Ethnic minorities in the Nordic countries

A minority is a clearly distinguishable group or category of people who comprise less than half of a national population. Minorities in the Nordic region include the indigenous people the Sami, national minorities, such as Germans in Southern Denmark, immigrants from other Nordic and neighbouring countries as well as further afield, and other groups such as Greenlanders in Denmark.

2019.02.07 | Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Caption from The Foreign Workers' Journal (Fremmedarbejderbladet), a monthly newspaper aimed at foreign workers in Denmark in different languages from 1972. Copyright: Adjs [CC BY-SA 4.0], Wikimedia

Minorities are usually defined numerically within the context of a state: A minority is a clearly distinguishable group or category of people who comprise less than half of a national population. In many countries, where there is no ethnic majority, the term is used to designate small groups who are only partly integrated into the state (such as indigenous peoples in Malaysia, India etc.). What makes a minority an ethnic one (as opposed to sexual, religious or other denominations) is, by common consensus, their having a distinct cultural identity recognised both by the group itself and by outsiders, as well as a shared myth of origin based on putative kinship origins. By these criteria, all of the Nordic countries are dominated by ethnic majorities (Swedes, Danes, Finns, Norwegians and Icelanders), and all have minorities. 

Minorities everywhere face similar problems: their cultural identity, including language, religion and sometimes other aspects, is threatened by the engulfing, dominant majority culture; they often fail to achieve equal treatment and equal rights in the educational system and the labour market; and they are often politically subordinated, even if they have voting rights, to the will of the majority. These problems are very real for minorities in the Nordic countries as elsewhere, although they have sometimes been counteracted by legislation and political measures. Like other liberal states, the Nordic countries strive to find a balance between similarity and difference, or between equal rights and the right to one’s own cultural identity. They are characterised by the strong role of the state and, at least to some extent, by their emphasis on equality.

Indigenous peoples

Although the term is somewhat controversial (who, after all, is ‘indigenous’?), indigenous peoples are usually defined as ethnic groups who are associated with a non-industrial mode of production. They are traditionally stateless and have a long-standing relationship to their territory. The only indigenous group in the Nordic region proper is the Sami, since the geographical position and semi-autonomous political status of Greenland makes the situation of indigenous people of Greenland different. 

The total number of Sami is estimated to be roughly 60,000. Apart from about 2,500 Russian Sami (in the Kola peninsula), all are Nordic, and more than half of these live in Norway. While the traditional areas of the Sami stretched as far south as central Finland, Norway and Sweden, their core areas are in the far north. The livelihood of Sami has traditionally been varied. Although they are associated with reindeer herding, fishing, hunting and agriculture have also been traditional Sami activities. The Sami languages or dialects (some of which are barely mutually intelligible) are Finno-Ugric, and related to Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and many small languages of northern Russia. North Sami is the most widespread, South Sami is threatened with extinction, and Lule Sami, spoken in northern Sweden and a few communities in Norway, is currently being revitalised after having been on the brink of extinction.

Following centuries of ethnic discrimination and assimilation policies from the state, the Sami have since the mid-twentieth century, and especially since 1980, been relatively successful in promoting their political interests, chiefly associated with land rights and cultural rights. Norway, Sweden and Finland have Sami Parliaments with limited power, and Sami culture is officially accepted as a part of the national heritage.

A main challenge for the Sami consists in combining the transition to life as equal citizens in a modern welfare state with retention and cultivation of their traditional cultural identity. This dilemma is exacerbated by two factors:

  1. Many of the Sami areas are ethnically mixed, and conflicts between Sami and ethnic Scandinavians thus arise over issues such as language use in schools and public administration. Some municipal areas, with a high proportion of Sami, are officially bilingual.
  2. It can be difficult to ascertain whether an individual is Sami. Since both cultural assimilation and mixed marriages have been common, many have mixed ancestry. A linguistic criterion is commonly used: If at least one of your grandparents (or, in some cases, great-grandparents) spoke Sami as their everyday language, and you consider yourself Sami, you have the right to be recognised as a Sami. However, there is no coercion here, and there are known cases of siblings choosing differently.

There is no general answer as to whether Sami are systematically discriminated against today. They have achieved recognition as an ethnic minority with legitimate political demands, yet deep-seated prejudices in the majority population have not necessarily been eradicated. In 1991, in recognition of the Sami contribution to the shared Nordic heritage, the Sami poet and multi-artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää was awarded the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize.

