Exclusion in the name of inclusion? Romani bridge builders in Sweden

Contemporary research and evaluations of existing policy initiatives in the field of Romani studies reveal that cultural racism against Roma remains widespread in the Nordics today. An emphasis on ‘cultural difference’ is so endemic that it can make officials and decision makers blind to alternative reasons for exclusion, such as class and structural antigypsyism. Despite some evidence to suggest modest success with the Swedish “bridge builder programme", research and evaluations are often highly critical, suggesting that it may in fact support exclusory practices. This echoes our research and hands-on experience with teaching Romani students and collaborating with Roman civil society in Sweden. Meanwhile, other crucial steps for building trust, such as a permanent Roma agency, go unrealised.

The current policy approach to Roma inclusion in Europe, and in Sweden specifically, has been criticised by the European Commission as well as a range of other groups and NGOs, leading to calls for the current hegemonic paradigm to change. We have both previously been involved in the bridge builder programme at Södertörn University as occasional lecturers, and are researchers at the newly established Department for Critical Romani Studies at Södertörn University. In this article, we look at the latest situation in Sweden in a European context, and provide some practical recommendations for the future.

Background of policy making for Romani inclusion in Sweden

In 2011 the Swedish government set out a 20-year strategy for Roma inclusion. Half-way through this period, in September 2021, the European Commission called on member states to adopt national strategies based on a new framework built on combatting antigypsyism and discrimination. The Swedish government, however, concluded in a report that the Swedish strategy did not need to be changed in any substantial way. Considering that the Swedish strategy had been heavily criticised, this decision was legitimately questioned by Romani reference persons. To understand these criticisms, it is helpful to go back to 2006, when the first major inquiry into Roma rights and antigypsyism in Sweden was carried out.


In this paper we use "Roma" as an umbrella term in line with the term “Roma and Travellers” used by the Council of Europe. In a Swedish context it is the official term of a national minority with a wide range of identities and linguistic varieties, such as Resande, Kale, Kalderash, Lovari, Arli and Gurbeti.

First major inquiry into Roma issues, 2006

The Delegation for Roma Issues 2006-2010 was initiated by the Social Democratic government led by Göran Persson in September 2006. The Delegation adopted a fully-fledged rights perspective and made serious efforts to integrate Romani people in policy development. Its final report had an extensive catalogue of measures aimed at equal rights for Roma. Bridging the trust gap between the minority and majority society was seen as a crucial goal, a gap which was seen as a result of historical, on-going and internalised antigypsyism which had led to a lack of confidence in state institutions. Recognising how the past influences the present negatively, the Delegation proposed a truth and reconciliation process, and a 20-year Roma rights-strategy. To safeguard its implementation and to increase Roma autonomy, a permanent secretariat for Roma issues was suggested, following the model of the Finnish Roma Delegation, a permanent body which acts as a crucial interface between Roma civil society and government agencies.

Shortly after the establishment of the Delegation in 2006, Persson’s government was replaced leading to a different course of action being taken. The suggestions targeting Roma – such as the bridge builder programme – were kept, but the measures targeting majority society, such as a truth and reconciliation commission, were discarded, as was the permanent secretariat.

The Swedish bridge builder programme 

In 2011, Fredrik Reinfeldt’s government launched an initiative called the Roma inclusion strategy, which is still in force today. A significant element of this strategy was to train Roma "bridge builders" to serve as a point of contact between Romani families and the majority society. They were paid and employed by local councils while studying, and received 30 ECTS for their training. About a quarter of the total funding for Roma inclusion has been used for this programme which was delivered exclusively by Södertörn University in the period from 2012 to 2019. In 2022, the government decided to finance new bridge builder courses for 2022-2024.

Internal evaluations have suggested some positive aspects, such as the strengthening of participants’ knowledge and increased Roma inclusion in the municipalities concerned. However, the programme has also been heavily criticised in a range of other evaluations as well as in the media. In this short article, we rely more heavily on independent evaluations and research than internal reports to try to get an outside view of the programme. The bridge builder programme is in many respects similar to the Council of Europe’s Training Programme of Roma Mediators (ROMED). In the following, we have used similar headings to those of Kocze in her critical analysis of that programme in 2019.

Inappropriate focus on intercultural mediation  

Discourses within Romani studies and so-called “Roma policies” often wrongly perceive “Romani culture” as homogenous, which blurs the vast variety in world views, religions, languages and traditions. In a review of 151 research papers published on Roma and education from 1997-2016, Lauritzen and Nodeland (2018) found that 31 saw cultural differences as the major obstacle, whereas only 6 presented socio-economic differences as the main problem to be solved. While we cannot further analyse the parameters of each study here, it seems to suggest a predisposition of researchers in the field to highlight cultural aspects over other potentially relevant factors.

