrant population to identify subgroups and propose targeted interventions aimed at assimilating them into the system of wage-labor.

Influenced by the scientific racism of their time, the committee identified ‘tattare’ and ‘zigenare’ as separate ethno-racial groups, distinct from one another as well as from overall vagrant population. The former was defined as a people of ‘mixed race’ who led an itinerant lifestyle; the latter as a ‘pure race’ of immigrant origin. The committee proposed that ‘tattare’ should be assimilated into the settled workforce. This was to be achieved first and foremost by criminalizing their traditional trades (horse trade, traveling funfairs, and fortune telling), and by eliminating their camps and settlement. (The committee also proposed that the children of ‘tattare’ should be separated from their families and brought up in residential schools where they would be raised to become virtuous, white citizens. However, this proposal never became a reality (Ericsson, 2015, p. 266, see also 2017).) In contrast, the committee described ‘zigenare’ as strangers whose nomadic and foreign habits were fundamentally incommensurable with  ‘the Swedish way of life’ (Montesino, 2002, p. 98). Thus, they argued, that ‘zigenare’ ought to be expelled or otherwise compelled to leave to country.

Skip forward to the present time. The last decade, following the successive eastward enlargements of the European Union in 2004 and 2007, have witnessed growing public alarm and ‘moral panic’ (Hall, 1978) over the presence of an ostensibly new group of visibly poor, foreign beggars in the streets – the majority of whom are assumed to be Roma EU-citizens from Bulgaria and Romania. The former social democratic Prime Minister Göran Persson famously cautioned against “social tourism” from Eastern Europe already during the accession negotiations in 2003. However, it was not until the spring of 2014 that the “problem of EU-migrant beggars” was placed firmly on the public/political agenda. In connection with the EU parliament elections in May 2014, the nationalist party Sverigedemokraterna put out a series of campaign posters in the Stockholm metro system that exclaimed in bold block letters “IT IS TIME TO STOP THE ORGANISED BEGGARY IN THE STREETS” and “NO MORE EU-BEGGARY IN SWEDEN”, raising the specter of a mob of foreigners threatening the order and security of the country. This sparked a heated debate about the need for anti-begging legislation that (in 2018) is still ongoing.

Amidst this debate, the current red-green coalition government appointed a National Coordinator for Vulnerable EU-citizens and adopted a policy package for “combatting beggary”. Vanessa Barker (2017) has described the policy package as being characterized by “a logic of benevolent violence”: a meeting and meshing of ameliorative and coercive state practices. A 2016 report of the National Coordinator for Vulnerable EU-citizens (which has guided and continues to guide policy related to “vulnerable EU-citizens”) recommends that municipalities should withhold access to social assistance and services to the population in question. For example, it cautions against providing meal and day-care services for “children of vulnerable EU-citizens” (SOU 2016:6:51). Furthermore, it recommends that “children of vulnerable EU-citizens” should be exempt from the right to access education in Sweden so as to not undermine their access to education in their countries of citizenship  (see Lind & Persdotter, 2017 for an extended analysis of this proposal):

Swedish society as a whole ought not to act in a way that encourages people who are in a vulnerable situation in their home countries to travel to Sweden without having planned in advance for their children’s needs in terms of, for example, housing and education. As a starting point, children should go to school in their home countries (SOU 2016:6: 50-51).

The report in question also argues for a restrictive interpretation of the Social Services Act, suggesting that EU-citizens with a limited or no formal right of residence are not entitled to receive social assistance other in the form of emergency support, and stressing that municipalities are not obliged to sponsor shelter beds. Meanwhile, the report argues for a zero-tolerance approach to unauthorized settlements, and proposes amendments to current eviction laws intended to make it easier for real estate owners to expel trespassers (SOU 2016:6, p. 15).

So far, the government has rejected calls for anti-begging legislation, arguing that it would be “unjust to criminalize poverty”. At the same time, however, government representatives have repeatedly urged members of the public not to give money to beggars. The aforementioned report of the National Coordinator argues donations to “beggars” cements their subordinate position, while providing an incentive for them to remain in Sweden, thus keeping them away from their children for extended periods of time (2016:6).

Parallel to these national-level policy developments, municipal governments and authorities have taken to regulate begging and rough sleeping among so-called vulnerable EU-citizens at a highly local scale, through the deployment of nuisance law and municipal public order ordinances. Several municipalities have attempted to institute local, often site-specific bans on begging and panhandling. So far, however, all such ordinances have been challenged and overturned in court.

