Trouble in Paradise? What the Riots Mean for Sweden

Since May 20, the media, both in and out of Sweden, has been dominated by the riots in certain suburbs of Stockholm. Reports have focused on outbursts of violence which include large-scale vandalism and damage to cars and shops in the poorer areas of Greater Stockholm with large concentrations of ethnic minorities. Following the fatal shooting on May 12 of an elderly man by the police in the northwest neighborhood of Husby, Greater Stockholm, violence erupted with the burning of cars, arson, and attacks on police on May 19. It soon spread to many other similar suburbs in the periphery of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen, and Skogås.

At the time of writing, after eight nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Göteborg, Örebro, and Linköping. Although the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to the riots in the nothern cities of the UK in 2001, or even in the banlieues in France in 2005, the feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining a foothold in the political debate, with several statements from Swedish Ministers and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urging a stop to the violence.

This is not the first time that Sweden has experienced riots—the last time was between 2008 and 2009. However, it is arguably the first time when disenfranchised voices from the poorer suburbs are making themselves heard in the public debate. This is a new nascent social movement among youth and young adults, born and raised in Sweden, who are voicing their alienation and speaking up against experiences of police harassment, declining social welfare service provision in the worst off suburbs, and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor. This development can be viewed as heavily racialized, as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5 percent while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers between 35 to 45 percent. Representatives from civil society groups have, for example, alerted the media of reports of racist language used by certain police officers on active duty in these suburbs, and have offered analysis describing a new Sweden which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.

Sweden has for decades prided itself on its reputation as the most progressive country in the world. However, Sweden recently also became the OECD country with the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born residents. Its large- and mid-sized cities are characterized by probably the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation pattern in the Western world. It is not possible to understand the frustration and rage that can be found among young people, particularly those who are born and brought up or have spent most of their lives in Sweden, but who, due to their undesirable postal address and their “non-Swedish” appearance, are not accepted by society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.

Some political groups and others not living in these poverty-stricken suburbs are exploiting the current unrest—a fact which is not widely reported in the media, whose focus is on spectacular photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. There are allegations that white leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something which happened also in 2008 and 2009. Their political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism to create an even stronger stigmatization of the poor areas with high levels of ethnic minorities among the white majority population. Furthermore, extreme right-wing activists are also active in the events by portraying themselves as “ordinary Swedes” who want to help the police as “citizen guards,” something which the media unfortunately is buying into. On May 24, for example, around 100 Nazi activists were in the area of Tumba, in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and reported to have beaten young people deemed to be “rioters.” In practice this meant anyone below 30 of non-white appearance.

Beneath the surface of the dramatic media reporting of riots in the suburbs, there are also other groups operating according to their own agendas. For ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the violence-stricken areas are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats, a populist, anti-immigration party which in the opinion polls is the fourth- or third-largest party in Sweden, will probably be the biggest political winner. Representatives from the party have gained political mileage from the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state-of-emergency measures in certain urban districts. This brings to mind the events in south east London and the atrocious acts of two individuals which have led to an exponential rise of the British anti-Muslim platform called the English Defence League. In trying times like this, the media and politicians have to guard against words which collectivize a whole set of people and groups. This is the time to ask why it happened and what can be done to ensure it does not happen again.   

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please may i just know the ethnic background and nationality of the elderly man? tq.

Portuguese, probably Portuguese Roma.

One will begining to wonder if human rights no longer exist. This is bad

The combination of (elderly, poor, minority) is trebly attractive for any "superiorist"-psyche attack, often from police or gangs. Elderly people are facing increasing adversity in many places.

Even In traditional societies, like India, where the senior citizens used to get a lot of respect -- as the traditional social norms are breaking down in recent decades -- the attack on elderly people are on rising. This is one of the saddest and most painful issue to observe.

The importance of history is to learn from it, never to repeat its wrongs. I think Hitler, Stalin, African slave traders and others have taught us that hating each other leads to the demise of good sense and the building of walls which undermine trust for generations. At some point we must come together to say 'no more'.

