Swedish researchers discuss work with Syrian refugees

Ellen Glover • April 12, 2018

Researchers Tina Askanius and Erin Corey visited The Media School from Malmö University in Sweden to present at last week’s Research Colloquium graduate class. Representatives from each school have been informally visiting each other’s schools several times to examine a wide range of topics. This time, the discussion focused on the influx of refugees in Denmark and Sweden and how the countries are choosing to respond to it.

In 2015 and 2016, Sweden and Denmark experienced a wave of immigration as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis. Since then, according to Corey, Malmö University has created a series of initiatives meant to address it.

In 2015, they started a program that sought to teach newcomers Swedish so they could better navigate the immigration process. They also tried to make their school more open by bringing in academics and other experts on immigration and displacement to the campus in order to be a point of contact for incoming refugees. While the projects had a lot of energy behind them, they unfortunately did not receive enough funding to last very long.

Now, Corey said, there is a new wave of research being done on the topic. Both she and Askanius are a part of Conviviality at the Crossroads, a joint research project between people at the Faculties of Culture and Society and Education and Society that is dedicated to putting the refugee crisis in a more global perspective.

“The aim is to investigate and understand representations of migration that are in circulation and the communicative processes in which new imaginaries can be articulated,” Corey explained. “It brings together researchers, practitioners, artists and scholars to explore top-down and bottom-up visions that might challenge what are understood as ‘core European values,’ which, are obviously in flux.”

Corey said that while Sweden has traditionally been more friendly and open to immigrants, Denmark has not been so welcoming.

“Denmark has been traditionally far more conservative with an institutional policy of integration as assimilation,” Corey said. “Rather than a celebration of difference and inclusion and a mutual appreciation, there is a real sense that you must become Danish in order to become a part of society. So you have to leave things behind.”

However, Corey said both countries have experienced an increase in xenophobia since the number of asylum seekers has increased.

In response to the tightening security and closing borders, a number of grassroots organizations have popped up. Corey works for two. Trampoline House is a space where refugees can find pro-bono lawyers, free food, weekly meetings and language classes. She also does work with Art House, where immigrants and local artists can meet up and create art together.

Corey’s current research involves looking at the young people who are using these organizations and figuring out how they are using online and offline spaces to negotiate these huge changes in their lives. She said this process, which includes talking to them and writing narrative stories, is a marriage between traditional ethnography research and action research.

In doing this, she’s uncovered many interesting stories and found that the issue of integration is one that remains very important to refugees.

“A lot of the young folks I’ve talked to were very keen to tell me that they feel like native Swedes and Danes ought to bear some of this burden,” Corey said. “Things are changing, they’re not going anywhere, so how do they come together and talk about immigration now when it should be sort of a two-sided process?”

While Corey is focusing on the perspective of the refugees, Askanius chose to look at the response to these newcomers, especially as it relates to an increase in racism and anti-immigration attitudes, which has caused an influx in violence against refugees.

Specifically, Askanius is looking at the Nordic Resistance Movement, a militant neo-Nazi organization that has increased its presence both online and on the streets.

“They have been a key actor in these attacks and they have made themselves much more visible on the streets, handing out fliers. Their online activities have mushroomed as well. They have a number of new and fresh-looking programs and podcasts,” Askanius said. “One of the things I am interested in, and currently working on, is the changing media strategies and the practices of these groups.”

According to Askanius, this increase of immigrants hasn’t just caused groups like this to become louder, it’s also caused them to shift their whole tenor and tone with much more mainstream and polished political rhetoric. They’ve launched lighter, even funny, videos and podcasts where they discuss everyday topics.

“This is an explicit and self-professed part of their normalization strategy to try to change the image of this violent organization into an organization for everyone,” Askanius explained. “Another change is that they are putting their names, their faces and their identities out there.

Askanius is going beyond just studying what these groups are saying. She wants to understand these groups and what effect their words are having on society. She also wants to explore the experience of these activists and what role it has on their propaganda by looking at their content, talking to former members and studying autobiographical information of these members. 

“By combining the analysis of all these different data points, we hope to make a critical contribution to research on the interplay between online propaganda and the globalization of violent extremism,” Askanius said.