The ad campaign by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party, which is aimed at tourists, includes images of people sleeping on the streets and huge signs in English apologizing for begging in the capital.
“Sorry about the mess here in Sweden. We have a serious problem with forced begging! International gangs profit from people's desperation. Our goverment [sic] won't do what's needed,” read messages on billboards above the escalators at Stockholm's Östermalmstorg station.
The campaign has been hit with a wave of criticism since it appeared on Monday.
By Tuesday afternoon 56 reports had been handed over to the Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekanslern), the ombudsman which investigates transgressions of freedom of speech and freedom of press in Sweden. A spokesman for the body said an investigation had been launched.
“The freedom of press violation that could apply is hate speech. We prioritize such cases and should have a decision ready in two weeks, perhaps even this week,” David Löfgren told the TT newswire.
On Tuesday morning around 11 thousand people on Facebook had said they would attend a protest against the advertising campaign to be held at the Norrmalmstorg square later in the evening.
The organizers of the protest, who describe themselves as a group of friends committed to the anti-racism fight in Sweden, say the campaign is racist and want Swedish transport company SL to take it down.
“The opinions of this far-right party in Sweden are nothing new,” one of the organizers of the protest, Swedish radio host Amie Bramme Sey, told The Local.
“But we were really shocked like a lot of Swedish people yesterday by the amount of commercials in the subway and the way it was presented.”
“We [the organizers] were shocked that our subway company allows these types of racist opinions about a group of people in society. They call them [beggars] a mess like they are going to clean them away.”
The problem, she said, was not just in Sweden.
“This is a problem that we are seeing throughout Europe. This group of people are the most neglected and living at the bottom of society off our small change. The [Sweden Democrats] party is doing everything it can to criminalize and dehumanize these people.”
“Racism is so normal today that people can’t tell what is racist or not even when it’s staring them in the face.”
Commuters pass one of the billboards at Östermalmstorg station. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT
Meanwhile, a Stockholm underground employee for the transport company MTR named Elias, told the Swedish paper Metro that he had reported the campaign to his employers for “violence, threats and insults”.
“Freedom is the greatest privilege we have in Sweden, and that is why many of our parents came here,” he said.
“At the same time many have fled from xenophobia and in Sweden you don’t expect to encounter racism and slogans that incite racial hatred in the workplace.”
On Monday evening two people were arrested for trying to tear down the wall posters and two of the big wall posters were partially torn down.
On Tuesday morning SL called a crisis meeting to discuss how the station should be protected.
“We will continuously check in throughout the day, the week and the rest of the campaign and see how the situation is. It is a routine review of the security situation surrounding the station,” SL spokesperson Jesper Pettersson was quoted as saying by Aftonbladet.
READ ALSO: 'Begging not run by organized crime groups'
Sweden has experienced a surge in EU migrants – mostly from Romania and Bulgaria – begging on streets around the country, with one study suggesting they have doubled to 4,000 people over the past year, although recent figures suggested the number has declined in the capital.
Speaking to The Local on Monday, Sweden Democrat press officer Henrik Vinge said: “I don't think it's gone so far that people are avoiding Sweden yet. But I know that it is a concern. Of course people outside of Sweden are noticing the rise in organized begging, everyone who has foreign friends hears these things.”
Most of the beggars in Stockholm are members of the Roma community – one of the EU's largest minority groups – and arrive as EU tourists under the right to Freedom of Movement. Many live in tents or caravans and make a living by asking passersby for money outside shops and underground stations.
But how to tackle the continued begging on Sweden's street remains a deeply divisive political issue. A ban on organized begging is being considered by the Social Democrat-Green government, stopping short of a blanket ban on begging that would prevent vulnerable citizens from asking for money on Sweden's streets.