“I often use Sweden as a deterring example.”
The words are not those of Donald Trump, but Anders Fogh Rasmussen. In an interview with Swedish public television in January, the former NATO secretary general and Danish prime minister described Sweden’s immigration policy as a failure and a warning to other countries. But it was President Trump’s unclear and slightly confused reference to Sweden during his February 18 rally in Florida that has turned attention to the Scandinavian country of 10 million and the details of its migrant experience. Sweden has accepted more refugees per capita in recent years than any other country in Europe. “Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible,” Trump said. Since then, Swedes have seen facts about their country, and many exaggerations and misconceptions, used as arguments in an American domestic debate.
But there are, in fact, good reasons for Americans to care about Sweden’s problems. First, because Sweden’s failure to integrate its immigrants, in line with Rasmussen’s observation, carries lessons for other countries; second, because Swedish news reporting and public discourse on immigration and integration are restricted by taboos. Swedish journalists and public figures who have been outspoken about the problems—and transgressed what the Swedes call the “opinion corridor”—have risked being labeled xenophobes or racists.
This peculiarity of Swedish public discourse has often allowed politicians and public authorities to deny the problems caused by the country’s migration and integration policies, without being seriously challenged. The Swedish foreign ministry, for instance, launched a PR campaign in response to the debate following Donald Trump’s remarks about the country. It tweeted last week, as part of the campaign:
Does Sweden actually have ‘No-Go Zones’? No, we don’t.
You think that Swedish police have lost control? The ‘no-go zones’ are in fact ‘go-go zones’. #FactCheck
But no-go zones cannot simply be dismissed as a myth. Gordon Grattidge, chairman of a Swedish ambulance trade union, explained to me that no-go zones are a reality for paramedics in Sweden. There are areas where first responders can’t enter without police escort. Grattidge’s assessment is that ambulances are forced to retreat from such areas on a weekly basis.
How, then, should we understand the connection between crime and immigration in Sweden? Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt had the facts right when he tweeted in response to Trump: “Last year there were app 50% more murders only in Orlando/Orange in Florida, where Trump spoke the other day, than in all of Sweden. Bad.” That comparison, while correct, misses the point. Of course Sweden has not turned into Orlando or, for that matter, Chicago. But in a short time—maybe as short as two decades—Sweden has gone from a nation rightly considered a model of social cohesion, equality, low crime, and political stability to a society with growing enclaves of social unrest.
In 1990, Sweden had three so-called “areas of social exclusion,” characterized by socioeconomic problems—and high numbers of immigrants. According to Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji, the number of such areas had risen to 186 by 2012. Swedish police authorities have identified 53 with persistently high crime rates. Here, police officers risk assaults, while ambulance drivers and firefighters often have to wait for police escort before answering calls from people in distress. It’s no surprise they’re often described as no-go zones.
Crime in these areas is not just new in scope, but also in kind. Systematic attacks on paramedics and firefighters were an unknown phenomenon in Sweden only a generation ago. The same goes for extensive use of guns and hand grenades in a country where most homicides historically followed from stabbings, blunt force trauma, and unarmed violence. Today, Sweden is extreme with respect to violence from guns and explosives, compared with the country’s Scandinavian neighbors: In Stockholm, the capital, 189 victims suffered gunshot injuries during the period 2010-2015. During the same period in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, only 30 people fell victim to such crimes.
An additional change in the Swedish crime landscape is the fact that gang shootings and explosions increasingly take place during the daylight, in public, as well as in residential areas. Here is a recent example: On February 27, a Malmö resident suffered injuries in the leg after a hand grenade detonated outside a house in a residential area. Earlier on the same day, a sharp hand grenade was found outside a police station in the Stockholm suburb Kista. Police investigated a connection between the grenade and the riots in neighboring Rinkeby the week before. Violence was sparked there when police arrested a 17-year-old criminal on the run from a juvenile home. Police were eventually forced to shoot and spent three hours retreating from the area after losing control over the situation. Rioters looted, torched cars, and threw rocks; a newspaper photographer was beaten by at least 15 men.
On several occasions, foreign journalists reporting from Swedish areas of social exclusion have been driven out by violent youths. When the Norwegian public TV network NRK tried to report from a housing project area in Stockholm, its team was forced to leave the neighborhood under duress. Australian 60 Minutes visited Rinkeby in March this year, only to have its camera crew attacked by rock throwers. “We’ve all been assaulted and insulted,” the reporter declared on air.
Journalists have also documented how religious minorities are being persecuted in immigrant neighborhoods. When Swedish public television accompanied a Somali woman who has converted to Christianity to Rinkeby—the scene of last month’s riots—she was immediately threatened because of her conversion and forced to run. A similar case occurred in Malmö, when a TV reporter entered the area of Rosengård wearing a yarmulke. Text messages circulated among residents that a Jew had entered the neighborhood, and he was forced out of Rosengård in a collective effort. Residents threw eggs at him from windows.
As far as sex crime, it is obviously preposterous to call Sweden a “rape capital.” Yet evidence suggests that immigration has had an impact on sexual violence in Sweden.
The latest report on crime among immigrants from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ) was published in 2005. The report, which covers the years 1997-2001, shows that immigrants from the Middle East and Africa were heavily overrepresented among suspects of violent crime, particularly for sexual offenses. Another study of gang rapes in Sweden in the 1990s indicated that a majority of group rapes in Sweden were committed by first- and second-generation immigrants.
There are, unfortunately, no more recent studies. Data are still being collected but are not compiled and made publicly available. The Swedish justice minister, Morgan Johansson, explained in an interview recently that there is no need to publish any new reports, because the facts are well-known from earlier studies.
But if the overrepresentation has not changed since the 2005 survey, the influx of the overrepresented demographic could offer an explanation for the recent rise in the proportion of women who report that they have been victims of sex crimes: Between 2012 and 2015, self-reported sex crimes doubled from 1.4 to 3 percent of the female population—an “alarming” increase, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. Whether this is caused by increased immigration from the Middle East and Africa we don’t know, since the government refuses to release the data.