Whichever country, the issues are not racial but a fierce struggle against the populist impotence imposed by the wealth of the corporate powers. No matter how much intense struggling, there is no service consisting of genuine care and assistance to the consumer,
no finances that can be saved and little hope pushing always enlarging personal budgets uphill. I am as yet working at 73 for my underemployed children and grandchildren's sakes, while the bonuses for those who initiated the downfall of the middle class magnify.



A very thin line between what is and what appears to be rights, wrongs, and no end in sight, anywhere...sad

When I visited Sweden seventeen years ago it was clear there would be problems. Refugees were well housed and cared for which Swedes resented at the same time they were not allowed work or to learn the language for five years, not knowing the final decision, leading to despair on the part of the foreigners, anger on the part of the Swedes paying high taxes. It was a lose/lose situation.

It's going to be happening everywhere, one country at a time. Sweden is not immune anymore than any other country whose citizens feel their way of life is threatened by immigrants who do NOT want to assimilate into the ways of the country but make demands that the country make changes to suit their needs and when met with refusal, the immigrants play the race card. It is not hard to understand why only one immigrant population has been so discriminated against and why.

no matter how long one suppresses the the poor, racial oppression their voice will always surface. I tend to feel sad for people who have a racial problem, it shows they are not living a reality of life, they have been taught that their color is better than the others yet when it comes to transfusion of blood, kidneys, other needy parts color is not considered it is a sickness which needs to addressed from childhood, it is difficult to change percesptions when one is older let us work on it

A very good piece and interesting analysis. The pattern of 'decanting' new Swedish communities to the suburbs and satellites stems from the very origins of the Myrdal's vision of the 'folkhem' (the social scientists who effectively constructed the model for the Swedish social welfare and society), which relied upon a notion of those eligible and those 'outside' the system - such as the Swedish Roma, Finns and others. The forging of modern 'white' Swedish identity proposed a direct contrast with those 'non-white' groups who were not to be treated as equal and were to be assimilated or 'reduced' - the last enforced sterilisation of a Romani woman in Sweden took place in the early 1970's. Such policies are at the ideological heart of the Sweden Democrats but underpin the 'imagined community' of Swedes much more widely; Muslims and people of colour remain 'immigrants' despite being in the country for five or six generations (such as the Turks in Sweden, who remain the least connected community to wider Swedish society, aside from the restaurant and take-away food trades). Astrid Nordin suggests that this is not symptomatic of exclusion from society, but the absence of society in Sweden itself (

Well written and a half balanced article. I know Sweden since 1974, and I could probably leave a deeply vision of what is happening in my lovely second home. First of all: I have warned political parties since 1975 that this kind of reactions from young "foreign" was to expect in the future. Nobody heart, I am too black. Let me summarize realities.

1. Sweden, despite its relatively low level of genetic distances – immixed descendents from slaves - it is an almost homogeny. People with evident African, Asian, Vallones, German and Jewish blood, usually deny this origins. Why? Since tribal societies time, in Sweden is forbidden to be other than Swedish, in other words Svea & Gothic folk.
2. Since the 50s, Swedish companies imported hundred of thousands Greeks, Portuguese and Italian workers. They were welcome; thanks Marshal money investments, which boosted local industries to feed with steel, and machine the agonizing Europe.
3. Then came the leftist wave, the 60s, and the importation of human beings was selective. In Sweden were welcome American deserters, guerilla soldier from Chile, Argentina, Angola, Namibia, Germany, Italy, Viet Kong and even Japan. The last years including Islamic socialists from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Egypt. All them, including me, greeted a socialist Sweden where everything was organized “from childhood up to the grave”. But, was this a perfect society, so acceptable to adopt and be part of?
4. Swedish society was far from perfect, as we were only welcome by extreme leftist activists, and never by the rest. That people have always thought that we should never immigrate into Sweden, because “we are dirtying Sweden”. It is to blame them for thinking that way, when more than a half a millions Sweden dirtied America since 1850? According their mythology, “Swedes are welcome everywhere”.
5. The Swedish society is now extremely polarized. We foreign deny jobs only based on our skins, not on our qualifications. Swedes prefer paying us via social welfare the rest of lives, instead of hiring us to show what we can. They are exceptions. If you are an extreme leftist lawyer, journalist, economist, teacher or worker, counts on you are going to get a job “despite your are so ugly as a foreign”.
6. Finally, what more reasons Swedes intellectually elaborate to deny us jobs? WE SMELL GARLIC! They never smell themselves as they smell pork they eat every day.
7. All this, young second generation foreign are strongly protesting to show they are demanding a change in mentioned mentality in the current Swedish invisible Apartheid Culture, where we are forced to live in ghettos already prepared to be surrounded by razors protected walls, just in case.

