Sweden’s Decades-Long Failure to Integrate

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Burhan Yildiz, a leader of more than 4,000 Kurds living in the Stockholm suburbs of Tensta and Rinkeby, claims he knows people who voted this year for the Sweden Democrats, the nationalist party whose improving electoral performance has thrown Swedish politics into disarray.

“They are angry about the criminality,” Yildiz said of the nationalists’ local voters. “They think where every other party has failed, the Swedish Democrats will manage to kick those who don’t respect the law out of the country.” 

Yildiz has lived in the area for 29 of his 55 years and knows everyone, but a search for those who backed the Sweden Democrats in the September parliamentary election would be a tall order even for him. In the nine electoral districts in Tensta, where Yildiz and I spent part of an afternoon drinking Turkish-style tea, just 302 people out of the 5,907 who cast valid ballots supported the nationalists. More than 19,000 people, most of them immigrants or children of immigrants, live in Tensta. Many of them aren’t entitled to vote, and even those who are often don’t: While the turnout was 87 percent nationwide, it only reached 56 percent in Tensta.

Tensta and Rinkeby, neighborhoods next to each other in the northwest of Stockholm, constitute one of the 23 areas in Sweden the police designate as “particularly disadvantaged” or “particularly vulnerable.” They’ve been variously called “ghettos” and “no-go zones,” and what’s going on in them has been driving Sweden’s political shift from unquestioning tolerance toward hostility to immigration.

The Sweden Democrats won 17.5 percent of the vote in September, making them the country’s third strongest party and leaving the political landscape so fragmented that the country has been without a government for the longest time in its history. None of the mainstream parties want to build a coalition with the Sweden Democrats because of the party’s white nationalist roots, and though there has been some progress recently in cabinet formation talks that may return Stefan Lofven to the prime ministership, the nationalists’ rise assures that business-as-usual is over. Sweden has finally been forced to tackle the immigration-related failures that have been accumulating for decades.

The Reality of the Situation

In an interview in Stockholm on Wednesday, a Sweden Democrats legislator named Paula Bieler told me that a sense of danger emanating from the “vulnerable areas” was a major driver of the party’s support.

“The number of these areas is growing,” Bieler said. “In Uppsala, which I represent, there used to be one or two areas that weren’t safe, but now it’s all over the city: shootings, gangs, murder, serious crime. It’s coming closer. Suddenly, women don’t feel secure going home from work.”

These claims don’t all hold up under scrutiny. Police started identifying “disadvantaged areas” — those with high unemployment, low school performance, strong gangs and parallel societies — in 2014, and it named a total of 55 such problematic neighborhoods then. By 2017, the number had increased to 61, but largely because police had broadened their criteria not because tensions had worsened. According to a report published earlier this year by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, a government-run research center for the criminal justice system, perceptions of personal safety in areas that are not listed as “vulnerable” have actually improved. In 2006 through 2011, 18.3 percent of Swedes in “normal” neighborhoods reported feeling unsafe, but in 2012 through 2017, the proportion was down to 17.2 percent.

Sweden’s Decades-Long Failure to Integrate

Public perceptions, however, aren’t necessarily shaped by personal experience. In recent years, Sweden has seen a sharp increase in shootings: The number of lethal incidents in which firearms were involved has increased from 17 in 2011, when statisticians began tracking the deadly use of guns, to 40 in 2017. That may seem laughably low by the standards of the U.S., where 15,549 people (excluding suicides) were killed by guns in 2017; that’s about 1 for every 21,000 Americans as against 1 for every 250,000 Swedes. But these incidents, most of them caused by turf competition among gangs consisting primarily of first- and second-generation immigrants, are widely covered by the media. And an increasing number of homicides go unsolved. Amir Rostami, who researches organized crime at Stockholm University, told me that while about 80 percent of murders in Sweden were solved in 1990 through 1994, the rate has gone down to 21 percent in 2015-2016.

