What's behind Sweden's youth riots?

Six days of rioting across Sweden last week have laid bare the social isolation growing in some of Stockholm's suburbs. But Swedes are divided over the root cause.

Fredrik Persson/Scanpix/Reuters
Masked men are lined up against a wall by riot police in a Stockholm suburb on Saturday, the sixth straight night of riots in the Swedish capital.

For outsiders, Sweden's international image as a bastion of egalitarianism, harmony, and prosperity took a shocking hit as youths rioted in the suburbs of Stockholm last week. But for many Swedes, the images of stone-throwing, car-torching youths have not come as such a complete surprise.

The riots started May 19 in the west Stockholm suburb of Husby, following the fatal police shooting of a local 69-year-old. Within days, they spread to more than a dozen other areas outside the city center and to several other towns. On the first night of unrest, several residents were evacuated from an apartment building and fire fighters and police officers were met with a shower of rocks. Every day fresh reports of vandalism filled the news until calm returned this week. More than 150 cars and dozens of buildings have been torched.

The riots laid bare the social isolation growing in some of Stockholm's suburbs. But Swedes are divided over the root cause of the riots, with some insisting they are a result of failed integration of immigrants and others pointing to socio-economic marginalization.

The construction of the concrete estates in Husby and other suburbs that have been marred by riots started in the 1960s as part of the Million Program. It was a bold initiative by the then-ruling Social Democrats to build a million homes in just a decade. But the estates were gradually filled with various social outcasts: drug addicts, alcoholics, and immigrants. The new satellite suburbs, with their modern, airy flats, became a source of alienation rather than integration.

Today, 85 percent of Husby’s 12,000 inhabitants are of foreign origin; that is they were either born abroad or have two immigrant parents. Unemployment stands at just under 8 percent, which closely matches the national average but is much higher than the average for all of Stockholm, where just over 3 percent are unemployed. According to a recent report from Sweden's Employment Agency, Husby is one of the areas in Sweden with the highest number of teenagers out of employment or education.

Fifteen percent of Sweden's 9 million citizens were born abroad. Immigration increased by 7 percent in 2012 and is now at the highest rate ever, according to figures from Statistics Sweden. An influx of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia was behind most of the increase, but there was also a growth in migration from crisis-hit southern European nations. Most immigrants settle in Stockholm.

While Stockholm's suburbs are in significantly better states than the banlieus of Paris, for instance, many residents feel excluded from the "Swedish dream." A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that income inequality is growing rapidly in Sweden, which dropped to 14 from its first-place ranking in 1995.

During the rioting, the police were accused of using excessive force and racist language. Self-appointed citizen brigades took it upon themselves to "restore order" by chasing down ethnic minority Swedes.

Growing inequality

"We know that this is a reaction to social wants. Unemployment, failing schools, and structural racism are contributing factors to what is happening today," community organization Megafonen said of the riots that started soon after the group had organized a protest against police violence.

Arne Johansson of the Network for Järva's Future, which held a peaceful demonstration last week to protest against police violence and rioters' vandalism, believes that disenfranchisement is the key to recent events. He lists harassment from authorities, unemployment, and poor schooling as some of the reasons why residents in Husby feel alienated and desperate.

"Sweden has become a neoliberal experiment," claims Mr. Johansson, "and class differences have increased as the wealthy receive more and more subsidies and tax cuts."

Karin Svanborg-Sjövall of the think tank Timbro disagrees. For her, the riots are not a consequence of the famed Swedish Model being disbanded. Instead, she says the welfare model itself has given rise to the socio-economic alienation that has come to the fore in the past couple of weeks.

"In Sweden, the unions have been given the right to impact wage rates so that the minimum wage is very high. At the same time, one has actively done away with low-skilled jobs here. This, in combination with the high immigration rate, means that we have a growing number of people who are simply shut out of the labor market," says Ms. Svanborg-Sjövall.

"As a way of solving this, Sweden has built a generous welfare system, which has led to complacency. Instead of lowering the thresholds for entering the labor market, one has simply accepted that there are large groups of people who should live off welfare, and for many of them there aren't enough incentives to actively improve their lot," she adds.

'These are not race riots'

But by most accounts the young people setting schools ablaze and fighting police were born and raised in Sweden. They say they have nothing to lose and that this may be the only way to make their voices heard.

"These are not 'race riots' or 'immigrant riots,'" says Rouzbeh Djalaie, editor of the local paper Norra Sidan. He is usually the only reporter covering Husby and nearby areas. "Sweden has seen many riots in the past and before there were any significant immigration waves into the country, too. The common denominator has been socio-economic factors. Kids with Swedish backgrounds have participated in the most recent riots, too. It has nothing to do with ethnicity."

"At the same time, immigrants have in some ways become the new working class in Sweden, so there is a correlation between immigrant background and a low economic standing."

Reza Saleh, who lives just minutes from Husby where she runs the Ministry of Storytelling, a program modeled on the US non-profit 826 National, also stresses that it is important to focus on socio-economic factors, rather than ethnicity.

"Our aim is to create opportunities for children and young people to be seen and heard, to spread their stories, to make sure adults listen to them. When it comes to social mobility, education and language skills are key. If these kids feel confident in using Swedish, that will help them become part of society," says Saleh.

Sakine Madon, an editorial writer who grew up in different suburbs and has worked at a youth center in one of the affected areas, echoes this view.

"Parents and schools have an important task in showing that the adult world is engaged in children's education and daily life," says Ms. Madon. But she also believes that many projects and policies aimed at enfranchising young people in Swedish suburbs have too often treated them as different from other Swedes.

As an example, Madon mentions "Blood Rhythms," a music project run by the municipality of Botkyrka, where much of the recent rioting took place.

"It was aimed at children with foreign backgrounds," explains Madon. "The idea was that they should familiarize themselves with their so-called blood rhythms. Sweden needs to quit this kind of exoticization of 'immigrants.' Treating everyone equally is a much better way to achieve integration."

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