What’s really happening in Sweden
The opening scenes of Ami Horowitz’s op-ed video, ‘The Stockholm Syndrome’, starts with a panoramic view of Stockholm’s skyline along with clips of HBO’s ‘Vikings’ series and the Muppet’s Swedish chef. But then the tone changes as the presenter explains how Sweden has become the rape capital of Europe as the the video cuts to images of women in hijabs, bullet-strewn windows and rows of burning cars. The video has been seen by nearly 300,000 viewers on YouTube.
In December 2016, Horowitz was invited to talk on the Fox News program, ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ which featured the op-ed video and which apparently was also later seen by Donald Trump because at a rally on February 19th, the president said: “You look what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”
While his reference to a terrorist attack that never occurred was confusing, the president’s comments did reflect a question that I had been getting from friends and acquaintances in the US recently: “What’s happening in Sweden?”
Beyond the headlines
In the Fox News segment, the host Tucker Carlson states that Sweden has accepted more than 160,000 asylum seekers in 2016. That figure is incorrect. In fact, only around 29,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden during 2016 and of those, about 7,000 applications were approved. These figures are also a sharp decline from the year before when the country received around 163,000 asylum applications and approved about 32,000 (Source: Swedish Migration Agency).
In addition to having the correct numbers, it’s important to understand the circumstances that have led to the dramatic decrease in applications.
In November 2015, in the middle of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, the labor government of Sweden shifted its long-held immigration policy a full 180 degrees. First they started enforcing strict border controls including identity checks at stations and onboard trains crossing over from Denmark. Then they tightened their asylum policies that historically have been the most liberal in Europe. Their current policy seeks only to fulfill minimum EU requirements.
The Horowitz film focused on Sweden’s liberal immigration policy and made claims that there has been a dramatic surge in violent crime, including sexual violence, since the arrival of so many immigrants. In 2015, crime rates in Sweden did in fact increase (by 4%) compared to the previous year but a closer look shows that it was fraud that increased most. Theft and minor assaults actually decreased while Sweden’s rate of deadly violence, has been in a downward trend since the 1990s. There was an uptick during 2015 but in total there were 112 cases of deadly crime in a country of nearly 10 million inhabitants (Source: The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention).
Sweden’s rate of sexual assault on the other hand has increased over the past several years. One reason may be that the country has broadened its legal definition of what constitutes rape. Another reason may be that victims of sexual assault in Sweden are more willing to report their cases – a trend that has been identified in a recent EU-wide study.
In general, differences in statistical methodologies, definitions, and frequency of reporting make it very difficult to compare rates of sexual violence between countries (Source: Metro 2015).
Finally, Horowitz’s film claims that there are so-called police ‘no-go zones’ – immigrant ghettos in cities where the authorities are unable to patrol because it is too dangerous for them to enter. To be clear, Swedish police have confirmed that there are no ‘no-go zones’. Two Swedish officers, Anders Göranzon and Jakob Ekström who were featured in Horowitz’s film, were also surprised at how their statements were taken out of context after being interviewed by the filmmaker. “It was supposed to be about crime in high-risk areas,” say the officers in a subsequent interview with Sweden’s largest morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter. “There wasn’t any focus on migration or immigration. We don’t stand behind it. He has edited the answers.”
There are however immigrant enclaves in Sweden where unemployment and crime are well above the national average but according to a 2015 report, the national police force has actually increased its presence in these areas. Recent car burnings and lootings in a suburb of northwest Stockholm exemplify the challenges police have in these high-risk areas but also affirm their commitment to making a difference in these neighborhoods.
Contrary to how Sweden is being portrayed in some news outlets, the situation in the country is not dire. According to the OECD, “the Swedish economy is growing strongly, with unemployment trending downward and living standards among the highest in the world.” There are challenges however. Housing prices are skyrocketing, income inequality is increasing and integration of new arrivals has been rocky at best. The recent changes to Sweden’s immigration and asylum policy have more to do with these factors than with any increase in crime rates.
A shift to the right
One night in December 2014, Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigration party, The Swedish Democrats, stood in front of the majority of the country’s media and made the following ultimatum: “[Our party] will proceed to topple any government that continues to increase immigration”. The sitting government and members of the opposition promptly forged a temporary agreement and were able to maintain order, but the long-term victory went to the Swedish Democrats. In the time since that press conference, the political left has scraped its long-held positions on asylum, and the nation’s conservative party, the Moderates, have shifted their politics to the right and started talking to the Swedish Democrats about future cooperation.
According to polls from January 2017 the Swedish Democrats, a party with a white supremacist history, would get approximately 20% of the national vote if elections were to be held now.
Sweden, like the US, is a country whose demographics are rapidly changing. Over the past 50 years the population in Swedish cities has grown exponentially as the economy has gone from production-oriented to one centered on services and technology. The country has also become more ethnically diverse. Today over 20% of the population has foreign background compared to 14% in the year 2000. For a county with strong historically bound traditions this has shaken up many norms. However, there is yet no evidence showing a link between immigration, asylum and any increase in crime rates. What there has been is a surge in nationalistic and anti-immigration politics as many voters feel uncomfortable and uncertain in a rapidly changing society.