Dark silhouettes of teenagers standing against the backdrop of a blazing fire, while firefighters wait by their vehicles for police protection. For several days in April, it was images such as these that illustrated the disturbances in Rosengård, a sprawling immigrant-dominated housing estate in Malmö.
For many, the images were reminiscent of recent riots in the suburbs of Paris and the ghettos of nearby Denmark. But how far does the reality of Rosengård chime with the impression given – particularly outside Sweden – that the area is a centre of deprivation, segregation and unrest?
Arriving in Herrgården, the area within Rosengård at the centre of the disturbances, I expected to see the usual signs of a ghetto. But the yellow-brick-buildings built in the mid-1960’s, were not sub-standard housing. The sidewalks and surrounding grounds were well kept and the streets were clean.
I came across five teenage boys standing outside a convenience store. Asked what the situation was like three months after the disturbances, one answered promptly: “It’s got better here,” and the others nod in agreement. The area had become quieter over recent months, they said.
Many locals are frustrated at the way the problems of Rosengård have been portrayed in the media. The area’s earlier reputation as a deprived district meant that disturbances such as those in April were blown out of proportion.
“If it’s Rosengård it’s big news,” sighs Andreas Konstantinides, a prominent Social Democratic politician in Rosengård. Similar incidents in other areas don’t get the same attention, he argues.
Yet behind the neat exterior and despite the media exaggeration of the area’s problems, nobody denies that so-called social exclusion in Rosengård is real and damaging.
Behind the catch-all term ‘social exclusion’ are the more concrete issues of segregation, unemployment and poor living conditions.
97 percent of people living in Herrgården are foreign-born or have two foreign-born parents. In Rosengård as a whole, the figure is 85 percent. Kosovans form the largest immigrant group, followed by Iraqis.
Jobs are thin on the ground: 15 percent of people between 20 and 64 were employed last year in Herrgården, while the figure was 37 percent for the whole of Rosengård.
Teenagers have been dealt much of the blame for this year’s disturbances. In 2006, 42 percent of Herrgården residents and 30 percent of residents of Rosengård were under the age of 16, while in Malmö as a whole the figure was just 16 percent.
A 17-year-old Kosovo Albanian girl I spoke to had watched a garbage shed burning from her window. She confirmed that the culprits were teenagers, adding, “I know who they are. They wanted to show [the police] who controlled the area”.
That some young people feel a lack of control over their lives is perhaps unsurprising, given the living conditions many of them face in Herrgården. Overcrowding is perhaps the most acute aspect of this problem.
“Lots of people have come here in the last 5 years,” says Konstantinides.
“They go to Rosengård, where they stay with relatives and friends. Thanks to this, there might be five to six people in a one-room apartment.”
Bad enough for adults, these conditions can be particularly hard on youngsters. Konstaninides argues that overcrowding forces children and young people out onto the streets:
“This is why children have nothing to do: there’s no space,” he says.
Jobs, though, remain the most pressing concern:
The official Swedish unemployment rate for people aged between 16 and 24 years is about 11 percent, but unemployment among youths born abroad is nearly double as high as it is among youths from Sweden.
Konstantinides is convinced of the importance of the issue:
“People in Rosengård need jobs,” he says.
Jobs are not only important for financial reasons, he argues, but also because children need to see their parents going to work. A reduction in the amount paid out in unemployment benefits might also allow more money to be spent on the city’s public services, Konstantinides says.
Some steps are being made to improve the employment situation. A new project to find jobs in Denmark for people in Rosengård has led to the employment of 25 residents in the past two months. Konstantinides believes that many more can find employment in Denmark, due to that country’s great need for extra labour.
Programmes such as this have their work cut out, particularly when it comes to youth unemployment. Very few of the boys I spoke to had got summer jobs. One said he had applied but been turned down, another boy said in jest that he didn’t want a job. The rest mumbled that there simply were no jobs to apply for.
Getting a job will never be easy for some young people. As an 18-year old girl from Ghana pointed out, some of the local boys find it particularly tough to escape the stigma of a misspent youth. “Many of them have a police record,” she claimed. Girls, she said, find it a easier.
Konstantinides argues that the extent of youth crime should not be exaggerated. There are 8,000 children in Rosengård, but only 50-65 are known by the police, he says.
Yet while the vast majority of young people in the area are well-behaved, the link between poor housing and unemployment on the one hand and crime on the other is inescapable.
Irene Malmberg, of the Ethnic Relations Division of the Department of Education in Malmö, says: “Conflict, aggression, hostility, a need to hit back, and a lack of solidarity, result when people are excluded from ordinary society. There is no reason to feel solidarity with a society that excludes you.”
Alleviating unemployment and overcrowding will therefore be crucial to rejuvenating the area and preventing a repeat of April’s disturbances, campaigners argue.
Some projects are already making a difference. A programme to increase cooperation between schools, social services and the police is intended to help catch youngsters who risk getting into trouble.
Public schools in Rosengård offer after-school homework assistance, something that Konstantinides hopes will boost the performance of children living in crowded homes. He would also like to see more opportunities for youths to get involved in sports activities.
Local politicians and activists hope that projects like this, through giving young people faith in the future, will help ease some of the area’s troubles. Irene Malmberg stresses the need to encourage optimism among the city’s young:
“You can achieve what you want to do. You must dare to dream and to make it happen.”