A week of riots in Stockholm has torn a hole in Sweden’s image as a beacon of social harmony.
In Husby, a suburb north of the capital where 60 percent of residents were born outside Sweden and unemployment is twice the national average, youths torched cars, schools and other buildings in a show of anger that has unsettled one of Europe’s richest nations. The riots spread to more than 10 other suburbs in Stockholm.
“Exclusion, poverty and unemployment” are the main causes of the riots, Yves Zenou, a professor at Stockholm University who has done research on urban economics and migration issues, said in a May 24 interview. “They feel excluded from Swedish society. Many are not in employment, many because of discrimination, and many have low education levels.”
The unrest has shocked Sweden, where the economic policies of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt helped the AAA rated nation emerge as a haven from the debt crisis raging across southern Europe. Yet Sweden’s aggregate wealth has hidden rifts in the economy as polices have failed to catch a demographic now taking to the streets to show its desperation.
Young people need “jobs as well as something to do in their spare time,” Iqra Siddiqui, a 16-year-old living in Hallunda, a suburb in south Stockholm, said yesterday in an interview outside the Skaerholmen subway station. “Another problem is that parents don’t know what their kids are up to.”
Sweden’s youth unemployment rate was 23.6 percent last year -- about three times the national average -- according to the statistics office. A report this month by the Public Employment Services showed that about 77,000 people between 16 and 29 years haven’t studied or worked over the past three years, suggesting even larger hidden unemployment. By comparison, youth unemployment was about 153,000 last year, according to the agency.
Police, who as of May 24 had detained 29 people since the riots started on May 19, say most of those involved are about 20 years old. Their plight underscores how Europe’s economic pain is hitting young people hardest. According to Luxembourg-based Eurostat, youth unemployment in the 27-nation European Union reached 23.5 percent in March, versus 16.2 percent in the U.S.
Scenes outside Stockholm this week replayed images of youth unrest across Europe since the global economic crisis started. In 2011, riots that started in north London also spread to Manchester and the Midlands, in the worst youth unrest in the U.K. since the 1980s. Paris has seen similar violence.
While unrest also spread to other towns over the weekend, including Oerebro and Linkoeping, violence in the Swedish capital have started to subside.
Last night was like “an ordinary night,” according to police spokesman Kjell Lindgren. Fewer than 10 cars were set on fire and there were no reports of stones being thrown at emergency services and no major vandalism. Between Saturday and Sunday, about 20 cars were set on fire and a school in a southern suburb was vandalized. Rocks were also thrown at police in the Vaarberg neighbourhood.
Reinfeldt, who gained power in 2006 on promises of bringing more people into the labor market, has struggled to carry that pledge over to immigrants and young adults. In Husby, an area dotted by concrete high rises, the number of people relying on state assistance is more than triple the average for Stockholm.
Sweden has suffered similar episodes of violence before, including in the southern city of Malmoe in 2008 as well as Gothenburg.
Megafonen, a Husby advocacy group, traces the outbreak of Stockholm’s riots to the police shooting of a local 69-year-old man originally from Portugal. Police brutality and racist slurs have exacerbated tensions, the group says.
Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, has questioned those claims, as a columnist asked for specific examples of brutality and proof of racial insensitivity. The newspaper reported on May 24 that about half the people arrested on suspicion of rioting in Husby came from outside the neighborhood, and half of them had criminal records.
In response, the advocacy group posted witness accounts of police brutality and racism on its website.
“Megafonen doesn’t start fires, we don’t believe this is the right method for long-term change,” said the group. “But we know that it’s a reaction to deficiencies in society. Unemployment, inadequate schools and structural racism are reasons behind what we are seeing today.”
The largest immigrant group in Sweden is from Finland, followed by Iraq and Poland. In Husby, of residents with a foreign background, those who were born abroad or have two non-Swedish parents, 80 percent have heritage from either Asia or Africa, according to city statistics.
Residents are quick to point out that the violence is being carried out by a small group that doesn’t speak for most people living there. Community groups have taken to the streets to help ease tensions and restore calm, which was successful over the weekend.
Locals are “extremely angry and sad,” Adam Khoder, a member of Reinfeldt’s Moderate Party for the Rinkeby-Kista council, which is a part of Stockholm’s local government, said last week. The acts of violence that have plagued outer Stockholm this week are “not normal,” he said.
Khoder said a lack of education and jobs was probably to blame. “It’s important to mention that many of them did not come from Husby and that this is about a few criminal youths, not entire neighborhoods.”
Reinfeldt has come under attack for his failure to create jobs since taking over from the Social Democrats in 2006. The 47-year-old premier leads a four-party coalition that has focused on tax cuts and reducing jobless benefits, to spur more jobs, while targeting a balanced budget.
Inequality has increased in Sweden in recent years and the nation has dropped from first in 1995 to 10th place in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s member ranking of income distribution. Relative poverty, as measured by the share of people with less than half the national median income, more than doubled to 9.1 percent in 2010 from 3.7 percent in 1995, according to an OECD study released this month.
Sweden, which also topped rankings to boast the lowest relative poverty level among OECD countries in 1995, fell to 14th place in 2010, behind other Nordic countries, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Swedish unions say the main issue is a lack of education. In Husby, at least 25 percent of residents have no high school degree even though tuition is free, according to city statistics from 2011.
“The big problem is those who haven’t finished high school or even have a basic education,” said Eva Oscarsson, a labor market specialist at the skilled-labor union Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations. “They have really big problems to ever establish themselves in the labor market.”
The structure of the Swedish labor market has also been questioned, with employment protection laws forcing companies to fire their newest employees first when jobs cuts are needed.
Finance Minister Anders Borg said on May 23 he wasn’t prepared to change that law, which also encourages companies to offer temporary jobs that don’t offer the same employee protection as full-time positions.
The government instead wants to cut youth unemployment by subsidizing companies that hire and educate young people if unions accept lower wages, Borg said. Sweden has already cut payroll taxes for small companies that operate and hire in areas with the lowest employment and education rates.
According to Zenou at Stockholm University -- a French Swede -- there are two ways to fix the nation’s failed integration: you can either move the jobs to the people, or move the people to other areas, he said.
“Employment is one way to integrate people,” said Zenou. “People in these areas seldom meet Swedes. They watch TV in their own languages and are isolated.”
The government is trailing in the polls ahead of elections next year to a Social Democratic-led opposition. While Reinfeldt won re-election in 2010, that vote also saw the rise of an anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats. A poll by Demoskop for newspaper Expressen, released this month, showed the government is backed by 40.8 percent, compared with a combined 47.4 percent for the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party. The Sweden Democrats got 9.9 percent.
Sweden also has the EU’s smallest number of low-wage earners, at 2.5 percent in 2010, according to the European statistics office. That compares with an EU average of 17 percent. In Germany and the U.K., the figures are 22.2 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively.
Yet more low paying jobs will do little to solve the issues, according to Oscarsson.
“The problem is that young people don’t have the competency that they need,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much we lower salaries.”