STOKHOLM: Donald Trump’s controversial statements linking immigration and crime in Sweden, a country idealised by some for its liberal values, have sparked the nation to weigh the successes and failures of its integration policy.
Two days after the US president’s baffling remarks on Saturday in Florida, where he suggested an attack had hit the Scandinavian country the previous evening, riots broke out in the immigrant-heavy northern Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby.
“Trump right about Sweden after all! Riot breaks out in Stockholm suburb,” Republican commentator Ann Coulter wrote triumphantly on Twitter on Tuesday.
On Monday night, dozens of youths clashed with police after they arrested a suspected drug dealer in Rinkeby. The rioters threw stones at police, burned cars and looted shops.
A police officer fired live ammunition to disperse the mob, Stockholm police spokesman Lars Bystrom told AFP.
The images spread like wildfire around the world, blurring the Swedish authorities’ response to Trump and the Fox News channel’s report linking rising crime to immigration to which he had referred.
For Tove Lifvendahl, editorialist at Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, there is indeed “an ounce of truth in what Trump said.”
“Regardless of what you think of it, this is an opportunity to reflect over how others’ image of us and our own self-image coincide with reality,” she wrote on Wednesday.
So what are these two antagonistic perceptions?
Trump’s opponents argue that Sweden has not seen a terrorist attack since 2010 and that crime levels have not surged since it took in 244,000 asylum seekers, the highest number per capita in Europe in 2014 and 2015. Sweden remains one of the safest — and wealthiest — countries in the world.
And while the Nordic nation has not been not spared the difficulties of integration, it has experienced nowhere near the racial tensions, inequalities, poverty and violence in the United States, they point out.
But others see a Sweden where foreigners are twice as likely to appear in crime statistics, are more frequently unemployed, are more often involved in underworld settling of scores, where supposed police no-go zones exist and where around 300 foreign fighters have left to fight in Iraq and Syria.
Opportunities and challenges
Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Lofven rejected Trump’s allegation of a link between crime and immigration, but did acknowledge that Sweden faces challenges over its immigration policy.
“We have opportunities, we have challenges, we’re working (on) them every day. But I think also we must all take responsibility for using facts correctly, and for verifying any information that we spread,” Lofven told reporters on Monday.
The prime minister’s level response reflected a need to tone down the rhetoric, according to some, and a negligent naivety according to others.
In Rinkeby, residents are equally divided on the reality of everyday life in their suburb.
Chaimaa Hakam, a 28-year-old shop owner, was born and raised in this disadvantaged but grassy neighbourhood, where an innovative high school is visited every year by Nobel laureates.
She chose to stay on in the suburb and trained to become an accountant.
“I have several friends who are real estate agents, who work for political parties, who are reporters and lawyers,” Hakam said, adding that she also has friends who are in prison. “We all grew up together,” she told AFP.
For Benjamin Dousa, a local conservative politician of Turkish origin, crime in Rinkeby has become “a part of everyday life”.
“We have one riot on average every month, one car blaze every day and the highest number of fatal shootings in the country” per capita, Dousa told the daily Expressen.
But Trump is wrong to stigmatise a population because of its ethnic or religious origin, sociologist Oskar Adenfelt insisted, noting socio-economic conditions played a bigger role.
“Foreign-born Swedes are indeed overrepresented among criminals, but research shows that is the result of three factors: discrimination in the judicial system, conditions in their country of origin and during their emigration, and the conditions under which immigrants live in their new country,” he told AFP.
Swedish historian Carl Marklund noted meanwhile in daily Dagens Nyheter that Sweden is “seen as a positive model for liberal Americans and progressives abroad”, but also “a favourite” target by the alternative right movement.