Additionally, Romani culture is often positioned as deviant and problematic. In an analysis of Roma policies in Finland, Sweden and Norway, Helakorpi, Lappalainen and Mietola (2018) found examples of a particular “cultural paradigm”: Policies in all the three countries portrayed Roma as a group with special needs and problems, and consequently directed the policy measures towards them rather than the majority society. Swedish policies assume that Romani pupils have special needs without specifying what these are, Swedish-Romani parents are described as making decisions for their children based on emotions rather than “rationality”, and “Roma culture” in Sweden is described as patriarchal and unequal with child marriage and early pregnancies mentioned as examples.

Other examples from the literature and media include that Romani children are frequently cited as needing a mediator to tell their “culturally deviant” parents that education is valuable; and similarly that it is often said there is not a single known Roma PhD in Sweden as “they are not interested in higher education”. We were even guilty of using this underlying discourse when, through our reporting of the bridge builders programme we were involved in 2019, we inferred that the underrepresentation of Romani people in Swedish higher education was due to a lack of interest.

The term antigypsyism

In line with the official terminology of European bodies such as the Council of Europe and the European Parliament as well as Scandinavian authorities, in this text we use the notion "antigypsyism", which is also preferred by most Romani actors in Scandinavia (i.e. the equivalent of 'antiziganism' / 'antisiganisme'). The term designates prejudice, discrimination and racism against Roma and other people associated with the stereotypes of antigypsyism.
(See links below for more information on terminology).

The European Commission has recognised that this way of talking about these issues is paradigmatic and must be changed. On the 6th October 2020, it presented a new strategic framework for Roma inclusion. The same conclusion was reached by an independent Swedish enquiry into the Swedish context in 2019 (See the Wickman inquiry for more on this).

It is clear therefore that the construction and upholding of the image of Roma as culturally deviant must cease; repeatedly, the blame for Romani exclusion is put at their own door. Instead, we argue that Romani exclusion should be analysed and addressed holistically, and be seen as a result of structurally, individually and historically grounded antigypsyism. It is problematic that bridge builders are described as - and educated to - mediate or build bridges between cultures. Rather, these individuals should be thoroughly schooled in power analysis, including class and racism, and work as advocates for Roma and other minorities to have their rights fulfilled.

An individual and Roma-oriented approach 

Intercultural mediation - like the use of bridge builders - focuses on change on the individual level, and thereby risks shifting the focus from the structural conditions which exclude Roma. Helakorpi, Lappalainen and Mietola’s study also shows how Roma policies in e.g. Sweden direct attention towards the Roma child and its “problematic culture”, and that, as a result, measures are directed at children rather than towards the structure which systematically violates their rights (2018). Similarly, in their research on early childhood initiatives targeting Roma, Klaus and Marsh (2014) conclude that a mere focus on Romani children is unlikely to improve inclusion, as institutional antigypsyism must also be tackled. 

A result of this Roma-oriented approach is that Sweden’s current inclusion strategy is aimed at making Roma trust antigypsyist institutions, rather than looking at what the institutions themselves can do. An evaluation by Emerga Research & Consulting and the Raoul Wallenberg institute indicated that:

"(…) the interventions have been primarily targeted at the Roma community and aimed at increasing their trust and confidence in the various municipal entities. On the other hand, relatively few interventions, apart from information and awareness raising, have been targeted at the municipal and state sectors where structural discrimination takes place. The focus has thus been on strengthening the trust of the Roma community in the administration."


We argue that the current model in Sweden is not sustainable as local councils are usually only willing to employ bridge builders while receiving the time limited, earmarked funds from the inclusion strategy. Scholars such as Nicolae (2007) and Matache and Oehlke (2017) criticise how so-called “Roma inclusion” tends to focus on short-term, small-scale, unsustainable educational interventions. The European Commission civil society monitoring report for Sweden labels current initiatives “temporary emergency solutions”, and draw unfavourable parallels to the assimilation of the Sámi population in Sweden. A similar point was raised by the bridge builder Nina Lundberg in an interview with Swedish public service Radio Romano who said that “Roma bridge builders do not solve all problems. We are only putting out temporary fires.”

Inclusion or further isolation?  

Taken together, these different factors mean unfortunately that programmes can exclude Romani people instead of including them as intended. The Emerga Research & Consulting and the Raoul Wallenberg institute evaluation highlights how the bridge builder programme, which targets the minority without considering majority society, can even lead to the growth of a parallel society:

"Although Emerga has made the assessment that employed bridge builders can have positive effects, it is pointed out that such a function requires a structure where those employed do not only work with the Roma group. Otherwise, the risk is that their work is handled in parallel with the rest of society and thus further isolation."

