Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The bizarre Twitter assault on the Scandinavian nation’s immigration policies may be based on a fiction—but that doesn’t mean all is well in Malmö.
For anyone with the faintest acquaintance with Sweden, President Donald Trump’s recent invocation of the country this weekend as a hellhole made unstable by immigration-fueled crime is surreal in the extreme. In the aftermath of a tweet that seemed to suggest that the country had just experienced a terrorist attack (it hasn’t), Sweden’s third city of Malmö in particular fell into the crosshairs when an alt-right editor offered to pay liberal journalists’ expenses to visit what he suggested was a supposedly dangerous war zone.
Elsewhere, former UKIP leader-turned-shock jock Nigel Farage falsely claimed the city was “the rape capital of Europe.” Seeing Scandinavia’s largest country, with its reputation for high living standards, good governance, and low crime, thrust into a sort of police line-up of multicultural Europe’s failures felt a bit like seeing your neighbor’s lovable pet guinea pig being ducked as a witch.
Is there any truth in the accusations? The short answer is no. Malmö is actually a likable, easy-going kind of place. Facing Denmark and Copenhagen across the Oresund Strait (a distance spanned by a bridge since 2000), it’s a historic, faintly gruff port city of 342,000 residents—think Liverpool to Copenhagen’s Paris. Or to make an American comparison, an Oakland to the Danish capital’s San Francisco. By Scandinavian standards, it’s ethnically diverse, bustling, and ever so slightly unkempt. By the standards of just about anywhere lying southwards, however, its streets come across as trim, orderly, and, peaceful.
Certainly, Malmö is a city whose urban (but not greater metropolitan) population has been substantially reshaped by immigration. A third of its population was born outside Sweden, with the largest groups coming from (in order) Iraq, Serbia, Denmark, and Poland. Rates of arrival have gone up in recent years. What hasn’t risen, however, is crime.
In fact, Malmö’s violent crime figures would make the mayor of an average American big city weep with longing. With 12 murders in 2015 among a population of 342,000, Malmö’s murder rate is two thirds that of Western Europe’s real murder capital of Glasgow, and half that of Los Angeles. By contrast, Washington, D.C., has a murder rate almost seven times higher, while the rate in St. Louis, Missouri is just under 17 times higher. In relatively safe Sweden, those 12 murders are still cause for rightful alarm, but as this piece makes clear, Malmö’s crime figures aren’t just low compared to most American cities—they’re not even the highest in Sweden.
So how did the city develop such a fearsome reputation? President Trump may be wrong, but he’s not the first to paint this corner of Sweden in lurid terms. One reason lies with the Scandinavian media itself. In this richest, calmest and—dare I say it?—dullest of states, what look like subtle shades of grey from outside can seem like stark black-and-white from within. The more sensational sections of the Scandinavian media have sometimes painted Malmö as some kind of dangerous urban trash-fire, powered more recently by its role as an arrival point for refugees coming across the Oresund Bridge.
It’s a portrayal that has had some effect on public attitudes—in one highly publicized incident, fear led parents from a provincial Danish school to cancel a school trip there in 2013.
The thing is, the Scandinavian media do this a lot. To take another example, Copenhagen’s central, project-fringed Nørrebro neighborhood, site of a small riot in 2007, is not uncommonly referred to as “Norrebronx” in the press, despite being a hip, well-heeled area with an appearance so tidy it’s almost dispiriting.
There are nonetheless other reasons for some anxiety around Malmö and other Swedish cities. The riots over the weekend in the Stockholm district of Rinkeby are hardly a sign of placid agreement. New immigrants may not have created a spike in crime, but they can find the route to assimilation and success in Sweden very difficult. Employment levels for migrants remain low, with this OECD report not just citing different education systems and job markets in migrants’ countries of birth as a cause, but also discrimination and the language barrier. With a high level of competency in Swedish (itself a complex language) required across the board, Sweden is a country where migrants can find it difficult to secure even classically low-paid jobs such as fast-food service, with significant problems faced even by migrants with a higher degree.
That doesn’t mean that immigrants’ physical living conditions are bad. Scandinavian welfare payments aren’t lavish, but they don’t equal destitution either, while housing conditions are generally good. Below for example, is a photo of the supposed dark heart of Rosengård, a Malmö neighborhood where 60 percent of residents were born outside Sweden.
People in areas like this can still become isolated from other communities in the city, creating a sense of frustration and impotence. As one former Stockholm project resident commented in this piece, “Stockholm is the most segregated capital city in Europe, and its slums are better maintained than [the elite London neighborhood] Hampstead.”
This isn’t a uniquely Swedish issue, per se. Similar problems exist across Scandinavian cities and—albeit coupled with far worse living conditions—in Britain and France. Meanwhile, in Denmark, the situation is almost a mirror image. A Danish Palestinian friend of mine, for example, recounted that when his family arrived in the 1980s and moved into a project near Copenhagen, it was made clear to them by the authorities that no one expected them to take any significant place in Danish society until they’d established themselves in the country for three generations. This is hardly a recipe for seamless integration or fostering a sense of belonging.
You won’t see Denmark being attacked as Sweden has in the past few days, however. Why? Because Denmark’s policy towards asylum seekers—which has involved barring all but a handful and even threatening to confiscate their jewelry on arrival—has been universally harsh and inhumane. Sweden, by contrast, has accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country.
That’s why it’s being singled out now by those trying to validate their politics of cruelty: If you are in the business of stirring up hatred and fear of minorities, Sweden’s approach has to be seen as a failure. It says something about the country’s successes that its opponents can only win arguments by lying about it.