Stockholm university logo, link to start page

What is the experience for vulnerable EU citizens in Stockholm?

Since the early 2010s, Stockholm has seen a visible emergence of homelessness and begging amongst predominantly Romanian citizens. A thesis from the Department of Human Geography seeks to forge a deeper understanding for these individuals and their experience. The thesis by Joshua Levy also looks at the responses with which they have been met by state and society.

In your view, what is the most important results of the thesis? 

“I think that through focusing on the stories and experiences of ‘vulnerable EU citizens’ in Stockholm, I have been able to show the multiple challenges many face on a daily basis to meet their basic needs. The ways that state practices (from policing to evictions) as well as inactions (with regard to securing their basic rights such as access to water and sanitation infrastructure) can make life more challenging for these individuals. “

Joshua Levy portrait image
Joshua Levy. Photo: Anders Rickegård

“Ultimately, the thesis suggests that local practices towards this group are tied up with a wider politics of international mobility control in way that seeks to make Sweden less attractive as a place for vulnerable EU citizens to seek livelihoods, but without actively preventing them from doing so.”

What surprised you most in the process of writing the thesis?

“What surprised me most when I began working on this project was the discrepancy between my pre-existing vision of Sweden as a ‘morally exceptional’, inclusive nation on the one hand, and the lack of long-term, inclusive interventions directed towards this group, as well as sometimes outright punitive interventions that many reported experiencing.”

How is the access to water and sanitation infrastructure for this group?

“There are a couple of drop-in centers in the city that cater for these needs but these only reach a proportion of those in the city, for a number of reasons. For those who spent their days on the streets of the central city, some would spend a large proportion of their already limited daily income just to legally access toilets and water. “

“The fact that many semi-public spaces like cafes and shopping centers now charge non-customers for toilets makes life more difficult, so it was important for many to build relationships with local business owners or workers who might grant free access sometimes. “

“Those that lived in informal settlements outside the city center could often collect water and then build rudimentary toilets and showers, which was often seen as preferable. Many in these camps also spoke of their desire for some kind of access to infrastructure to keep the camps safe and clean from waste, but this was never provided and the camps have been continually evicted, often justified on the very basis that they pose a sanitary risk.”

“It was common for individuals to speak of the shame they felt when they weren’t able to maintain hygiene standards due to a lack of access to decent water and sanitation infrastructure.”

In what ways have local police responded to begging practices?

“I found a diversity in how police were responding to begging in different city spaces. I focused specifically on two areas, Rinkeby and Södermalm, and found that police on Södermalm had been much more active in intervening against individuals begging. For instance through picking individuals up in a police van, driving them out of the central city and leaving them somewhere to find their way back. Some interviewed spoke of good experiences with police in both areas but I also heard numerous reports of violence and intimidation from certain officers on Södermalm. I show that whilst there are a number of factors that contribute towards differences in policing practices in different areas, such as the different concerns and priorities of local residents, individual police officers played an important role in determining how begging was policed, and this could be influenced by their individual political leanings. “

What is the political discourse and political response in Sweden to these vulnerable EU citizens?

“I identified three dominant narratives within the mainstream political discourse in Sweden. The first I called the “help at home” narrative, which in general combines a sympathetic attitude regarding the structural causes of their poverty and discrimination with an assertion that these are problems that should be solved in their ‘home countries’ rather than in Sweden. “

“The second I called “No one should have to beg in Sweden” and relates to an understanding of Sweden as a nation in which begging is seen as having no place. This narrative reinforces the notion of the ‘good Sweden’ while often being deployed in support of punitive measures to prevent begging or the establishment of informal settlements. “

“The final narrative I called “organized begging” and refers the often vague and indiscriminate way in which real instances of illegal trafficking amongst a small minority of vulnerable EU citizens have been conflated with a more generalized benign organization amongst family groups, in a way that has been powerful in providing the general population with a reason not to donate money on the street.”

“Together, I argue that these narratives, while seemingly benign, work to create a climate in which it is harder for ‘vulnerable EU citizens’ to survive and earn livelihoods in Sweden. “