Another useful case study is an educational initiative which segregated Romani pupils in Stockholm. In its evaluation, the City Council of Stockholm argue that the teachers’ pedagogical work was carried out in such a way that students' exclusion was in fact strengthened rather than appeased. This risk is also pinpointed by research from the Italian context which found that Roma mediators replaced the role of teachers in collaborating with parents (Rozzi, 2017). As a result a form of school segregation appeared, where Roma and non-Roma pupils were placed in the same classrooms, but where the support they received was ethnically determined. That bridge builders replace the teachers in e.g. collaboration with parents is further problematic because bridge builders in general have lower levels of education than teachers. This can contribute to the programme being unsustainable in the long-term.

Measures taken for not with Roma

Another concern of the European Commission has been that the power assigned to these roles is merely lipservice: In a 2019 civil society monitoring report on implementation of the national Roma integration strategy in Sweden, the European Commission stated that “Interviews reveal that …[bridge builders] often …are not competent to the level needed to be able to learn because they lack compulsory school, upper secondary education and college [education]...

...Many of these then end up in symbolic positions that on the surface appears to be progress with Roma integration, but in reality, are stripped of the mandate to influence the outcome within their workplace.”

Similarly, a recent Finnish policy analysis report (2021) comparing Nordic Roma strategies concludes that Roma persons in Sweden "do not feel that their involvement in Roma policy-making is meaningful and satisfactory". Tellingly, Nina Lundberg in her interview with the Swedish public service Radio Romano set out that, in order to be empowered, Roma need to be involved at all levels - measures have been taken for the Roma, not with the Roma, and it is quality participation that is necessary.

A way to overcome the segregation which has been an unintended consequence of some of these programmes would be for the bridge builders not to work exclusively with Romani children, but rather to be included in regular positions in local councils. This model would also make local councils more willing to finance their employment when earmarked funding ceases. It would require, however, that the bridge builders were competent enough to be trusted to work with people of all ethnicities. Funding would arguably be better spent on giving already educated Roma (and non-Roma) sociologists, teachers, social workers, nurses etc cutting-edge competence on antigypsyism and how to realise minority rights.

This alternative model would also ensure that the education provided in the name of Roma inclusion was of the same quality as other study programmes. A starting point would be that the bridge builder programmes should have the same entry requirements as other programmes (completed upper secondary education, Swedish 'gymnasium'), and that they achieved the minimum requirements for critical thinking and academic writing (see again the evaluation by the Stockholm County Administration).

Lessons for the future in Roma policy

A more sustainable and holistic approach to policy initiatives on Roma issues is possible. The establishment of some sort of dedicated agency for Roma issues has been recommended by many, including the Swedish Delegation for Roma issues in 2010 as well as other high profile inquiries. The 2019 Wickman inquiry in Sweden concluded that it was necessary to establish an agency for Roma issues, with real Roma influence and a declared mission to strengthen Roma NGOs, as did the Swedish Commission against antiziganism in 2016. At present the only Nordic country with an agency for Roma issues is Finland. Such a measure would secure increased Roma autonomy in Sweden, and would ensure that Roma were involved at all levels.

It is clear that combatting antigypsyism should be prioritised in policy making generally. This could include, for example, a significant strengthening of officials’ knowledge and awareness of antigypsyism. This would help ensure that the focus was not always put on the Roma community, but structural inequalities. Until now, relatively few interventions, apart from information and awareness raising, have been targeted at the municipal and state sectors where structural discrimination takes place.

It remains true that there is a need for more Romani individuals with MA and PhD-degrees in Sweden. A starting point could be to offer specialisation courses to Romani teachers, nurses, social workers etc. However, it is important not to fall into the trap of placing the need to change at the door of the Romani community; there is a similar need for non-Roma to be educated about antigypsyism. The EU’s Roma Strategic Framework for Equality, Inclusion and Participation emphasised a need for increased knowledge in this complex and multi-layered area, along with an increase in knowledge dissemination. Ways of achieving this could include replicating in the Nordics the way the Antiziganism Research Unit at Heidelberg University was set up, namely, in collaboration with the Sinti and Roma civil society. Greater inclusion of Romani perspectives in related research areas such as racism in general and the Holocaust would also support the development of the understanding of antigypsyism.

There is a wealth of knowledge, research and recommendations in this area and it is vital that these are not overlooked when it comes to future Romani policies on inclusion and combatting antigypsyism in Sweden and elsewhere.


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