Anger in a happy place

It's known to welcome immigrants and asylum seekers.

Written by New York Times | Stockholm | Published: May 28, 2013 3:28 am

It’s known to welcome immigrants and asylum seekers. However,last week’s riots show Sweden could be the latest European country to succumb to tensions of a slowdown

Eva Bromster,an elementary school principal,was jolted awake by a telephone call late Thursday night. “Your school is burning,” the director of the local education department told her.

Bromster rushed to the school,in the mostly immigrant district of Tensta,north of Stockholm,and found one room gutted by fire. It was the second fire at the school in three days.

In Stockholm and other towns and cities last week,bands made up mostly of young immigrants set buildings and cars ablaze in destructive rage rarely seen in a country proud of its tranquil,law-abiding ways.

The disturbances,with echoes of urban eruptions in France in 2005 and Britain in 2011,have pushed Sweden to the centre of a heated debate across Europe about immigration and the tensions it causes during an economic recession.

The riots,now subsiding,have produced less damage than the ones in Paris and London. But the unrest has shaken Sweden,which has a reputation for welcoming immigrants and asylum seekers,and regularly ranks

in surveys as one of the world’s

happiest places.

The riots though are not unprecedented here. In 2008 and 2010,immigrants clashed with the police in the southern city of Malmo. But past week’s arson attacks in Stockholm and the spectacle of teenagers hurling stones at firefighters have left many Swedes wondering what went wrong in a society that has invested so heavily to help the underprivileged.

While the violence was concentrated in relatively poor districts,most of their residents have been shielded by a welfare system that is one of

the world’s most expansive,despite recent cutbacks.

Sweden’s centre-right prime minister,Fredrik Reinfeldt,scornfully described the riots as “hooliganism”,while the Swedish Democrats,a far-right party,have seized on the violence to call for the deportation of non-native Swedes who break the law. “This is not just a police issue,” said Jimmie Akesson,the party’s leader,but “a direct result of an irresponsible immigration policy”.

The left,which dominated Swedish politics for decades and devised the cradle-to-grave welfare system,has blamed reduced state benefits and a modest shift toward privatisation of public services for the unrest. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said that income inequality had grown faster in Sweden than in any other industrialised nation between 1985 and the end of the past decade,although it remains far more equal than most countries.

“The rich are getting richer,and the poor are getting poorer,” said Barbro Sorman,an activist of the Left Party. “Sweden is starting to look like the US.”

But Stockholm’s immigrant enclaves,including Tensta and nearby Husby,where the riots began May 19 after the police fatally shot a 69-year-old immigrant wielding a knife,show few outward signs of deprivation. They offer well-tended parks,well-maintained public housing,well-equipped schools,youth centres,libraries and legions of social workers financed by the state.

One big problem is the lack of jobs. The national unemployment rate is about 8 per cent,but the rate is at least twice as high in immigrant areas and four times as high for those under 25. But,said Nima Sanandaji,a Kurdish-Swedish author of several books on immigration,remote areas in the north of Sweden have more people out of work,“but they are not throwing rocks and burning cars”.

Gabriel Bersham,a 17-year-old high school student born in Iraq,said: “Young people want to be heard but used to be ignored. Now what they say is being listened to. But burning cars is stupid and sad.”

The anger of young immigrants has alarmed the elders. After the riot police pulled off the streets late last week,older immigrants mounted their own effort to defuse tensions. A wide generation gap exists regarding perceptions of life in Sweden. “Our parents say we should feel thankful,” said Rami al-Khamisi,a Husby youth activist whose family moved here from Iraq. “They feel thankful because they lived through wars. But those of us who were born here have nothing to compare our lives with.”

Husby,Khamisi said,“looks nice on the outside but inside it is not nice”. A first-year law student at Stockholm University,Khamisi acknowledged that “Sweden has given me opportunities I didn’t have in Iraq”,but “I’m not treated the same as a white guy”.

The recent violence has been a boon to the Swedish Democrats,the anti-immigration party. Opinion polls suggest the party is gaining in popularity,partly because of the indignation many Swedes feel about being called racists after accepting so many refugees. Immigrants and the Swedish-born children of immigrants make up about 15 per cent of the population,and last year,Sweden nearly doubled the number of asylum seekers it took in and became Europe’s primary destination for refugees from Syria.

Michael Lundh,a former police officer,said,“Ordinary Swedes are sitting in front of their TVs and are getting very angry at pictures of immigrants throwing stones.” Lundh,who worked for years in an anti-racism organisation set up by Stieg Larsson,the author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,visited areas affected by rioting last week and said he didn’t realise so many young people hate the police.

“The police are frightened and young people are frightened,” he said. “When frightened people meet,you only get trouble.”

ANDREW HIGGINS

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