Carlos Medina de Rebolledo
Retired professor in Communication Science/Journalism

Those who think they are bigger than others may go to the cemetery. They will see what life is. Handful of dust!

Codes of behavior, are what gives us direction in life,and that is for everyone,no matter of color,race,religion or politics.Respect to one another,is the main factor, for us all
to be able to live together.

It had been expected than increasing national wealth more people will enjoy better welfare, and thus be less susceptible to precipitating social tension. But the fact of inter-class and inter-racial comparisons has played out to heighten the present hate feelings. It thus becomes more imperative to mainstream both inclusiveness and human rights equity considerations in Sweden's national development proposals.And this should instruct both business and non-business organisations in their policies and operations.Meanwhile, the Swede authorities should employ pragmatic measures to take the wind off the sail of this wide fire.

Leonard Zeskind in the USA here. I did an anti-racist, anti-fascist speaking tour in Sweden in 1989 or 1990. Went to about six cities over several days, with an obligatory stop in Stockholm to visit with Stieg Larsson. There was still a left-over presence from WWII or racist sympathies in the intelligentsia. And there was plenty of neo-Nazi skinhead activity in the country then, but it was invisible to adults. I remember a stop where we did our talk and everybody went "tsk tsk, but there is nothing like that here." After it was over, a young person came to talk privately and said that the white power band Skrewdriver had been there the weekend before, played in a local bar and drew hundreds of young people. What we are seeing now with anti-immigrant activity was born yesterday, not last week.

It could be interesting for all of you who have responded, that the aftermath of the urban unrest has been a mixture of "expert" analyses coming from both the Right and the Left with a tendency to blame each other, and the analyses from both sides also reveal strong ideological closures. The main voice that has come from residents in the areas themselves, a group called Megafonen, has also been branded as pro-violence and Extreme Leftist, although Megafonen never spoke for violence nor for so-called "Extreme Leftist" views. Sweden is now more or less back to business as usual, in the sense that the majority society continues to be unaware of what is happening with these areas and their inhabitants, although the Swedish Employment Service just published a report on the labour market situation today and for the near future, showing that a little bit more than 3 per cent of the adult majority population is unemployed (which is an extremely good proportion considering the current crisis in Europe). However, for non-Western migrants that number hovers around 15-20 per cent.

One has to read different Swedish sources to get an overall picture what is happening in Sweden- where- who is living there- etc. Goteborg has always been a 'criminal' city- thieves' paradise due to its port city and ships- then Hells' Angels-then the Nazi emulating Uebermenschen (= under-educated white males and now women too- think of IKEA founder/Goering's first wife etc.)They resent any and all foreigners blaming them for their own shortcomings (spacegoats). Jewish populace in Goteborg is being harassd/beaten/warned not to show any sign of their identity (like now in Berlin). Roma in Sweden,Norway are being deported/housed in tent cities or dilapiditated buildings- being harassed ,subjected to be the last in line for any working opportunity. Young Mohammedans from refugees from Bosnia-former USSR- Africans (contrary to previous welcoming as refugees) have been persuaded by lack of language skills/social modes et al. to turn to recruiters for fighting in different spheres (Syria/Libya/Africa/Egypt) in 'being somebody' ,while younger ones get their satisfaction in vandalism (previously years ago this happened with different social classes of native born vandalists). All refugees should learn Swedish (it is easy- 7 yr old kids learn it in half a year/ illitarate older ones or adults can learn it by rote- to speak- writing is more difficult.Let it be said that Swedish police -like police in all Scandinavia are less educated- (except the brass) easily adopting The White Myth (=Nietzschean Uebermench in its original meaning-Also sprach Zarahustra).Swedish Democrats are in-fighting with each other- to cite a few.The Swedes welcomed all doctors/researchers/political dissidents/UN refugees -having an open mind- it is not dead-it still is there but voices of discontent are overwhelmingly muting them.

