In 2015, Europe experienced one of the biggest migration flows of recent years when over 1 million people fled from war and human rights abuses. The towns and cities where these refugees settled faced massive challenges, but also had the opportunity to create an inclusive environment for everyone.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing a young migrant when it comes to involvement in the democratic process?
“My basic needs must be met before I can think about voting in the next election or how I can influence democratic work,” says Susanne Hedlund.
She mentions language and background as other important factors.
“Language is obviously an important factor when it comes to the ability to make your voice heard and, for example, take on board information about how to do that. Plus if you also happen to come from a country that doesn’t encourage its citizens to exert influence along democratic lines, it can be difficult to know what pathways exist for involvement and being heard.”
Botkyrka Municipality has also invited students from the Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) programme to participate in building a dialogue on democratic processes in Sweden.
“The municipality’s democratic development organisation has, on a number of occasions, invited the students and representatives of the municipality’s various political parties to engage in dialogues addressing opportunities to exert influence, and the question of rights and obligations.
Sweden is, by and large, an individual-based society in which people approach the State, municipality, or some other central authority for help.
In some of the countries of origin of the refugees arriving in Sweden, that role is taken by the family, relatives, and friends.
“And as a result, their faith in authorities and government is not as strong.”
Education, housing and work. What role do these factors play in inclusiveness work?
“A massive one, in my opinion. If I have nowhere to live, looking for work is hard from a purely practical viewpoint, because I don’t have an address. Focusing on education is hard too if I don’t know where I’m going to be sleeping tonight. Housing comes first, but education and work are also important before you can even begin to look beyond these basic needs and start looking at the bigger picture.”
Independence and self-reliance are also regarded as important in terms of the individual’s ability to participate in the democratic process.
“It’s all about attitude. We’re doing ourselves no favours at all if we see refugees as blank pieces of paper that we need to fill in. These are ordinary people who had lives of their own before they came here.”
Susanne believes that a generous helping of mutual learning is a much better approach.
“You can’t just say that our way is the right way, the only way. I believe that what we need to do is to highlight the issues in a way that results in mutual learning. The people who come here are extremely resourceful, so why not link up the unaccompanied young men who come here with pensioners who need to learn about computers and the Internet, for example?”
An inclusive city – what does that look like? Can civil society forge links with the sporting movement, for example?
“When the massive flow of refugees came to Botkyrka in 2015, the municipality’s Culture and Leisure administration enabled sporting associations and groups to apply for money if they had a programme that specifically targeted young refugees. They organised dancing, boxing, drama, football – a little bit of everything – and it was all free.”
Do you see sport as a good arena for inclusive diversity work?
“Absolutely – there was no need to speak Swedish to take part in these activities. Everyone understands how to play football or how to dance!”