On Tuesday, police in the Värmland region of Sweden were forced to hastily backtrack after their initial report on a spate of alleged sexual offences at a summer music festival claimed the suspects were a gang of young refugees, only for it to later emerge that was not entirely accurate.
In a country where only six months ago police were heavily criticized for not releasing information on the ethnicity of suspects from another alleged sexual assault case, that suggests something is changing in the Nordic country. So, is Sweden now talking more about ethnicity and immigration than it once did?
University of Stockholm criminology professor Jerzy Sarnecki certainly thinks so. He tells The Local that the debate on immigration in Sweden is more intense now than it has ever been, with questions about crime among immigrants frequently raised.
“If you look at the political debate in this country in the last year you will find that there is more discussion now than ever before related to immigrants, crime among immigrants, and problems with immigrants.”
Asylum processing at the Swedish migration authority offices in Solna, Stockholm. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT
Sweden received a striking 163,000 asylum applications in 2015, a record for the country. Statistics show that while the overall number of reported crimes in Sweden rose by four percent that year compared to 2014, one of the categories that decreased the most was reported sexual offences. The number of reported rapes declined by 12 percent. That suggests a more complicated picture than is sometimes painted.
The professor thinks that while in the past, Swedes may have been overly cautious about discussing concerns over immigration, the opposite has now occurred, and an exaggerated public perception has taken hold.
“Sweden always had a careful approach to these topics and was aware of what kind of political dynamite the questions could be – maybe too careful. The best way of dealing with things is to talk straight about them, hiding them is never a good idea,” he says.
“But there are a lot of myths about authorities hiding things. I was involved in research over crime among immigrant communities in Sweden, and one of the myths is that information is never published or talked about. Yet there have been more than 25 studies on crime among immigrants published in Sweden in the last 30 years.”
“Part of this idea about hiding things is obviously not true, but since there is an idea it’s being hidden, authorities and the police are now reacting to that. Putting things forward before they consider if it’s true, or meaningful.”
Evidence of an increasing prevalence of immigration as a talking point can be found in the recent rise of the Sweden Democrats. That rise caught Sweden’s major parties napping, and had an impact on their own discourse, resulting in tougher talk on asylum rules and integration.
The Öresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
The nationalist surge on the back of the increase in asylum applications could be seen as a contributing factor in the introduction of border controls between Sweden and Denmark, for example, designed to keep the number of asylum seekers down after the record number Sweden took in last year.
Political scientist Stig-Björn Ljunggren tells The Local that the major parties in Sweden have changed the way they are talking about immigration.
“The impression they’re trying to avoid now is the previous one, that they weren’t talking about immigration. The voters felt they were left alone with the Sweden Democrats,”
“The big parties are talking about it more now, trying to reach the electorate and tell them ‘we notice your concerns, the Sweden Democrats are not the only ones trying to handle this or address it’. That’s what’s happening.”
The tougher discourse from the major parties appears to have struck a chord. On May 31st, Sweden's biggest statistics agency published the latest edition of the Political Party Preference Survey, and it showed that the nationalists were down by 2.6 percentage points compared to the previous edition from November 2015.
Swedish PM Stefan Löfven (left) and Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson (right). Photo: Christine Olsson/TT
Ljunggren notes however that while Sweden’s major parties are trying to claw back the territory the Sweden Democrats gained, they have also been careful to try to approach the immigration debate from a different angle.
“Everybody is now trying to reclaim the territory that had been taken by the Sweden Democrats, but they’re trying to do it in a way that is seen more or less as decent. The major parties are also trying to point out the advantages of people coming here, for example,” he says.
That Sweden’s major political parties are openly talking about an issue that was once something of a taboo marks a clear shift, according to Ljunggren. To the degree that discussion around the topic can even be heard coming from the most unlikely of sources, he says.
“Even the Left Party, who would be the last ones to admit it, are talking about immigration when they say the Swedish labour market requires rules that are the same for everyone working in Sweden.”
“What they’re actually doing is telling builders, for example, ‘we know you’re concerned about people from eastern Europe coming and accepting low wages, we want to do something about that'.”