Sweden’s national minorities
Sweden has 5 official national minorities. The law protects their languages and cultures.
Sweden’s five national minorities have long historical ties to the country. In 2000 Sweden recognised Jews and Yiddish, the Roma and Romani Chib, the Sami and the Sami language, the Swedish Finns and Finnish, as well as the Tornedalers and Meänkieli (sometimes called Torne Valley Finnish) as official minorities and minority languages. This was in connection with Sweden’s ratification of the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
For a language to qualify as an official national minority language in Sweden, two conditions must be met: it must be a language, not a dialect, and it must have been spoken without interruption for at least three successive generations or 100 years.
In areas of Sweden where Sami, Finnish and Meänkieli have historical roots and are still widely used today, individuals are allowed to use these languages to deal with administrative authorities and courts. Children of the national minority groups in Sweden have the right to learn and use their minority language.
The objective of Sweden’s National Minorities and Minority Languages Act (link in Swedish) from 2010 is to protect and promote the national minorities and their languages. In short, the law entails:
- minorities’ right to information;
- the protection of minorities’ culture and language; and
- minorities’ right to participation and influence.
This means that administrative authorities have an obligation to inform minorities about their rights, when required. The public sector has a particular responsibility to protect and promote the minority languages and should support and promote the preservation and development of minorities’ cultural identities. Administrative authorities also have a duty to give minorities real influence on issues that affect them.
Jews started settling in Sweden at the end of the 17th century. In those days, Sweden demanded that Jews convert to Christianity, more specifically Lutheranism. In 1774 a Jewish man named Aaron Isaac came to Sweden from Germany, and he became the first Jew to be allowed to live in Sweden without converting. Isaac went on to found the first Jewish community in Stockholm. In 1870 Jews were granted full civil rights.
During the 20th century, many Jews came to Sweden from Russia, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, former Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 1951 Sweden implemented freedom of religion, which meant that Jews no longer needed to be members of a Jewish community.
As for antisemitism in Sweden, a report from June 2021 that compares 2020 with 2005, indicates that there's been a general decline in antisemitic attitudes and beliefs in Sweden. But antisemitism is still a cause for concern in the country, and Jewish communities have received more government support to improve the security around synagogues and other premises.
Roma people have lived in Sweden since at least the 16th century. For centuries, the Roma have been subjected to discrimination and exclusion, partly due to policies of marginalisation.
In 2012 the Swedish government launched a long-term strategy that aims to achieve equal opportunities for Roma people by 2032. The strategy is based on human rights, with a particular focus on the principle of non-discrimination. Women and children are prioritised.
The strategy includes objectives and measures within several areas: education; work; housing; health, social care and security; culture and language; and organisation of civil society.
The Sami are not only an official minority, but also an indigenous people, who also live in Finland, Norway and Russia. Like many other indigenous people, the Sami have long been oppressed and their culture suppressed. In the 1950s they began to influence Sweden’s policies by establishing associations to protect their rights. This developed until the Sami gained their own parliament, Sametinget, which holds special elections every four years.
The Sami parliament works for greater autonomy and deals with matters related to hunting and fishing, reindeer herding, compensation for damage caused by predators, and Sami language and culture.
Today there are four major organisations that promote Sami national rights: the Sami Council (Samerådet), two national federations (RSÄ and SSR) and the youth organisation Sáminuorra.
Swedish Finns have Finnish roots but live in Sweden – a people with two cultures and two languages. And it’s up to individuals to define themselves as part of this minority.
The population mix has historical reasons. Following Sweden’s military campaigns in Finland in the 13th century, Finland gradually came under Swedish rule. The country was only separated from Sweden in 1809, with Sweden becoming a constitutional monarchy. The waves of Finnish immigration to Sweden did not stop with the separation of the two countries, because shortly thereafter Finland was occupied by Russia. Then, World War II led to the displacement of about 70,000 Finns to Sweden. The 1950s and 1960s also saw large numbers of Finns moving to Sweden, often for work.
Ever since the Middle Ages, Finnish has been the dominant language in the Torne Valley, Tornedalen, the area around Torne River in the far north of Sweden. When Sweden and Finland were separated in 1809, the border was drawn along the river. Western Torne Valley became Swedish and was populated by Tornedalers speaking Meänkieli, a language related to Finnish, Estonian and the Sami language, among others.
For a long time, Swedish minority policy didn’t allow Tornedalers to speak their own language in school – and the same applied to the Sami and Swedish Finns. The situation improved gradually from the 1960s onwards. Since 1 April 2000, Tornedalers have had the right to use their own language in all municipalities in the Torne Valley area.
Numbers and locations
Since Sweden doesn’t gather statistics on the basis of ethnicity or religion, there’s no official population count of each of these five minorities, only estimates. The Jewish population in Sweden is estimated to be 20,000–25,000, the Roma 50,000–100,000, the Sami population 20,000–35,000. Swedish Finns are the largest national minority in Sweden, with a population of somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 people, and the Tornedalers are around 50,000. Altogether, the five minorities are thought to constitute about 10 per cent of the total population of Sweden.
The Sami minority is concentrated in the north and north-east of Sweden. It is the most widespread minority in terms of area. The Tornedalers are mainly concentrated in northern Sweden. The Swedish Finns live predominantly in the north-east, along the border with Finland, but also in central Sweden. The Roma and the Jews are spread over the country.