For the past several years (since 2014), I have followed closely the governance of mobile Roma EU-citizens in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city. For over a year between 2014 and 2015, the city hosted a squatter settlement of some 200-400 Romanian Roma, one of the largest and most long-standing unauthorized settlements to have existed in Sweden in recent years. The settlement was evacuated and demolished in November 2015 (for a detailed account of this event, see Persdotter, 2018). In the lead-up to the demolition, the police in Malmö announced that they would be intensifying their efforts to do away with, and prevent any future establishment, of settlements within the city. A high-ranking police officer in Malmö called this ‘a careful offensive to ensure that new camps do not emerge’ (quoted in Satz, 2015). The strategy relies on increasing surveillance and enforcement of public order ordinances, and it functions to make it difficult for street-homeless individuals (including but not limited to Roma EU-citizens) to sleep or rest in public space.

The effects of the “careful offensive” are compounded by the fact that there are very few shelter beds available to EU-citizens. For the last couple of years (since the winter of 2015-2016) the municipality provides a total number of 40 beds where EU-citizens can apply to stay on a night-by-night basis. The demand for shelter, however, far exceeds the supply. Throughout the winter of 2015-2016, a local church (Johanneskyrkan) operated a provisional shelter that was open to EU-citizens: a space for people to warm themselves and rest on the wooden pews. Similarly, there was an anarchist social and cultural center (Kontrapunkt) organized a volunteer run shelter for transit refugees, EU-citizens, and other homeless individuals. In April 2016 the Planning Department ordered both organizations to close their shelters or they would risk fines for failing to obtain appropriate building permits.

Following these events, some homeless Roma EU-citizens in Malmö have purchased old and beaten-up cars to use for sleeping, and for storing their belongings. In response, representatives of the police along with the Municipal Chief Executive of Security have called for regulations against sleeping in vehicles. Already, private parking companies have begun to impose fines on people who are found sleeping in their cars, even if they have paid the parking ticket (personal communication). Meanwhile, many parking companies do not accept cash payments, making it difficult for people without bankcards to park anywhere in the city without risking hefty fees.

I would suggest that the policies and practices that I have outlined amounts to a systematic destruction of the ‘geographies of survival’ for mobile Roma EU-citizens. Geographies of survival are the ‘ad hoc and vulnerable networks, institutions, and practices through which the homeless are able to – against all the odds – sustain themselves in urban spaces’ (Klodawsky & Blomley, 2009, p. 547). I borrow the term from Don Mitchell and Nik Heynen (2009), who use it who use it to describe how developments in surveillance technologies and public space regulations affects the living conditions – and indeed, the conditions of possibility for survival – of homeless individuals in a number of U.S. American cities.

The geographies of survival for homeless Roma EU-citizens in Malmö are continuous with the macro-scale geographies of the free movement area of the EU. Indeed, practices of geographical mobility among impoverished and racialized EU-citizens might be interpreted as a strategy for remedying enduring obstacles to their socio-economic mobility (Yıldız & Genova, 2017, p. 3). At the same time, these geographies are highly local. They consist of places and spaces used to access shelter and livelihoods, ranging from places of shelter and rest to sidewalk space used for begging.

My contention is that current practices in many ways are reminiscent of the recommendation of the Committee on the Poor Relief Act in 1923 to compel ‘zigenare’ to leave the country, “in one way or another”. While the committee argued for the systematic denial of housing and related residency and social rights as a deliberate strategy to “get [zignenare] out of the country”, there is not a single, unified and explicit agenda behind the current policies and practices towards mobile Roma EU-citizens. Rather, these are marked by ambivalences and contradictions. As historian Martin Ericsson (2015: 130) has explained, however, local practices of territorial exclusion were prevalent throughout Sweden long before the publication of the 1923 report. The Committee on the Poor Relief Act simply made explicit what had been an implicit policy for many years.

In conclusion, I suggest that the state and municipal authorities – in the absence of any direct and formal controls on the entry of EU-citizens – have attempted to discourage, regulate and otherwise manage the presence of mobile Roma EU-citizens by regulating their access to social rights, and their access and use of public space. In effect, if not in intention, this is a politics of mobility control through destitution.


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[1] Zigenare is a pejorative term used to refer to individuals and groups of Romani origin. A direct translation of the German term zigeuner, it is thought to have derived from the Byzantine Greek word τσιγγάνος [tsingános], which literally means “untouchable”. The word carries similar offensive connotations to the English word “gypsy”. Historically, the term zigenare has been used interchangeably with the term tattare. This changed in the late 1800s when several groups of Romani origin immigrated to Sweden from elsewhere in Europe (in particular from Eastern Europe and Russia); the term zigenare came to denote the newly arrived groups, while the term tattare was reserved for travelling families who had lived in Sweden for generations. Today, the term zignerare is generally understood to be an earlier and offensive term to describe Roma, while tattare is understood to be roughly synonymous with Travellers (sw: resande). I discuss this in more detail below. For a detailed historical account of the politics of naming and labelling, see Montesino (2002). For an analysis of the contemporary practices of Roma classification, see Surdu, (2016).