The Swedish riots: What really happened?

Inequality, not immigration, was what sparked the unrest.

Firemen extinguish a burning car in Kista after riots in Swedish suburbs
Firemen extinguish a burning car in Kista after riots in Swedish suburbs earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images

On the evening of Monday 13 May, police were called to an address in Husby, a suburb in north-west Stockholm, on accounts that a male occupant was threateningly brandishing what looked to be a machete.

Two stories emerged as to why the man had a knife. The first – and most widely circulated – said that he was simply a dangerous, possibly mentally ill individual intent on menacing residents. The second, which came from the man’s brother-in-law, said that earlier in the evening the man and his Finnish wife had been threatened by a gang while returning from a restaurant. At home he decided to get a knife – not a machete, but a puukko knife, which is a traditional Finnish hunting knife – to try and scare the gang away. He stood on his balcony with it, hoping for the desired effect.

When the police arrived at the door, said the brother-in-law, no one from the family seemed to know whether it was the gang pretending to be the police, or actual police officers. According to news coverage, police then stormed the apartment and attempted to bring the man under control with a flash grenade. When this proved ineffective, one officer opened fire, killing the man, in what was described as an act of self-defence.

The police later filed a report claiming that the victim, a 69 year-old originally from Portugal, died at hospital. This was fiercely disputed by witnesses, who said the dead man’s body was collected directly from the apartment later that night. The police eventually admitted they were wrong and amended their report accordingly. However, the community activist group Megafonen, which has bases in a number of disadvantaged Stockholm suburbs, had already picked up on the inconsistencies in the official story, and called for a demonstration against police brutality on 15 May.

Four days later, on the evening of Sunday 19 May, Sweden won 5 – 1 over Switzerland in the men’s ice hockey world championship – the first team since 1986 to win the competition at home. But while many Swedes celebrated their sporting triumph, riots were breaking out in Husby. Responding to reports that a car had been set alight, police claimed that upon arrival at the scene they were met by youths throwing stones. By dawn up to around a hundred cars had been torched, a shopping centre vandalized, and an apartment block evacuated after a car garage was set alight. 

Over the next seven days scattered rioting continued, spreading to many other areas of the city such as Kista, Rinkeby, Bredäng, and Norsborg, as well as other towns such as Örebro and Linköping. Total damages were estimated at around SEK63m (£6.2m), largely sustained by residents and businesses in the afflicted neighbourhoods.

Paradise lost

What made the Stockholm riots different from 2005 in Paris and 2011 around England was that Sweden is viewed as a social democratic paradise. Discontent with the country is unthinkable to many outsiders. So what went wrong?

Many pointed to economics. Despite our rosy view of Sweden, over the past 20 years there have been huge changes made to "The Swedish Model", of which some of the most significant were enacted by the centre-right Alliance coalition since 2006, headed by current Prime Minister Fredrick Reinfeldt.

These changes were spurred by a housing bubble burst in the early Nineties which caused mass unemployment, falling GDP, and interest rates of 500 per cent. With the economy in a mess, Sweden’s large welfare state could no longer be sustained. As a result, in 30 years, the top marginal tax rate has been cut from 84 to 57 per cent, while in 20 years Sweden has reduced public spending from 67 to 49 per cent of GDP. This year, the corporate tax rate will be cut from 26.3 to 22 per cent. In order to continue providing cradle-to-the-grave welfare with decreased tax revenues and public spending, Sweden invited the market into the public sector – allowing private companies to compete for government funding to provide services like healthcare and education.

But over the past few decades, Sweden has also seen some of the fastest and largest growths in inequality among OECD countries (pdf). Hardest hit have been poor, largely immigrant communities. Consider that 23 per cent of young people within that demographic are not achieving good enough grades to enter upper secondary education, while around 46 per cent of non-European immigrants to Sweden are unemployed. Among under-24s of all backgrounds, that figure was 24.2 per cent in 2012, or four times the average of 8 per cent. In fact, Sweden has one of the highest ratios of youth to general unemployment in the OECD. 

Various studies have shown that statistics such as these can cause serious problems. Dr Arnold Goldstein, author of The Psychology of Group Aggression, wrote that people often participate in a “mob” due to a feeling of dispossession, “the belief that others are climbing up the economic ladder while oneself is not, or the belief that one’s own earlier economic gains are being lost.” Meanwhile in a 2011 paper entitled “It’s the Local Economy, Stupid! Geographic Wealth Dispersion and Conflict Outbreak Location”  a group of Norwegian academics found that civil conflicts are more likely to occur in areas with low absolute income with large departures from the national average, regardless of whether the country’s per capita GDP is high overall. Unsurprisingly, considering the areas where the riots happened, in Sweden, median household income for non-European immigrants is 36 per cent lower than for native Swedes. 