I am an action constructive builder...i believe in solidarity of course....
but not just of words or round table debates; i believe
in solidarity with a back up of finance to encourage the
people; when they are given the opportunity to work
together towards a common goal...all the people around the world will want to be friends as a community as they know they can build together...a dream..
a future for all present and for their children...a roof.. facility...water..
renewable including by computers...
sports facilities for the attitude of resilience
with a philisophy of just critical thinking....sustainable...
one self sufficient community at a time; teaching
easy SKILLS to youth to become productive and be
builders of the future of other communities also learning to generate revenues and progress...MOTIVATION is the a sustainable future in hunger..
of course we need leaders...efficient leaders ..but a society is not built with university degrees...diplomas..
or politics....its the people who are the majority who
have or learn skills..we teach them,they are the ones we
need the most.. that kind of SOLIDARITY the
SOROS..OFFERS WITH HIS TEAM..who believe in the rule of law together....
human justice...when people have what they need
for their families at list for a fair survival and resilience
dignity...i am convinced that all wars would be a thing
of the past...greed....selfishness...ego...most of the
time is in the way...of efficiency,but the worst one is the
hypocrisy of POLITICS.
a well balanced society is a success when you do not
forget what is needed the
food and water for all..and so on.
imagine a society just like a reciepy of a delicious
cake....if i forget the chocolate...the butter...
and even the eggs....what is left is a tastless
chocolate not eat it,its a flop,Claire Costom

As a social psychologist, working on migration, integration and citizenship, I have been trying to understand how people enact a sense of belonging and integration in European context – particularly in Sweden and Scotland. There does perhaps seem to be certain ingredients that combine together to make for a potentially incendiary conditions within the Swedish context. I would sum these up as (i) a return to assimilation discourse particularly around ‘Swedish norms/learning our ways’ and of course the totemic learning the national language what Carl-Ulrik Schierup and Aleksandra Ålund (2011) call ‘demands on migrants’ discourse There are tensions here when intra-European movers are not expected to learn Swedish and can conduct themselves in English in a variety of contexts. Naturally successful settlement requires a working knowledge of the national language but this can extend to a view that people should visible removing all traces of an accent (see Mahendran 2013) (ii) Swedish self-promotion as “norm entrepreneurs” in relation to open democracy and citizenship, on the world stage (Ingebritsen 2002). In my view this risks placing the migrant (often conceptualised as a refugee) as the object of humanitarian concern and locks people categorised as refugee into a ‘just arrived/lack of competency’ subordinated position – irrespective of length of residence. In other European contexts, when discussing migration, people tend to hold a variety of arrival contexts in mind e.g. skilled migration, EU Accession migration as well as asylum-seeking in Sweden it is usually ‘the refugee’. (I am working on this paper just now it will be entitled Reification and the Refugee and draws from interviews in Stockholm, Edinburgh, Uppsala, London & Norwich).

