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In Sweden, tensions temper pride over Muslims refugee policy
Stockholm, Sweden (CNN) – With its brick and pastel-colored mid-rise apartment blocks, neatly-paved square and tree-lined streets, Rinkeby could be just about any town in Sweden. Take a closer look, though, and you notice the Arabic signs in shop windows, overhear conversations in Kurdish, and see many faces of people of Muslims descent.
On the surface, it may feel a world away from other troubled immigrant neighborhoods in Europe — Molenbeek in Brussels, say, or the banlieues of Paris — but Rinkeby, however well-kept, has its problems too.
But after riots broke out here in Rinkeby, a short drive from the center of Stockholm, just days later, one local resident told CNN he thought Trump’s comments were “spot on. I think everything he said is true.”
The man, who asked not to be named, is the son of two immigrants who came to Sweden from Greece before he was born. But, he argues, immigration to the country — and to his neighborhood — has now gone too far.
“It is out of control. There is a lot of them, there is no place for them,” he says. “The real problem is the refugees. They come here and think they can do whatever they want.”
Others remain absolutely convinced that Sweden’s immigration policy is something to be proud of.
“I know we have a lot of migrants, but I do not see it as a problem,” says student Natalie Lindum, 20, from Stockholm. “Yes, we have a lot of people coming, but it’s something I welcome.
“I have a lot of friends’ parents who are not from Sweden, but I love that. I love that it’s multicultural. They are good people, and I think there is actually less racism in Sweden nowadays.”
Trump was certainly right about one thing on the subject of Sweden and refugees: “They took in large numbers,” he told the rally in Florida at the weekend.
Sweden has received more refugees per capita than any other European nation. At the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, more than 160,000 people arrived in Sweden requesting asylum — a huge surge for a country with a population of fewer than ten million.
“The equivalent in the US would be to take in six to seven million refugees,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a counter-terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense University.
Muslim demonstration in Malmö
With such a large number of new arrivals, it’s perhaps no surprise that there have been teething problems. Integration (or the lack of it) has become a real concern — particularly in large cities like Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg.
Josefin Larsson, 25, a salesperson from Gothenburg, is half-Swedish, half-Bolivian. She recently moved back to Sweden after more than a decade away, and says she immediately noticed a difference.
“In the cities, you see almost no Swedish people,” she explains. “They have moved out, so it’s almost all people from different countries, and there are so many people on the streets, begging … it’s so sad; there are so many, and [the government] can’t take care of everybody.”
Larsson says that when her mother’s family moved to Sweden from South America more than 20 years ago, “it was very easy for them to become part of society.”
“The government took the time to help them learn Swedish, get a job, learn about the culture. There were programs to make them feel welcome,” she says. “Now it’s very different.”
In an attempt to boost links between Swedes and immigrants, community groups and organizations in some towns and cities across Sweden are taking matters into their own hands.
Kompis Sverige (Swedish Buddies) is a kind of matchmaking service, introducing “new Swedes” to longer-term residents, “to build friendships and prevent exclusion.” And Invitationsdepartementet (The Department of Invitations) links up fluent Swedish speakers and recent arrivals who want to improve their language skills while sharing a home-cooked meal, fighting “exclusion and xenophobia by being welcoming and inclusive.”
“There are so many people. Everyone wants to help, but they don’t know how,” says Larsson, who says she knows of similar music- and church-based efforts aimed at improving integration.
Integration or suspicion
But many Swedes remain suspicious. The Rinkeby resident we spoke to says the government is not doing enough to resolve the issues caused by the scale of new arrivals.
“That is the problem, they are not acting, they are letting it go,” he said. “It will become harder and harder later on to control.”
Larsson says that while everyone assumes that Sweden is a safe place, gang violence and security threats mean she no longer feels confident walking down the street.
“It’s scary here in Sweden,” she says. “We have bomb threats and stuff like that — you don’t really feel safe … I have a friend who was attacked on her way home.”
There have been high profile attacks committed by refugees: In January 2016, a 22-year-old woman was murdered at the asylum center where she worked, leading to pressure on the government to curb the number of migrants coming into the country.
But police here challenge the idea that refugees are responsible for crime in low-income neighborhoods like Rinkeby.
“I can’t see any connection between refugees and this situation in these areas,” says Varg Gyllander, a press officer with the Stockholm police.
“I’m not denying that there are integration issues,” says Ransdorp. “What is wrong to do is to conflate immigration, crime and terrorism, because those linkages are not that strong.”
“The reality is much more complex,” says Amir Rostamy, a police officer who specializes in organized crime.
Crimes against Muslims
Between 2012 and 2015, Sweden granted asylum to 101,925 refugees — that’s about 1% of the country’s total population.
There was a 7% rise in crime over that period, but the US State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security says the rise in 2015 was largely due to a spike in computer-based fraud.
“The categories of crimes that reported the highest increases were vandalism and computer-based fraud. 2015 saw a slight decrease in thefts, sex offenses, and traffic crimes,” the agency said.
Contrary to what President Trump appeared to suggest, Sweden hasn’t been the target of a serious Islamist extremist terror attack since 2010, when Taimour Abdulwahab blew himself up while attempting to carry out a double bomb plot targeting Christmas shoppers in Stockholm.
And the country’s Muslims are far more likely to be the victims of hate crimes than the perpetrators.
Crime against Muslims in Sweden jumped by nearly 90% between 2012 and 2015, Swedish statistics show.
Rise of the far-right
Ranstorp and other law-enforcement experts say the country is struggling with anti-immigrant extremists.
“One of the biggest problems we have here is right-wing extremism,” Ranstorp says. “There have been right-wing groups that planted explosive devices right near asylum centers.”
Swedish officials up to the country’s leader publicly chided the US President for saying the country was “having problems they never thought possible.”
“We must … all take responsibility for using facts correctly and for verifying any information that we spread,” Prime Minister Stevan Löfven said on Monday.
But Trump’s comments have been welcomed in some political circles here.
“I’m very grateful to President Trump that he addressed this issue,” says Mattias Karlsson, a lawmaker from the right-wing Sweden Democrat party.
Karlsson’s party holds the third-largest block of seats in the country’s parliament, and he says the country is in trouble.
“I would describe it as a crisis. I have seen serious problems with law and order,” Karlsson tells CNN. “If you don’t control the borders, if you have an irresponsible refugee problem, you will get problems. And we have serious problems here.”
But Ranstorp rejects Karlsson’s view of their country: “It’s not at all in crisis. Look around. It’s very calm and quiet. Of course there are isolated incidents … but police are dealing with them.”