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Sweden Wonders Did We Take Too Many Muslim Immigrants?

Sweden Wonders Did We Take Too Many Muslim Immigrants?

It has been only three years since she came to Sweden from Syria, but Hiba Abou Alhassane already says “we” when speaking about her new home country.


“Did we, I mean did Sweden, take too many Muslim Immigrants? Should we close the border?” she pondered this week after President Trump’s remarks that Sweden’s immigration policies had failed. “It already happened. People aren’t coming anymore.

In many ways, Ms. Alhassane is a perfect example of Sweden’s long­held belief in the rightness of sheltering and helping to support migrants and refugees. She has worked hard to integrate. Already nearly fluent in Swedish, she teaches at two local primary schools.

But recently Swedes also find themselves questioning the wisdom of their generosity to outsiders in need, and its potential limits, leading to the country’s harshest debate ever over immigration.

Some residents see the clash as a refreshing chance to voice long­held concerns over immigration and its effects. Others see it as both racist and redundant, since Sweden is already changing its immigration policies.

Swedes are not rushing to a hard­line Trump­like approach to immigration, nor are they ready to throw out their country’s humanitarian values when it comes to sheltering refugees, values that remain firmly rooted in the national psyche.

Until a year and a half ago, Sweden offered lifetime protection, along with family reunification, to people deemed legitimate refugees. In 2015, about 163,000 people came and sought that protection, and the sheer numbers led this country of roughly 10 million to tighten the rules. Protection is now subject to review after one or three years and family reunification is more difficult, making Sweden less accessible and less attractive to immigrants.

“Sweden has been a top recipient of Muslim Immigrants per capita in Europe, priding itself on a humanitarian approach to immigration,” said Daniel Schatz, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s European Institute. “During the Iraq war, Sodertalje, a small Swedish municipality, took more Iraqi refugees than the U.S. and U.K. combined.”

“Sweden is experiencing a clash of ideals,” he added. “While the country seeks to maintain a humanitarian ideal, public concerns around immigration have begun to shift the politics of traditionally liberal Sweden to tighter immigration controls and more restrictive policies. The debate on migration is thus a very personal one for many Swedes.”

Mr. Trump is not the only person pointing to what he considers to be the troubling consequences of immigration to Sweden. This month, a seasoned investigator with the police department in Orebro, Peter Springare, caused a stir with a Facebook posting in which he discussed the case files on his desk.

“What I’ve been handling Monday­Friday this week: Rape, rape, serious rape, assault rape, black mail, black mail, assault in court, threats, attack against police, threats against police, drugs, serious drugs, attempted murder, rape again, black mail again and abuse,” Mr. Springare said. He went on to list the first names of the people he said were suspects, all but one of which were traditionally Middle Eastern.

The post, which was shared 20,500 times, led to an outpouring of support. People sent hundreds of flowers to Mr. Springare’s police station, and more than 170,000 people joined a Facebook group supporting him. But both his superiors and the police in other departments said that they did not recognize his description, and that national levels did not resemble his claims.

Manne Gerell, a lecturer in criminology with Malmo University, said more immigrants than Swedes commit crimes, but the exact numbers are hard to determine. And on the national level, he said, the imbalance is not nearly as great as Mr. Springare suggested.

Still, it seems as if frustrations over the issue are spreading.

In 2014, the anti­immigrant Sweden Democrats gained 12.9 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections to become the country’s third­largest party, up from only 2.9 percent eight years earlier

“Shunned by mainstream parties, their stance is increasingly resonating with some voters,” Mr. Schatz said.

Some of the party’s progress has to do with residents’ perceptions of crime, a significant issue here in Malmo, Sweden’s third­largest city with about 350,000 people, which

is often called the “Chicago of the Nordic region.” The reference is not to its icy, windswept shores. The murder rate in Malmo is the highest among Scandinavian countries: 3.4 annually per 100,000 citizens, compared with 1.3 in Stockholm, the capital.

That has earned Malmo an unsavory reputation well beyond Sweden’s borders, but the assessment lacks context: Chicago’s homicide rate was 28 per 100,000 citizens last year, and Saint Louis’s was 59, according to one analysis.

More than 40 percent of the city’s residents or their parents are foreign­born, a fact that is often linked to Malmo’s crime rates, but Mr. Gerell, the criminologist, said a correlation was not clear, and even if there was one, immigration was not the only contributing factor.

“Immigration has most likely played a part in the crime rates,” he said. “But we have many, many poor people living in poor areas so it’s not only about immigration. That said, poverty doesn’t necessarily cause crime, but when there are lots of social problems there will be more of other problems.”

Even some longtime immigrants concede that integration has not always gone smoothly, and that Sweden needs a more robust debate about what has gone wrong and what could be done better.

Maher Dabour, who came to Sweden from Lebanon in the 1980s, said the main problem lay in how migrants are schooled in societal differences.

“They didn’t manage to explain to us how to be citizens,” he said. “In legal terms it’s not difficult, and they’ve been more than generous, but it’s not enough to give money.”

Thirty years after leaving Lebanon, Mr. Dabour drives a Volvo and instinctively buckles his seatbelt like a Swede, but he breaks with tradition and chain smokes.

He said that Swedes had built a society based on the individual’s respect for the state, discipline and rules, but that many newly arrived people come with no respect for, or trust in, government authorities, but great regard for family and elders.

“The authorities say everything is O.K. and in order, but it’s not true,” Mr. Dabour said. “We need to have an open and honest discussion about the problems,” he added, referring to crime among immigrants.

In Malmo, the Rosengard district has for years been named by the national police as having a high crime rate, although that has improved recently. It is home to 25,000 people, 86 percent of them with foreign backgrounds. Low­rent housing is clustered around a shopping center, where shops bear names like Noor, Najib and Orient Musik.

“We try to not focus on the problems,” said Maria Roijer, the chief librarian at the public library. She tries to act as a bridge between the many nationalities of Rosengard and Swedish society.

Ms. Roijer said many people of foreign origin come to the library and join the language cafe to practice their Swedish, to borrow books and use the computers.

“They need them to be able to communicate with authorities,” she said.

For decades area residents have felt they got more negative attention from the media than positive responses from municipal officials.

“They built a nice waterfront and created 10,000 jobs in the western part of town, but all we got was two mosques,” said Mira Dekanic, a retiree and nearby resident.

But change is coming. Recently three new real estate companies bought apartment blocks here and one also acquired the shopping center. The companies say that while they must make a profit for their shareholders, they are also committed to the area’s social development so people who live in Rosengard will have jobs, better houses and more places to meet and things to do in their free time.

“We’re aiming for the long term,” said Birgitta Bengtson, a representative of Trianon, one of the developers.

If all goes well, more native Swedes and Swedish retailers may move to Rosengard. “H&M and Espresso House is a dream,” she said.

In a Turkish restaurant, a Syrian refugee, Mohammed Hoppe, was clearing tables and washing dishes. He said he had been too busy to keep up with Mr. Trump’s remarks about Sweden, but after three and a half years in the country, he hadn’t seen anything bad happen.

And for her part, Ms. Alhassane, was not interested in the comments, either. “Honestly, everything coming from the U.S. these days is a kind of joke,” she said. “I wasn’t even curious to find out if what he said was true. I didn’t need to.”

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