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 before they were taken down.
On Tuesday evening around 1,000 protesters gathered at the Norrmalmstorg square in central Stockholm to voice their outrage both at the anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party and at Stockholm's public transport company SL for allowing the posters to be displayed.
The demonstration went peacefully, but at the end a number of protesters stormed the Östermalmstorg station to tear down the anti-begging messages.
On Wednesday afternoon SL confirmed that the posters would not be put up again for security reasons.
“It's purely a safety assessment. Yesterday a bunch of protesters came down into the underground and jumped up on the parapets at the escalators. That involves a risk, both to potential activists, but also to other travellers passing by,” SL spokesman Jesper Pettersson told the TT newswire.
Only the advertisements above the escalators have been stopped, he said.
“There are other spots the Sweden Democrats have bought for this campaign that don't carry the same safety risks. There are messages in the ticket hall which have not been included in our assessment,” added Pettersson.
According to SL's guidelines for advertising, messages that may be deemed offensive to an ethnic group may not be used. But SL says that the rule only applies to commercial, not political advertising.
Sweden Democrat press officer Henrik Vinge said he respected the decision to let the posters stay down.
“But to some degree it sends out the wrong signals that people who do not shy away from committing crimes have perhaps succeeded,” he told TT.
The ad campaign at Östermalmstorg station has been strongly criticized. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT
Speaking to The Local on Tuesday, the organizers of last night's protest described the campaign as racist.
“We [the organizers] were shocked that our subway company allows these types of racist opinions about a group of people in society,” one of the organizers, Amie Bramme Sey, told The Local.
“They call them [beggars] a mess like they are going to clean them away.”
On Tuesday the Swedish Chancellor of Justice launched an investigation into whether or not the anti-begging campaign constitutes hate speech after receiving 56 reports. The decision is expected within two weeks.
Since the advertising appeared on Monday morning it has been vandalized several times. By Tuesday lunchtime, SL had received almost 2,000 complaints against the campaign.
But despite the anger directed at the campaign, one expert warned that the protests could have the opposite effect.
“The protests are surely the best thing the SD’s communications department could have imagined,” Niclas Lövkvist, CEO of the PR firm Agency told TT.
“The goal, of course, was that it would be very controversial and would get a lot of attention.”
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.
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.