This perception of migrants combines with a (iii) tendency to view everyone who has a visible non-white ethnic background as a migrant. In our current Placing Ourselves project ( we asked people in six European cities to discuss integration and belonging – including asking what they thought of terms ‘second-generation migrant’ and ‘third-generation migrant’ (andra generationens invandrare & tredjegenerationens invandrare) in Sweden (Göteborg) the terms were taken amongst ‘non-migrants’ at face-value, whereas in the other cities they were usually rejected and critiqued by people irrespective of whether they were migrants or non-migrants. The rejection was usually on the grounds that the term ‘migrant’ should be confined to people who have actually moved in their life time. The everyday usage in Sweden of the term ‘migrant’ invandrare whether as, invandrana or invandrade should be examined not least because it risks identity foreclosure amongst those continually seen as migrant. Contrast this to the natural usage of hyphenated identities in countries like Canada and the US e.g. Italian-American, European-Canadian. Finally (iv) and perhaps most significantly in Sweden, I guess what I have been writing about all along in this commentary - there are high level of othering (andrefiering) both in the sense that migrants and certain ethnic & mixed ethnic people are indexed as static, ‘culturally other’ and lacking in Swedish competencies. As well as in more structural sense - structural discrimination (see Brekke & Borchgrenvick Talking about Integration 2007), segregated housing, education, employment opportunities - which sees Swedish-born perceived “ethnic” individual young people, still not perceived as culturally ‘Swedish’ and unable to find work. These four ingredients – a growing consensus on assimilation/work assmilation rather than two-way mutual accommodation, Sweden’s seeming need to other its ‘migrants’ for international relations status, the perception by some of all ethnic-minorities as migrants and a general & pernicious andrefiering underpin I’d say Sweden’s continual difficulties with structural discrimination. A little bit of an essay, but hopefully food for thought for those working in Sweden. the same problems exist elsewhere in Europe but they perhaps configure differently. It is too early for us to draw conclusions from the Placing Ourselves study – but when the findings are ready we will put them out for dialogue - on the Placing Ourselves webpage and

Not sure why this is such a surprise or requires so much soul searching. Everyone - esp those NOT of european extract - knows that this is normal human behaviour. People generally dont trust people who look, eat and behave differently. No one likes change. Fact. Whether it is Bangladesh or Belgium or Bahrain its the same forces at work. Takes centuries to overcome. Why should we expect the Swedes to be any different. Every ethnic group and person on the planet - self included - is a racist or is capable of exhibiting racist behaviour to some extent. When times are hard these tendencies begin to surface but they are always there. Just have to be patient and work at building trust. But it takes both sides to make genuine efforts.

Thank you for the points you made, Mr. Medina. It's good to know the history of disregard for those who are different that led to the riots and unrest in Sweden. I think that dumping people in different countries - especially those who look different - and not providing them with the means to assimilate is criminal. It drives them to crime and clannishness because it gives them no other options to survive. While the neglect over the years has led to this point in Sweden's social and political environment, there is class warfare going on in the poorer countries of Europe as well. I work with approximately 2,000 abandoned children and young adults in Romania - many of whom are Roma. These children have never been issued identity papers and so have no rights or protection under the deeply flawed social and justice systems of that country. They are painted as criminals by all the "law abiding, God-fearing, Romanian citizens". They are oppressed in dark corners of the world by a government and populace that is waiting for them to die. How long can we deny human beings human rights and why aren't we working everywhere, not just the more affluent and prestigious countries that are the focus of our outrage?

Thanks dear miss Booth, you are welcome. I have studied Romani people´s situation since I have seen a reportage film Dog World, or likely, where you could confirm that the communist government treated people that way BECAUSE ITS IDEOLOGY. Let me explain. Socialist ideas are based on so called "collectivism thinking", in other words, someone ideologicaly create a new theory based on that crazy man Carl Marx. Other follow that new theory and strive to get the power. When they are on office, they decide their point of view MUST be collectively forced to everyone. On this manners, a small group of socialists-communists decide what all other MUST think, must say,must do.Trying Romani people should be good socialists (obedient) they discovered Romani people IS A FREE PEOPLE. To be collectivized by force should be impossible at them. Then, communists and socialists decided "non socialists are nothing worthy". In Russia free people were sent to Gulags. In GDR Stasi forced them to silence. In Cuba they denied food ransoms and work, and free press, free thinking, free movement.

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