The people’s home?

However, it is immigration, not economics, which has gained the most attention in analyses of the riots. True, Sweden is famously welcoming to immigrants. In 2012 alone, around 44 000 asylum applications were accepted, an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year. Currently around 14 per cent of Sweden’s 9.6m inhabitants are foreign born – around 1.3m people – while proportional to its population, Sweden’s refugee-native ratio is only slightly lower than Pakistan, which harbours the world’s largest refugee population. This has resulted in some areas of Stockholm becoming home to more immigrants than ethnic Swedes. Incidentally, it turned out that a number of such areas were also where most of the rioting occurred.

Debates began about whether Sweden’s immigration policy should be more restrictive, and whether the government’s approach to integration was failing. How could immigrants who had been welcomed into Sweden with generous housing and welfare be so ungrateful? The Sweden Democrats, a far-right, anti-immigration party, attempted to capitalise on the riots by portraying lax immigration policy as a political failure for the mainstream parties.

That the gross speculations and generalisations peddled by the media and certain politicians dominated coverage of the riots speaks of a deeper concern among Swedes, which goes to the very heart of the Swedish Model. The question many are asking themselves is whether the model can survive with so many immigrants continuing to arrive in the country, bringing with them their own notions of trust, morality, and community. A related fear is that support will diminish for the high tax welfare state thanks to the view that many immigrants take more than they contribute from the system. If this happened it would ultimately undermine an integral part of Swedish national identity. Indeed, as Lars Trägårdh, a professor of history at Ersta Sköndal University College argues, the Swedish welfare state is understood “not simply as a set of institutions, but as a realization of Folkhemmet” – the people’s home, and therefore closely linked to national identity.

Trägårdh offers an explanation of the Swedish Model which has become widely accepted by the Swedish establishment. In short, based on the notion of “statist individualism and a Swedish theory of love” individuals contract with the state, which then provides social security in order to enable those individuals to operate freely and competitively in market society; free of the particular “inequalities and dependencies” of civil society institutions such as “the family…the churches, the charity organisations.” This results in an “egalitarian social order” complete with strong social trust in institutions, as well as full individual autonomy.

Trägårdh does note that the Swedish Model can present problems for immigrants. In an e-mail to me he wrote that, “Individualism as a value opens doors for participation and membership in a highly modernist, emancipatory project, but the lack of recognition of subnational communities, and of racial, ethnic or religious modes of belonging closes other doors tied to more traditional values and to collective self-organizing.” A particularly interesting point he raised was that while the Swedish Model can be liberating for girls, women, and those who succeed at school, it can conversely be “a source of resentment, confusion, [and] anger” particularly for “young men who expect to be heads of traditional families.” This seemingly makes them feel excluded from membership of the Swedish nation.

However, he is optimistic that the individualism the Swedish Model promotes has a universal appeal, and will therefore likely win over most immigrants in successive generations. As well as this, Sweden’s strong civil society, which has large representation for interests and political voices, is also key to integrating immigrants, giving them the opportunity to be heard. “While immigrants are behind compared to other Swedes, they are doing much better than elsewhere in Europe,” he said.

A critical issue for immigrants to Sweden, as Trägårdh writes, is that “the high threshold for entering the labor market, linked to relatively high entry-level wages and lack of low-wage options for those without Swedish language ability, education or vocational training,” translates to “segregation, with immigrants living in suburbs with higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of living off various forms of social assistance, schools with fewer fluent or native Swedish speakers, [and] more students that do worse academically.”

Given this, the real problem seems to be not only that immigrants have borne the brunt of Sweden’s increasing inequality, but that as a result, they are also being excluded from meaningful membership of the Swedish nation. Issues like police brutality, racial profiling and “territorial stigmatisation” have made immigrants feel like outsiders in Sweden. Couple this with difficulty accessing the gains of what is still one of the most prosperous countries in the world, people in areas like Husby are angry. The consequences of this have been the creation of the perfect socio-economic conditions for riots to occur. This is not to condone the huge damage they caused, nor to imply that any more than a few hundred people took part. Nonetheless, it is a problem that Sweden must address. 

Tags:Sweden