Sweden has become a gangster’s paradise – and a case study in how not to integrate migrants
When my wife first moved over from Stockholm, it took a while to get used to the crime. Yellow police signs appealing for witnesses after a stabbing would scare her. She braced herself as she emerged from an evening, as if ready for battle. How times have changed. In London, a city with roughly the same population as Sweden, no one was shot dead in the six months leading up to the spring of last year. In the next six months, four shot to death in Södertälje, a town half an hour’s drive southwest of Stockholm.
Since then it has gotten much worse. A gangland war broke out on Christmas Day and warring factions have been rampaging around the city in one way resonate more of 1930s Chicago than today’s Scandinavia. Gangsters use bombs to send warnings to each other; assassins to shoot each other dead. There were 61 fatal gun attacks last year, six times more than the total for Denmark, Finland and Norway. Children who are young enough to be immune from prosecution under Swedish law are increasingly being sent to carry out the attacks.
For those of us who zoom in and out of Sweden’s national debate, the most striking aspect is the language. Events that should scandalize an entire country are now reported as part of everyday life. “For me, it has become normal,” said an eyewitness quoted in a report after last weekend’s murder of a 15-year-old in a shopping center in Skogås, a suburb of Stockholm. “It’s the third or fourth time it’s happened and it happened near the mall, so it wasn’t too shocking.”
Sweden gave the world Scandi-noir fiction. Now true crime is taking over – with podcasts, books and reports on a nationwide murder mystery that has the nation reeling. Why Sweden? Why so bad? Why children? Why is it getting worse? Yes, the 2015 wave of asylum allowed Sweden to import all kinds of crime among a record number of people who were taken in. But Germany took in even more and has no such problems. Sweden’s police have seen their budget increase by 75 percent in recent years but are still losing money. What’s worse, they’re not sure how to win.
Max Åkerwall, police chief in Stockholm, spoke about it earlier this week. Locking up a gang leader, he said, creates a vacuum that leads to a violent power struggle among rival factions (police have counted 52 gangs). Hence more bombs, weapons and murder. So there is no question of any Mr Bigs. It is the rise of an entire subculture of violence, unconsciously incubated by Sweden’s liberal immigration and criminal justice system.
– We now have parallel societies in Sweden, said Magdalena Andersson before she lost power as prime minister last year. “We live in the same country, but in completely different realities.” The term “no-go” area is deeply controversial in Sweden, but certainly applies to neighborhoods where authorities – even ambulance workers – cannot go for fear of attack.
Sweden has long seen itself as a “humanitarian superpower” and its generosity with migrants once saw it take in my wife’s parents, who fled the Soviets after the Prague Spring in 1968. My Stockholm-born husband had to learn a “home language” – Czech – despite that Sweden was her home. This nods to the second problem: Sweden’s generosity in accepting asylum seekers is rivaled only by the problems it has always had with integrating them into society.
Perhaps the best measure of integration is the difference in unemployment between non-natives and locals. In Great Britain it is negligible, but Sweden has the worst gap in the developed world (15 against 4 percent). Allowing people smugglers to pour tens of thousands of mostly male asylum seekers into a system that can’t absorb them fills up fringe estates where organized crime is big business.
The police in Germany and the UK are more used to dealing with imported bad guys – jihadists and other assorted terrorists – and our laws are tougher. Sweden’s courts have always been concerned about the well-being of offenders, especially the young. A few years ago, a law was passed which declared that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of persons under 18 should only be done “as a last resort”. This pleased the gangsters, who quickly took it as a license to use children as their foot soldiers.
Police say children account for most of those arrested for gang-related violence, with about 1,200 of these so-called “child soldiers” now at large. In England, the age of criminal responsibility is 10. In Sweden, it is 15: no one under that age can be sentenced to any punishment. Half of those arrested in Stockholm murder raids after Christmas are of school age. Their trademark weapon is the thermos bomb: homemade and carried in bottles that don’t look suspicious in a child’s hand.
The rise of “child soldiers” makes reading Sweden’s newspapers all the more surreal. “More than 25 shots were fired at the apartment building,” wrote a report in Aftonbladet last week. – The police are working with the theory that the perpetrators shot at the wrong door. Another 15-year-old has been detained.”
And this, from a few days earlier: “A 13-year-old and a 14-year-old were stopped at the last moment from committing crimes with automatic weapons in Hammarbyhöjden, in southern Stockholm.”
Sweden was late in allowing the police to bug mobile phones, late in subjecting 19-year-old murderers to life imprisonment. Lise Tamm, a former chief prosecutor, complained about the “naivety” of the system as a whole. Thousands of decent people, she said, are being left in the lurch “when we protect the integrity of the criminals and ignore the victims”.
You can see her frustration. There are many calls for laws to change – but must an entire country abandon its liberal values to accommodate a new criminal minority? Again, Sweden is running out of options. Overall, its crime rate is still about the European average, but for this specific type of crime – child exploitation, thermos bombs and gangland shootings – it has somehow become one of the worst in the developed world.
So the compassion that Sweden is known for – to which so many members of my own extended family owe so much – has begun to incubate the worst kind of criminality. My hunch is that this great country will eventually find a way out of this. But in the meantime, that world offers a case study in what not to do.