National minorities

The groups considered national minorities have a long record of residence in the Nordic countries, yet remain culturally distinctive. The main national minorities are Jews (most numerous in Sweden and Denmark; Finns in Sweden and Norway (known as kvæner in northern Norway); Germans in southern Jutland, Denmark; and, Gypsies and Romani or travellers, that is, travelling people of partly Gypsy origin, formerly known as tatere/tattare in Sweden, Finland and Norway. While they lack formalised linguistic and territorial rights, most national minorities are acknowledged to have been subjected to oppression in the past, and their cultural heritage is, to varying degrees, legally protected. Organisations representing Romani and Jews have demanded reparation payments from the Nordic states, sometimes successfully, for past oppression. Many Norwegian and Danish Jews lost their property during the Second World War, and in some cases, compensation was paid as late as the early 2000s. In the case of the Romani, grievances include widespread mistreatment in psychiatric institutions, including sterilisation and lobotomy, especially in the interwar years.

Since the 1980s, several museums documenting the history of national minorities have been opened, and there is an increased awareness of the need to include their past, and their suffering at the hands of the majorities, in school history books. At the same time, many individuals whose parents or grandparents belonged to national minorities have been fully assimilated into the majority population, and the actual significance of their ethnic identity – from negligible to important – varies among individuals.


A post-war phenomenon, immigration to rich Western countries from poorer countries has been significant in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Immigrants in Finland and Iceland are fewer and more recent arrivals. In 2019, about 18% of the Swedish population were first or second-generation immigrants, while the figure for Norway was 13%, and Denmark 12%, for Finland 7% and for Iceland 10%. The fastest growth in immigration since the turn of the century has been in Norway, and the largest groups of new immigrants are from Poland and Lithuania, while 2015–16 saw a rapid rise in the immigrant population in Sweden owing to an influx of refugees from the Syrian war.

Immigrants are most numerous in the densely populated urban areas of Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, Malmö and Helsinki. The first wave of immigration, from the 1960s to the late 1970s, was one of labour migration. The largest nationality groups from this period are Turks (Denmark and Sweden), Pakistanis (Norway) and Yugoslavs (Sweden). Labour migration officially ended in the mid-1970s, but, in practice, it continued through family reunification.

The second wave of immigration, from the 1980s up to the present, involves refugees and asylum seekers from many countries, including Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Chile, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. While labour migrants arrived with jobs waiting for them, refugees have had greater difficulty in gaining access to the labour market, and unemployment figures (although they vary between groups) are well above the national averages.

The third wave of immigration, beginning with the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, consists mainly of labour migration from new member states. Many of these migrants are difficult to classify as they are 'transmigrants' living in two places and travelling frequently back and forth.

Issues relating to immigration have loomed large in Nordic politics and public debate since the 1980s. The main concern has been with integration. On the one hand, it has been argued that the majority society has excluded immigrants from the possibility of equal participation; on the other hand, it has also been claimed that the minorities themselves have opted for isolation and cultural conservatism instead of adapting fully to the new environment. Increasingly, debates have moved from racism and discrimination towards religion and cultural values. Like in other European countries, female circumcision, forced marriages and the place of Islam in liberal Western societies have been granted considerable attention. What may be peculiar about the Nordic way of dealing with immigrants is the great emphasis placed on equality, including gender equality.

Second and third generation immigrants

Due to the demographics of migration, the second and third generation have only fairly recently come of age (though slightly earlier in Sweden than in the other countries). Increasingly considered a separate kind of ethnic minority, they face the challenge of combining a Nordic identity with another cultural identity. Not immigrants proper, many nevertheless tend to retain important ties with their parents' or grandparents' country of origin. Many try to cultivate a transnational identity which possibly came more automatically to their parents or grandparents; that is, having two homelands. The complex identities of immigrants’ descendants entail a series of tensions, both with the parental generations and with the greater Nordic society. In some areas, there is fear that immigrants and their descendants might form a permanent 'underclass', but it can also be argued that they have experienced a strong and fast upwards mobility. 

Other minorities

A large minority consists of Swedish-speaking Finns. Historically the elite of the country, Swedish-speakers today find themselves decreasing in numbers – many of their children become Finnish-speakers – and in societal influence. The geographic stronghold of Swedish-speakers is in the capital area of Helsinki and on the west coast. Åland, a semi-autonomous archipelago politically part of Finland, is exclusively Swedish-speaking; other communities are bilingual. Swedish-speakers have their own media, their own schools and colleges and political parties, Finland being officially bilingual. Nevertheless, full participation in Finnish society increasingly presupposes fluency in Finnish, and Swedish suffers as a result.

Greenlanders in Denmark are also rightly considered an ethnic minority. Owing to the remaining colonial tie between Denmark and Greenland, they can travel, work and settle freely and are not technically an immigrant minority, but they face substantial challenges in the educational, housing and labour areas comparable to problems faced by other migrants.

Further reading:

  • Anna Karlsdóttir, Gustaf Norlén, Linus Rispling and Linda Randall, eds., State of the Nordic Region 2018: Immigration and Integration Edition. (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2018)
  • Peter Kivisto and Östen Wahlbäck, eds., Debating Multiculturalism in the Nordic Countries. (London: Palgrave, 2013)
  • Sven Tägil ed., Ethnicity and Nation-Building in the Nordic World. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995)