Swedish cultural orientation programs and the notion of the “passive refugee”

Sweden has been resettling refugees since 1950. Every year the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) grants almost 1,900 refugees a residence permit as a part of its resettlement program. As a means to prepare the refugees for the move, the Agency has developed a specific cultural orientation program (henceforth COP), also called the Sweden program. Approximately three weeks before the resettlement to Sweden, a delegation consisting of representatives from the Migration Agency, Municipalities, and the Swedish Employment Office heads to the country where the refugees to be resettled are to facilitate a one and a half day COP. During the COP the refugees are informed about their upcoming journey as well as various strands of Swedish society such as housing, employment market, education, and Swedish culture. Separate programs are held for children where the focus is on children’s activities, drawing and learning Swedish words and songs.

The Swedish COP stems from a project called the MOST[1] project, an EU financed transnational project based on collaboration between Finland, Ireland, Spain and Sweden. The project that was held during 2007-2008 aimed to discover quicker and more effective ways of establishing refugees in the new society. Within this project, the Swedish Integration Board conducted an interview study examining the experiences of introduction among resettled persons as well as officials working with resettlement. The results of the study sparked a discussion and work regarding how to develop methods for the reception, introduction and integration of those being resettled (MOST 2008). The development of this kind of program for refugees can be understood through Sweden’s strong welfare background. According to Eastmond, refugees enter the Swedish society as clients of the welfare system, whereby the reception has both care and control as its key features (Eastmond 2011). Whereas the welfare state policies have played a vital role in granting all people equal opportunities to participate in society, these policies, especially in regard to the reception of migrants, need to be understood through a strong belief in the state interventions and regulations on which the egalitarianism rests (Eastmond 2011). Efforts like COPs can thus be understood as both facilitating establishment in the new country as well as a way to form ideal future citizens (Eastmond 2011).

The aim of the COP is “to inform refugees of Swedish conditions and prepare them for their journey to and arrival in Sweden” (Migration Agency 2016). Moreover, a prominent issue discussed in the MOST project report is the need to work with tendencies of dependency and passivity among refugees. These tendencies are viewed as outcomes of the time spent in refugee camps as well as the resettlement process. Refugees asking the officials to do things for them is highlighted as problematic, a barrier for a successful integration in the Swedish society. The refugees are to be actively involved in the early stages of resettlement (MOST 2008). The passive refugee has been highlighted as a prevalent notion within humanitarian refugee work. In her research on humanitarian refugee work in Tanzania, Malkki shows how in order to be viewed as “real refugee” in the eyes of officials working in refugee camps, passivity and victimhood need to be prevalent among the refugees in various ways. Otherwise the refugees were seen as unreliable and dishonest (Malkki 1996).

In 2011, 349 Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya were granted Swedish residence permit and resettled to Sweden. A study of these programs highlights how the notion of refugees as passive as well as Swedish citizens as active and independent came about during COP and how the refugees navigated the stereotypes. The study is based on video recordings of COP with a specific focus on the conversations between the delegation officials and the young refugees (Muftee 2014b). The program included practical information about Sweden given by an enthusiastic delegation that had prepared pictures, videos, and activities for the participants. The refugees were informed about the Swedish climate, the education system, and housing facilities. Colorful pictures of Sweden depicting citizens engaging in different activities were shown (Muftee 2014b). The information being given included a strong idea of the ideal citizen as active, empowered, and independent. This idea was most prevalent when it came to the topic of gender relations and equality between men and women. The participating women and girls were particularly informed about how, in Sweden, they would have the right to make their own decisions, choose and live their lives as they wished, freedom from family, to be able to engage in sports, and that everyone was viewed as equal in Sweden (Muftee 2014a). This normative information tended to be based on stereotype assumptions of the female participants as unaware of gender equality. Although women and girls indeed are the most vulnerable group of refugees, exposed to various forms of hardships (UNHCR 2008), the information, given as a means to empower them, paradoxically tended to position them as passive.

The participants of the program were anything but passive. In studying the Swedish COP, we meet Isir, a 21-year-old woman, who worked as a teacher in the camps of Dadaab. In a conversation with another delegation official, she tells the official that she has refused to get married because of the problem of domestic violence in the camps. Her wish is to go to Sweden, learn the language, and continue teaching. In another instance during the COP, Isir has just taken part in a women’s session where the delegation officials have told them about the wrongness of forced marriages and the fact that this practice is forbidden in Sweden. After the session, Isir and Hani, a 15-year-old girl from the camp, are chatting with the researcher during the break. Without having been asked about the particular topic of forced marriage, they tell the researcher that forced marriages as a phenomenon has declined within the Somali community. By informing this, they manifest a refusal to be viewed as passive victims. “But nowadays we use our choice”, Isir exclaims (Muftee 2014a:55). The study of COP shows how the young refugees navigate the information given and sometimes resist stereotypes of them. They also take the opportunity to ask questions that are important to them. During one COP session, Nora, a 14-year-old girl from Dadaab, asks the officials how her family’s financial circumstances will change due to the resettlement to Sweden. Having been told that her parents will attend school in order to learn Swedish, Nora wonders how they will have money for food since her parents do not have any money (Muftee 2015:138).

The study shows that the participants, when given the opportunity, manifest various ways in managing the meetings with the delegation officials during COP. They are hence actively engaging in their resettlement process. The COP is thought to be a way to prepare refugees for a life-changing journey. Indeed, the few people that get to leave the camps are given an opportunity to build a life in a safe country with basic human rights. However, not paying attention to the experiences and perspectives of the very subjects of the humanitarian effort precludes a deeper understanding of refugees own circumstances, wishes and worries. The prevalent notion of the passive refugee as opposed to the active and independent Swedish citizen seems to lead to a silencing of the refugees’ voices and, as a result, a dehistoricization and depoliticization of them (Malkki 1996). There are of course structural barriers within COP that makes it difficult to create a platform for dialogue in order to attain deeper understanding of refugees circumstances. These include a language barrier between the refugees and the delegations, short amount of time for COP, and there is a strong power asymmetry between the Swedish delegation and the refugees who are perhaps still worried about whether anything they say may jeopardize their upcoming resettlement. Therefore, an important question to ask is what role the COP actually plays during the resettlement process. The study of COP also highlights the importance of critically engaging in a discussion and further understanding what the notion of the passive refugee means and accomplishes during the overall resettlement process.

Mehek Muftee currently works at Jönköping University where she teaches sociology, migration studies and human rights. She has a doctoral degree in Child Studies from Linköping University. This post is based on her PhD project where she studied preparation programs for children and youths in Kenya and Sudan, observing the meetings between young refugees being resettled to Sweden and Swedish officials.


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[1] Modelling of Orientation, Services and Training related to the Resettlement and Reception of Refugees.