Swedes are also increasingly frustrated by the quality of services provided by their country’s vaunted welfare state. Though, objectively speaking, waiting times for health care haven’t increased in recent years, they are often painfully long. “We do appreciate the welfare state in Sweden,” Bieler says, “but people have been feeling more and more that they aren’t getting basic things for the high taxes they pay.”

Her party has done an effective job linking the frustration to the influx of asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, Sweden, a country of about 10 million, granted 151,031 residence permits, the most in its history in a single year. For the first time, Swedes were seeing new immigrants everywhere. The segregated suburbs, which had absorbed newcomers for decades and hid them from sight, suddenly couldn’t immediately vacuum up everyone who’d arrived. If one felt there was less of everything to go around — less security, less quality of life — it was easy to identify the culprits if one was so inclined.

But Sweden’s problem goes deeper than perceptions, and it does have to do with immigration. The country with the most welcoming asylum policy in the world — perhaps out of guilt for keeping out of both world wars, Bieler told me — has failed at integration, creating segregated ghettos with a culture of violence that isn’t any political party’s propaganda invention. If the latest wave of immigrants disperses into the “vulnerable areas,” where between 500,000 and 600,000 people live today, and if the government can’t get a grip on the situation there, Sweden’s current problems will be nothing compared to what comes next.

Media Vs. Reality

Having walked around Tensta after dark, I must admit it’s far nicer than any other bad neighborhood I’ve ever seen (I grew up in a concrete wasteland on the edge of Moscow). There’s no trash on footpaths between the boxy but well-maintained three- and six-story apartment blocks, built in the 1960s as part of Sweden’s “Million Homes Program” to provide affordable housing to workers. Socialist urban planning is often an underlying reason for the emergence of problem neighborhoods, but Tensta is fetchingly human-scale with a lot of small parks and footbridges spanning lanes of traffic. The absence of graffiti gave this Berlin resident an eerie feeling, and the lack of bars on ground-floor windows made me recall the complex gridwork necessary to keep out burglars in my country of birth.

From what I’d read in media accounts, I’d expected to see drug deals in progress, a common sight in some areas of Berlin. But no one lounged around Tensta looking like a dealer or offering illicit substances for sale. The area around the subway station used to have a lively scene, I’m told, but surveillance cameras, which are generally rare in privacy-minded Sweden, drove it to someplace I couldn’t find.

This isn’t just my impression or a situation unique to Tensta. The 176-page report of the National Council for Crime Prevention is based on a door-to-door survey of two “particularly disadvantaged” areas that yielded 1,176 completed questionnaires, a massive exercise conducted by young female field researchers. Johanna Skinnari, the project manager, told me that team members received strict instructions not to walk alone and not to knock on doors in the late evening, but learned to ignore these precautions because they never felt threatened. “These places are a long way from the banlieues,” Skinnari said, referring to the notorious Paris suburbs.

Sweden’s Decades-Long Failure to Integrate

The “vulnerable areas” aren’t no-go zones in the sense that police and other emergency services avoid going there. “I’d have no problem going to Tensta with my daughter,” said Erik Akerlund, chief police superintendent for the Botkyrka municipality outside Stockholm, which includes a “particularly vulnerable” area of its own. The neighborhoods are, however, no-go zones in a different sense. Locals in Tensta complain of a shortage of government services and doctors’ offices. The neighborhood of 19,000 people doesn’t have a police station of its own, the nearest one is about four kilometers away in Sollentuna. The shopping center at the center of the area was nearly deserted at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, and the few shops open there looked like they were hanging by a thread. The area’s reputation doesn’t make it a desirable place of business or posting for a civil servant or, say, a tax-funded dentist.

