Matthew Fisher: Tensions with Sweden’s refugee communities challenge the country’s liberal image of itself
Rosengard, where more than 80 per cent of the population was not born in Sweden, has become widely regarded a flashpoint for communal strife
August 18, 2017
3:07 PM EDT
MALMO, Sweden — One afternoon, as I asked two young women for directions to the Arab bazaar in the district of Rosengard, near this city’s centre, a man appeared seemingly from nowhere and, shouting at the women in Iraqi-accented Arabic, said something to them that caused them literally to run away.
Rounding on me, the man, probably in his late twenties with a well-groomed beard, demanded by what right had I spoken to his sister and her friend. I answered that I had only been seeking directions.
His sister had been raised in Sweden, he said, and therefore did not understand that European men were pedophiles and that it was perilous for her to speak with them for any reason. Approaching me again later in the crowded bazaar, where almost all the signs were in Arab script and some of the women were totally covered by hijabs, he declined to give his name but said that he was a dentistry student. Before stomping off, he said he was furious with the West for having murdered Muslim women and children in the Middle East, and vowed that Islam’s green flag would fly one day over Sweden.
It would be unfair to describe this exchange as typical. Many Arabs that I have met during several visits to Rosengard over the past few years have been gracious and helpful. But ethnic tensions have definitely been rising in Sweden, a country of just 10 million people which in 2015 accepted 163,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 80 per cent of the people living in the Malmo suburb of Rosengard speak Arabic
Rosengard, where more than 80 per cent of the population was not born in Sweden, has become widely regarded a flashpoint for communal strife. I was told again and again by Swedes and Arabs in Sweden’s third-largest city that the slightly scruffy neighbourhood (few communities in Scandinavia are truly scruffy) had already become a virtual No-Go Zone for fire trucks and ambulances unless protected by a robust police escort and that when crimes were committed the community was tight lipped with police about what had happened.
In an open letter to the public earlier this year, Malmo’s police chief, Stefan Sinteus, pleaded for help solving the murder of a 16-year-old Iraqi boy, Ahmed Obaid, who had been shot in the head in Rosengard, as well as with more than 100 other serious crimes including murders, attempted murders, rape and assault. This followed a Christmas Eve bombing in 2014 and a wave of violence during the summer of 2015.
“I can assure you that the police in Malmo are doing everything we can for suspected perpetrators to be held accountable,” Sinteus said. “But we cannot do it on our own.”
Finding an ethnic Swede who lives in Rosengard was not easy. One of the very few was 28-year-old Josefine Angusson, was shopping in small mall near the bazaar with her three-year-old son.
Her voice full of despair, Angusson said she had lived all her life in Rosengard but was planning to move “far away” next week.
“There is a lot of violence and drugs and shooting here,” she said. “It’s gangs, and not many of them are Swedish. My son has nobody to play with because he doesn’t speak Arabic. None of our neighbours talk to me.
“I am not a racist at all but it’s like that. We are looking for another option where we can live because all of Malmo will be become like this. Swedes are not happy about it. Would Canadians be?”
Despite Sweden’s famously liberal social traditions there was a perception that refugees were overtaxing the country’s generous welfare system, hospitals and schools and that finding places for the newcomers to live and to work was becoming problematic. Nobody seemed to know for sure, but there are published reports in Sweden that the unemployment rate in Rosengard exceeds 60 per cent.
“We hate it because of the murders, and they all seem to be Arabs getting killed,” said Eddie Hagmann, whose work as a security guard takes him through Rosengard three times every night to check on some properties there
“When we go on foot patrols there have to always be three of us. I am 21. I don’t want to die for this job.”
A fear that is much discussed in the media is that Rosengard and Arab-majority neighborhoods elsewhere in Sweden have become home to large numbers of Islamic extremists.
Sweden’s top spy, Anders Thornberg, believes that where there were fewer than 200 Islamic extremists in the country 10 years ago that number has today exploded into the thousands.
“We have never seen anything like this before,” Thornberg told Sweden’s TT news agency. “This is the new normal,”
Until recently, welcoming refugees was a central part of how most Swedes regarded themselves. But several polls taken this year have found that more than half the population wanted the government to curb the number of refugees it accepts. This dovetailed with a survey by the state statistics agency that indicated about one Swede in five supports the strongly anti-immigration Swedish Democrats, who are now second only to the ruling Social Democrats in popularity and the third party in parliament.
Pondering the changing mood, a young man who would only give his name as Mahmoud, and who had arrived in Malmo from the former Yugoslavia as a refugee with his parents as a young child said, “Swedes don’t have a problem with Muslims. They have a problem with Arabs. The cultures are just so different. And those differences are worse in Malmo than anywhere else.”
Palestinian-Iraqi Abdulhamid Abuqweili said a lot had changed since he arrived in the city as a refugee 14 years ago.
“Sweden is a very good country but it cannot take in so many refugees. The cost to the people who are already here is too great,” Abuqweili said during a drive around Rosengard, which is mostly drab apartment towers occasionally brightened by a wall mural depicting Arab life.
It is a wonderful thing to help people but it must be done in the right way
“The radicals who have come are bad for the other Arabs. The Swedes think that when Arabs are together there will be problems. Those who come now don’t want to learn the language. They want to live as they did back home.”
With Sweden’s traditional centre-left leaders feeling intense pressure from the surging right, the government has become much more vigilant about who gets into their country. For example, I spent an hour on a packed, overheated train at the first stop in Sweden after the road and rail bridge from Copenhagen while teams of police went through every car carefully examining travelers’ documents.
Carina Costa-Correa, who had emigrated to Spain but was back visiting her family in Malmo, said that was happening in her homeland today was “a well-intentioned disaster. There was no plan for how to deal with so many refugees at once who arrived with little or no education or skills. Clearly it would be much better to help them where they were rather than here. But the government was blind to that.”
As he waited for his train at the Malmo station, 56-year-old tire salesman Roger Knast said over a beer that, “Swedes think the country is overcrowded with Muslims. But it is still generally considered a bad thing to say it, so it is said quietly.
“This is a crisis for Sweden. The government asked us to open our hearts to refugees but they don’t see the consequences. There are so many of them that they no longer mix in and we have created a whole industry of people who take care of them. It is a wonderful thing to help people but it must be done in the right way. It is time for us to close our borders and take care of those who are already here.”