What does Trump's claim about migrant crime tell us about Sweden?

President Trump's reference to Sweden during a Florida rally has drawn mockery from some corners of the internet. But a growing far-right base in Sweden has expressed such concerns.

Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency via Reuters
A police officer keeps guard as migrants arrive at Hyllie station outside Malmo, Sweden. Picture taken November 19, 2015.

Swedish authorities probably don’t hold their breath for a mention from President Trump every time he approaches a platform. Last Saturday night, at a rally in Florida, they got an unpleasant surprise.

Sweden’s refugee commitment, which saw the country take in about 160,000 foreigners in 2015, was causing “problems like they never thought possible,” claimed Mr. Trump.

“Here's the bottom line,” he said, according to transcripts from the event. “We've got to keep our country safe. You look at what's happening. We've got to keep our country safe.”

The question of what the president was referring to, exactly, when he told the crowd to look “at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” unraveled later.

Mr. Trump, White House press officials clarified, had seen a Friday-night Fox News interview with documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz, who claimed that Sweden’s acceptance of migrants and refugees had led to “no-go zones” where police rule gave way to sharia law, as well as an “absolute surge in both gun violence and rape,” according to FactCheck.org.

The episode shined light on a narrative emerging from far-right media sources that links the influx of migrants with a wave of sexual or violent crimes – one abetted by Swedish authorities who deny or cover them up out of fidelity to “political correctness” – even as researchers dismiss the notion of a crime wave.

As Vox notes, official data on rape and a range of crimes from fraud to violent crimes like assault bear out no clear correlation to the increased presence of asylum-seekers, with rates fluctuating slightly – in both directions – in recent years.

“What we’re hearing is a very, very extreme exaggeration based on a few isolated events, and the claim that it’s related to immigration is more or less not true at all,” Stockholm University criminologist Jerzy Sarnecki told the Globe and Mail last May.

Historically, Dr. Sarnecki told the paper, migrants in Sweden do commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Swedes – unlike in the United States, where the reverse is true. But a 2013 analysis he led found that most of the difference is attributable to income and the neighborhood where people lived.

That might put incidents like Monday night’s riots in Rinkeby, a largely immigrant suburb of Stockholm, in a different light. But many Swedes do perceive a link between migrants and criminality: 46 percent of the public told Pew Center researchers that “refugees in our country are more to blame for crime than other groups.”

That, combined with the increasing popularity of the far-right Sweden Democrats that have capitalized off of anti-migrant feeling, may explain why Trump’s comments touched a nerve with Sweden’s traditional political authorities. 

“We are used to seeing the president of the U.S. as one of the most well-informed persons in the world, also well aware of the importance of what he says,” Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, told The New York Times on Monday. “And then, suddenly, we see him engaging in misinformation and slander against a truly friendly country, obviously relying on sources of a quality that at best could be described as dubious.”

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