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Six Nights of Violence Reveal Inequalities in Sweden

(Photo: Hessam / Flickr)

For a sixth night in a row, youths in the suburbs of the Swedish capital of Stockholm have set cars and property, including schools and a restaurant, on fire and thrown rocks at police. The violence has occurred mostly in the city’s northwestern and southwestern suburbs, where many residents are immigrants and has spread to other cities including Gothenburg and Malmo.

It was apparently set off after a 69-year-old man with a machete was shot dead by policemen earlier this month. Televised images of cars in flames have “shocked a country proud of its reputation for social justice as well as its hospitality towards refugees from war and repression,” says the Guardian.

Historically a country that “takes care of its people” (as a Swedish student who was studying at my college put it), the Scandinavian country has been reducing the role of its famously generous welfare state since the 1990s to be (according to some) more “efficient” and to give citizens more control over their finances. But the result has been an alarming growth of inequality, including high youth unemployment.

More than 5.6 million people under the age of 25 are unemployed in the European Union. A disproportionately large number are in EU countries whose economies have struggled to pull themselves out of the debt crisis and where social services have been severely reduced. 60 percent of young people in Greece are unemployed, 56 percent in Spain and 24 percent in Sweden, four times the country’s overall unemployment rate of 8 percent.

Youth unemployment is not only a problem in the EU. Almost half the world’s youth live in South Asia, the Middle East and African. Around the globe, an estimated 75 million 15-to-24-year olds are looking for work.

Rising Inequality in Sweden

Average living standards in Sweden still remain among the highest in Europe, but disparities are not hard to find. About 15 percent of Sweden’s population is foreign-born and the jobless rate for them is 16 percent, vs. a rate of 6 percent for native Swedes.

As in other European countries including the Netherlands and Greece, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment has occurred at the same time as right-learning political parties have gained more support, including seats in Parliament. Sweden’s anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats are now third in the polls for a general election next year.

Much of Sweden’s immigrant population is from other Nordic countries, but the debate about immigrants is mostly about asylum-seekers. According to United Nations figures, Sweden is the fourth in the world in the number of asylum seekers and the second relative to its population. Of the 103,000 who immigrated to Sweden last year, 43,900 were asylum seekers and nearly half refugees from Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia; they are given temporary residency at the least.

Swedish employers and unions say the education system is at least part of the problem:

“About 20-25% do not get adequate school results. Of those who do, many choose an education where there are more graduates than are needed. We often cite education in such sectors as tourism, media and professions such as hairdressers as examples,” Christer Aagren, Deputy-Director of the Swedish Employer’s Union told the newspaper Aftonbladet recently.

Concerned that the “younger generation may become disillusioned with the European project,” German leaders have been taking the lead to address youth unemployment acros the EU. Under the plan, a financial institution will be set up to assist those under 25 in Portugal (where youth unemployment is 42 percent) with job training. Germany will also seek to assist Spain in building a dual-track vocational system that would allow people to gain qualifications through working and studying; the Netherlands and Austria have a similar apprentice-based approach.

Are Swedish Police Singling Out Darker-Skinned Immigrants?

Some have raised doubts if what works in Germany (whose economy is driven by manufacturing) will in countries which are more service-oriented. Issues of race and inequality certainly remain. As Rami Al-khamisi, co-founder of Megafonen, which works for social change in Sweden’s suburbs, says in the Guardian, Sweden is a ”society that is becoming increasingly divided and where the gaps, both socially and economically, are becoming larger. And the people out here are being hit the hardest … we have institutional racism.”

Stockholm’s police have already been under scrutiny this year after they were allegedly charged with picking out darker-skinned immigrants for identity checks on public transportation.

According to Tord Strannefors of Sweden’s National Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen), every fifth immigrant youth lacks high school qualifications. Young job-seekers interviewed by The Local report being discriminated against due to their background. As one individual sums up what can only be a growing dilemma for a Europe that has yet to fully embrace what it means to be a multicultural society:

“Sweden has great ambitions for integration. But there is nothing in practice. Employers must get accustomed to having people with different backgrounds in the workplace.”