The end of Swedish naivety

“We came to ask him questions about how democracy works in Sweden.”

In the central square of Rinkeby, 11-year-old Sedra speaks in perfect English. With her classmates, this child of Iraqi refugees has come to have a snack at the stand of her local candidate, Elvir Kazinic. A two-term member of the ruling Social Democratic Party, Kazinic is himself a refugee from Bosnia who came to Sweden in the 1980s. More than 80 per cent of the residents here are first or second generation immigrants.

Like Sedra, most of the girls in the group wear the Islamic veil. While the candidate explains to the children what will be at stake in next Sunday’s general election in which the left-wing bloc led by the Social Democrats is neck and neck with the right-wing bloc only the most assiduous take notes while the others laugh in the corner, munching on an apple or a pear.

However, it’s not every day that one laughs in this green and clean suburb located 10 kilometers from the capital and which welcomes migrants from Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Ethiopia, Greece, Poland or China. Behind these low-cost housing projects on a human scale, with their green parks, their fountains and their gardens for the elderly, lies a completely different reality.

Here, you can shoot yourself with a Kalashnikov,” says Khaled, an Iraqi refugee who arrived 22 years ago and became a cab driver. I’m fine, but my family doesn’t want to live here anymore because of the crime and drug trafficking. Gang members keep shooting at each other. Sweden should be more careful in choosing its immigrants.”

Crime is exploding

It is not surprising that crime has become the main concern of voters who will go to the polls on Sunday. This is a blow to the postcard image that Sweden projects abroad.

Since January of this year, 48 people have been killed by a killer, a number that has more than doubled in 10 years. According to a survey by the National Council for Crime Prevention, Sweden has the second highest number of gun deaths among 22 European countries, just behind Croatia. A unique progression in Europe.

As in France, car fires have also become a daily occurrence. In 2020, the Ali Khan gang, led by an imam of Lebanese origin, terrorized several districts of Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg. Last year, the death of the young rapper Einár, shot in front of his home in a gang-related case, moved the whole country.

“In a country traditionally as peaceful as Sweden, this is a real shock,” says Quebec political scientist Henry Milner, a longtime professor at Umeå University who has just published the book Engaged Observer in which he discusses his Swedish background. This election is very different from others. To talk about law and order in a Swedish election was unimaginable just a few years ago. But we have to face the facts. The Swedes are losing their naivety: welcome to Europe!

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For the three major parties the Social Democrats (centre-left), the Moderates (right) and the Sweden Democrats (populist) there is little doubt that this crime, which extends far beyond the so-called sensitive neighbourhoods, is linked in one way or another to poorly controlled immigration. “Too much immigration and too little integration have created parallel societies where criminal gangs have taken root and grown,” said Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, who wants to break with the image of a Sweden that has long considered itself a moral superpower.

No ethnic groupings

Despite Prime Minister Andersson’s personal popularity, the re-election of the Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics for a century, is far from assured on Sunday.

Faced with the rise of Anders Akesson’s populists, this former national swimming champion has constantly distanced herself from her party’s former laxity on immigration. In particular, she proposes a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants, which is already well underway. And to facilitate integration, she wants to limit the number of immigrants in municipalities to less than 50%. To do this, she plans to attract more affluent families to the suburbs and force newcomers to settle in the communities they are assigned to. Finally, she intends to push municipalities to enroll immigrant children in kindergarten from the age of three. “We don’t want Chinatown in Sweden, we do not want Somalitown or Little Italy”, she decided in the pages of the major Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter.

This election is very different from others. To talk about law and order in a Swedish election was unimaginable just a few years ago. But it was obvious.

The statement startled many, says political scientist Nicholas Aylott. Just a few years ago, the Swedish Social Democrats were denouncing their Danish friends for proposing such measures. Now they are following suit.

It must be said that when Sweden’s largest party was ousted from power in 2006 and 2010, it went through a crisis. But the main surprise came in 2010 with the entry into parliament of the Democratic Party, a party with neo-Nazi origins that advocates zero immigration, limiting the right to asylum, deporting foreign criminals and ending family reunification.

“After the killing in Norway by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik, it became impossible to voice any reservations about immigration without being called a racist,” Aylott says. During the 2015 refugee crisis, Sweden took in more than 250,000 refugees! A disproportionate number for a country with less than 10 million inhabitants. We didn’t have the structures for that. Sweden has always been a peaceful country with low crime and few police. Of course, the crime is not only due to immigration, but without it, it would not have this magnitude.”

Integration or exclusion?

While this political shift is in line with the opinion of at least 58 per cent of Swedes, it has created havoc in the left-wing bloc, where the traditional allies, the Greens and the Left Party, are far from being on the same page.

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For Stockholm University sociologist Andrea Voyer, “it is futile to attack ghettos and think about eliminating them.” “The current debate worries me, because these neighborhoods are natural. They exist everywhere and, in my opinion, this is where integration happens. It is not a good idea to stigmatize their inhabitants. If there are immigrants who become trapped there, it is primarily because of exclusion. Immigration is not a one-way street: it is a process of mutual acclimatization.”

According to this American woman whose grandmother left Rimouski in the last century to work in the factories of Lewinston, Maine, measures to reduce the number of ghettos will not work. As for “the proliferation of criminal gangs, it is mostly related to youth, not to immigration per se,” she says. To promote integration, the government would do better to “ensure systematic language learning, which is not really the case now.

We were naive

Johan Hassel, the Social Democratic Party’s spokesman on international issues, prefers to speak of “vulnerable areas” rather than ghettos. But he maintains that his party’s all-out opening to immigration was cutting it off from its traditional working-class base.

“I come from a semi-rural background and I have seen the populists advance in areas of the North that were traditionally ours. We have not listened enough to these populations who have suffered from uncontrolled globalization. We were naive on the issue of crime. We have failed, we must admit it. We want fewer immigrants because we want to integrate them better. With more housing and school resources.”

In his view, there is now a yawning gap between the low-skilled labor force that inhabits these neighborhoods and the shortage of high-skilled personnel that Sweden is experiencing. It will take time to close the gap. When given the example of the French socialists, who have often turned up their noses at these problems, he immediately replies: “Don’t talk to me about a party that has practically disappeared. We want to stay alive!”

Since a police station was built in the center of Rinkeby and there are night patrols, security has improved a bit in the neighborhood, says Freddy, a former journalist from the Dominican Republic who fled his country in 1970 with three comrades to save his life. “I don’t usually vote in elections. But for the past few years, I’ve been pretty responsive to the arguments of the Sweden Democrats, even though I don’t like all their policies. Maybe Magdalena Anderson will convince me to become a social democrat again. I’m still waiting to see…”