STOCKHOLM — In his suburban Stockholm apartment, Marcello Demeter sits at the kitchen table with his two daughters, Isabelle and Sandra — and wonders how they got on the list that has sent Sweden into an uproar.
About a week ago, the 42-year-old Swede found out that he and his wife, Susanne, their three children and at least three of their grandchildren were on a secret police register purportedly created to help fight violent crime.
The reason? They are Gypsies.
The list has triggered an outcry over racial profiling in this nation proud of its traditions of tolerance and social justice — and reminded many of the persecution that Gypsies, or Roma, suffered under the Nazis.
“My first thought was of Hitler and of what has happened in the past. It is terrible,” sighs Demeter, who is currently on sick-leave from his job at a supermarket. “If it is a crime registry, do they mean all Roma are criminals? And my grandchild, in what way is she a criminal?”
Demeter and his family are among some 5,000 Roma, including around 1,000 children, listed in two files by police in the southern Swedish district of Skane that were revealed by Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter last week.
The police department claims the registers were created by local officers as part of an investigation into violent criminal activity, but were wrongly expanded beyond their purpose and came to include Roma from all over Sweden. The journalist behind the revelation, Niklas Orrenius, says the file was deliberately created as a register of Roma.
Sweden’s police chief, Bengt Svensson, has said ethnic registers are illegal under Swedish law. The files are now the subject of several investigations and Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask has publicly apologized for the file.
But for experts on the Roma, the secret file underscores the discrimination the group faces in Europe, even in countries widely seen as liberal.
“This is shameful for Sweden, because we have a reputation abroad of having a passion for social justice and that we work for people’s equal rights,” says author and artist Hans Caldaras, a Swede of Roma origin. “These police officers haven’t just harmed the Roma but they have harmed Sweden.”
The Roma arrived to Europe from India in the 14th century and the first groups came to Sweden from Finland and Russia about 500 years ago. Today there are some 15,000-20,000 Roma people in Sweden, also including more recent arrivals from the former Yugoslavia and eastern Europe.
Throughout European history, Roma have been traded as slaves and faced harassment and discrimination. Researchers estimate between 500,000 and 1.5 million Roma were killed alongside the Jews in the Holocaust.
Today, they are still forcefully evicted from settlements across Europe, and Roma children are excluded from school systems in many countries, says Lise Bergh, director general of Amnesty International Sweden.
“I would say the Roma are one of the most marginalized and discriminated groups in Europe,” she says.
Amnesty has specifically criticized France and Italy for their treatment of the Roma. In 2008 Italy announced a plan to take the fingerprints of Roma people, including children, and the French government evicted more than 10,000 Roma from informal settlements during the first half of 2013.
On Tuesday, France’s interior minister, Manuel Valls, defended the policies, saying people of Roma origin have a lifestyle that is in “confrontation” with that of the French.
Most of the 20,000 Roma migrants living in France have fled chronic poverty and discrimination in Romania and Bulgaria, although critics of the Roma say that many perpetuate backward social structures that keep girls out of school and encourage begging — reinforcing cycles of poverty. France has been pushing to keep the two countries from gaining full access to Europe’s Schengen zone, which allows passport-free travel, in part as a move to keep out Roma.
Bergh calls Valls’ words “devastating” and says policy makers within the EU are struggling to get to the core of the problem with Roma discrimination.
“There is a lot of work with creating action plans, putting forward demands of Roma inclusion and against discrimination,” she says. “But it very often stays on the paper. There is no real change for the people.”
While the standard of living is much better for Sweden’s Roma, who tend to be well integrated into society, negative attitudes toward them persist here as well, Caldaras says.
“It is still legit to have a negative attitude toward Roma without regarding yourself as xenophobic,” he says.
Demeter’s story gives a similar picture.
He says he deliberately avoids talking about his Roma origins, especially when applying for jobs, and that his family is often subjected to discrimination by public officials.
“This is my country, I am proud of being Swedish,” he says. “I am proud of being Roma, too, but I can’t walk around talking about that, I keep that in my heart.”
Now many in the Roma community are worried that the past week’s attention will lead to more harassment — and their confidence in police has hit rock bottom.
“We are not criminals,” says Demeter. “Who is going to protect us when police think all Roma people are criminals?”