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Swedish riots point to deep social problems

A week of violence in the Swedish capital indicates that not all is well in a country that prides itself on social equality. Immigrants claim they are unjustly treated.

Sweden has often presented itself to the world in the past as a model of social justice and successful integration. For the last week, however, it has been a country of burning tires, schools and automobiles – seemingly, a great divide between pretense and reality.

"Not everything that shines is gold," said Tobias Etzold, from the Northern Europe Project at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. "Even a supposedly model country, like Sweden, with a well-functioning welfare state and relatively affluent population, is not immune to the economic and finance crisis in Europe."

Tensions between rich and poor

People stand on a street bench next to Husby subway station as they attend a demonstration against police violence and vandalism in the Stockholm suburb of Husby (Photo: AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/DW)

'Not everything that shines is gold' in Sweden, says political analyst Tobias Etzold

The riots in the Stockholm suburb of Husby has seriously shaken the idyllic world of the Swedes. Some 12,000 residents live in Husby; 85-percent of them have an immigrant background. More than a third of the 20-25 year olds have no job.

After the last economic crisis in 2008, the Swedish government was forced to implement austerity measures. The economic problems at the time were quickly remedied with reforms, but the financially weaker portion of the population was hit hard. "The government cut unemployment benefits and subsidies for health care, while giving tax breaks to the affluent," explains Etzold.

"That led to a growing social divide between rich and poor," said Almut Möller, from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), in an interview with DW.

The problems were clearly visible in suburbs, like Husby, he added. The communities were built in the 60s and 70s to provide inexpensive housing. In the beginning, it was poorer Swedes who moved into these areas, but after a while, more and more immigrants began to arrive. "Sweden has a liberal immigration policy, so today, the proportion of migrants is very high," he added.

The Swedes moved away and the immigrants stayed. When the unemployment rate rises in areas where people have less access to education and work, then the unrest is greater, he said. "And Sweden's youth unemployment rate of 24-percent is well above the EU average," Möller added.

Latent disposition for violence

Firemen extinguish a burning car parked in an indoor garage in the Stockholm suburb of Tureberg (Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images/DW)

It now remains to be seen if the government responds to the problems

The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was the shooting death of a 69-year-old immigrant by the police, who claimed they acted in self-defense. "Without this incident the situation probably would not have escalated," says Martin Diewald, a sociologist at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. Events, like that often unleash the latent propensity for violence under the surface," he said.

"For a group that sees itself as being discriminated against, aggressions bubble to the surface when something like this happens because respect and recognition have been refused to them," Diewald said.

Failed integration program

Meanwhile, the police have the rioters under control. In the long term, Etzold thinks the unrest could improve the situation in the suburbs. "Policymakers were surprised by the violence because they neglected the problems in these neighborhoods for a long time. Possibly, the situation will lead to a growing awareness that the government needs to do more," he said.

Sweden's much-touted integration program has failed in Etzold's view and the state will have to invest more in education and the job market. That's the only way Sweden can regain its reputation as a model country, he maintains. At the moment, says Etzold, "that model is more a cliché than reality."

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