The violence and insecurity are real, too. Skinnari’s survey showed that a greater share of people in the vulnerable areas are exposed to crimes, especially property ones, than the residents of other Swedish neighborhoods. Protection rackets are common, and teachers often face the threat of violence at school. Street gangs can be visible and abusive. As a result, 55 percent of the women and 24 percent of men in the disadvantaged areas reported feeling unsafe going outside, compared with 27 percent of women and 8 percent of men in other neighborhoods. After 7 p.m., there are barely any women on the streets of Tensta.

The oppressive atmosphere can be easily linked to the neighborhoods’ economic profile. The employment level in the ghettos was 47 percent last year compared with 67 percent nationwide; between 40 and 67 percent, depending on the neighborhood, make less than 100,000 kronor ($11,000) a year. 

That’s an integration failure. According to official data, 50 to 60 percent of residents in vulnerable areas are immigrants or children of immigrants, compared with 17 percent nationwide. In hours of wandering around Tensta, I didn’t meet a single person who looked like a Swede. 

The Swedish government has tried to get more ghetto residents into the labor market, even subsidizing employers who gave newcomers their first job. But the program backfired as the foreigners lost the jobs as soon as the subsidy period ran out.

“The government has often just thrown money at the problems — with good intentions, but now there’s a degree of project fatigue,” Skinnari said.

There are constant attempts to improve schooling in the vulnerable neighborhoods, but official statistics say that 40 percent of young people in the disadvantaged areas leave school before graduating.

The Sources of Gang Violence

No wonder the ghetto kids end up in gangs. Though Tensta is visibly segregated — you won’t see any Kurds sitting in the Somali cafe, and vice versa — researchers, locals and police officers told me that the modern Swedish gang is surprisingly multiethnic.

Earlier this month, Rostami published a report for the Stockholm-based Institute for Futures Studies in which he attempted to quantify Swedish organized crime and extremism by combining information from several government databases. He found “business” links spanning seemingly vast cultural divides, including between Islamic extremists and the Swedish nationalist far right. Of the 15,244 people who are part of the gang scene, according to Rostami’s data, 67 percent were born in Sweden. But many of them are second generation immigrant kids who grew up together in disadvantaged areas. They went into the drug business together, too.

This new generation is more violent than its predecessors. Rostami, an Iranian refugee who lived in a ghetto-like area in Gothenburg and worked as a cop before he became a researcher, told me that in recent years, competition from the new generation of gangsters has wreaked havoc with the self-policing of the traditional mafias — the Russians, the Italians, the Bosnians.

“They didn’t see the new generation coming up,” Rostami said. “There’s a cultural shift: For the new kids, violence is the language they speak. They don’t dream of becoming godfather, they want to be king for one day. They don’t care if they’re killed tomorrow, next week or next month.”

Akerlund, the police superintendent, has noticed the shift, too. “When I talk to older criminals,” he said, “I see they’re sometimes afraid of the younger members of their own gangs. They have a different mindset, more violent.”

This change has been brewing for years. Akerlund remembers how he started as an officer patrolling a difficult neighborhood in 2005; almost the first thing he remembers is a riot. The police made an arrest and stones were soon flying at the officers. Car burnings and rock-throwing, often in retaliation for a drug bust, were a frequent occurrence until the middle of the current decade. Now, they’re relatively rare: Akerlund says the police have a better idea of how to counteract rumors and inform the neighborhood what’s really going on.

But violence hasn’t gone away; it’s made a comeback in the shootings. The cutthroat gangland competition is a new phenomenon and researchers and police officials struggle to explain its roots or figure out why firearm use is growing despite restrictive gun laws. They all say, however, that the recent wave of immigration has nothing to do with it: The newcomers haven’t had time to integrate into the gang culture.

Trapped by Decades of Bad Policy

Although Skinnari’s report indicates some statistical improvement in the vulnerable areas — slightly less exposure to crime, more feeling of safety compared with a few years back —the prospects for residents may actually be getting worse. For decades, the bad neighborhoods were gateways for immigrants into the rest of Sweden. People settled in them for the ethnic support networks, learned the language, got better jobs and moved out in a few years, always replaced by more immigrants.

Now, people get stuck. Everyone I talked to named the Swedish real estate market as the reason. It’s almost impossible to rent an apartment in Stockholm or other big urban centers, and few can afford to buy one. Swedish housing prices were up 44 percent last year compared with 2012, and they’ve almost tripled since 2000.

Sweden’s Decades-Long Failure to Integrate

“I remember, 20 years ago one could save, borrow and move out,” said Rostami, who’s done just that. “Now that’s a challenge: You need a very stable job and a high income.”

Fixing the housing market requires investment, political will and planning so skillful that I doubt it exists anywhere. Last year in the Netherlands, often touted as a model when it comes to creating neighborhoods for people with different income levels, residents of these mixed neighborhoods told me of powerful class and ethnic tensions. Sweden has even less experience with such projects.

Inadequate policing is at the core of the problem. Despite safety gains made in the past four years, Rostami said there aren’t enough officers to “shrink the space that organized crime occupies.” According to him, Germany has twice Sweden’s number of police officers per 100,000 residents.

Skinnari’s survey showed that in the vulnerable areas, the police and the court system often are mistrusted because they’re perceived as too soft: Known gang members are let out quickly and prisons lack space to accommodate everyone who’s sentenced, giving convicted gangsters a chance to keep terrorizing neighborhoods.

More prison cells — and, yes, a tougher deportation policy, as the Sweden Democrats suggest, could help.

Not even the nationalists propose going as far as neighboring Denmark with its infamous ghetto laws aimed at assimilating the immigrant population. The Sweden Democrat Bieler said she’d balk at the Danish idea of increasing punishment for crimes committed in problem areas. But it’s not unreasonable for a country to deport foreign nationals who have committed serious offenses. Though it offends liberal sensibilities, it’s also reasonable for a receiving country to try to instill some unifying values in newcomers, especially children. Not doing that has led to the emergence of parallel societies in the vulnerable areas, in which it’s normal to collect funds to refurbish a school in Baghdad but local schools are left to the Swedish government to worry about.

Interestingly, some of the younger immigrants, who yearn to become Swedes, don’t mind adopting a new identity as much as the previous generations of immigrants have done.

Ahmed Abdirahman, a 32-year-old integration policy expert at the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and the founder of a non-governmental organization called the Global Village, was born in Somalia and lives in Tensta. He believes the immigrant areas, with a much higher proportion of children and young people, “are producing the future of Sweden,” a country with a low fertility rate. So the civil society in these areas shouldn’t aim simply to maintain the culture of the old home country, as has often been the case.

“We are the next generation, and for us it’s about being Swedes: we want to be part of the political conversation,” Abdirahman says.

Even if the Sweden Democrats ever become part of the establishment and succeed in restricting immigration, Sweden is stuck with a large, segregated immigrant population that both its high achievers and its criminals won’t let the rest of the country ignore.

Sweden has lived for decades with a blissful sense that a wealthy, tolerant society can iron out all its kinks. Now, there’s a widespread sense that the country’s social and law enforcement infrastructure is overburdened because too many immigrants are coming in, and time is needed to assimilate the earlier arrivals. But time isn’t the best doctor here: Problems with previous generations of immigrants and their kids were swept under the rug for too long.

What’s needed now is clearer awareness of where the problems really are. The police and researchers affiliated with them lead the way here with their attempts to pinpoint and study the problem neighborhoods and the gangs that operate in them. Superintendent Akerlund firmly believes that in 10 to 15 years, there won’t be any vulnerable areas in his district. But he understands that dream can only become reality with constant effort and learning.

The rest of Swedish society should concentrate on the real problem, too: It’s not the recent refugee wave, it’s decades of complacency and half-hearted integration policies. For Sweden, proud of its world-leading social policies, that’s a bitter pill to swallow, but better late than never.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.