Rioting raises questions about Sweden's liberal immigration policy and its inequality

Sweden has long been a bastion of generous social welfare and an egalitarian political culture. So many people were shocked when scores of youths hurled rocks at police and set cars ablaze during rioting in several largely immigrant areas near Stockholm this week.

Few dispute that the violence was probably touched off by the fatal police shooting of an elderly man who had locked himself in an apartment wielding a knife. But some residents in the area accused police who responded to the violence of racism.

For some, the real reason for the unrest is the high unemployment and isolation of youths in the southern and western Stockholm suburbs where the violence occurred — ones who see little future for themselves or access to Sweden's prosperity.

"The segregation in Stockholm increases all the time, and it's happening fast," said Nina Edstrom, a social anthropologist who promotes integration at a center for multiculturalism in Fittja, where some of the violence occurred. "There are very large social differences. There are many unemployed, frustrated young people. I'm not surprised something like this happens," she said.

Still, Edstrom added, it would be a mistake to see the youths involved in the riots as political activists.

Overall, about 15 percent of Sweden's 9.5 million people were born abroad, compared to 10 percent 10 years ago. The influx has mostly come from war-torn countries such as Iraq, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Syria.

In 2012 alone, Sweden accepted 44,000 asylum seekers, up by nearly 50 percent from a year earlier.

During the rioting, 15-year-old Sebastian Horniak said he saw police firing warning shots in the air and calling a woman a "monkey."

Quena Soruco, a representative for Megafonen, an organization that represents citizens in Stockholm's suburbs, said she heard police say "rats, hobos, Negroes."

The unrest in Fittja and the Husby area is a challenge for the center-right government of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, which after seven years in power is trailing in polls and has come under fire for failing to address social problems.

The rioting also has added fuel to arguments from the far-right Sweden Democrats party, which polls now show as Sweden's fourth biggest party.

Some say that one reason such immigrant areas can feel isolating is the growing disparity between the haves and have nots in Sweden, as in many other Western countries.

Despite Sweden's high living standards and its egalitarian ways, the country has seen the biggest surge in inequality of any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country over the past 25 years, according to a recent OECD report.

The difference is striking between native Swedes and the fast-growing immigrant population.

In Husby, the neighborhood west of Stockholm where the violence started Sunday, around 80 percent of the 11,000 residents are either first or second generation immigrants. Still, the area appears well kept and nothing like a slum.

"We have such wonderful things. We have a mixture of cultures. You go out on the streets and you know your neighbors," said Soruco, 26, who lives in Husby.

However, she also said youth unemployment is high there and that nearly 50 percent of the kids in Husby finish junior high school with grades too low to get into high school.

"I do not think that Sweden is as equal as some people try to paint it to be. We see it every day: people trying to get jobs and get rejected because of their last name, because of how they look, or even because of where they live," she said.

Outside a grocery store, local soccer coach Shain Akbari, 30, stood talking to a group of youths. He is upset that youths hurled rocks at police and firefighters, burned down buildings and set nearly 100 cars ablaze.

"It is tragic ... it's wrong," he said. But Akbari, a Swede of Iranian background who grew up in Husby, said the neighborhood has changed drastically in the past 10 years.

"Before it wasn't like this. Before we had Swedish friends who played on the same football team. We went to school together and they helped us integrate into society. You got a job through friends. But it isn't like that now. Now they are locked in here. They don't leave the area. ... They have no possibilities."

Camilla Salazar, who works at the youth center Fryshuset, agreed.

"I speak to young people in certain suburbs who say, 'It would have been fun to get to know a Swede,'" she said. She also noted that as the violence began in Husby, many Swedes in more prosperous areas were preoccupied celebrating their country's World Cup ice hockey victory.

Prime Minister Reinfeldt has acknowledged that Sweden's income disparities increased, but said it primarily occurred before he came to power in 2006, and that he remains proud of his country's liberal immigration policies.

Reinfeldt said the transition can be trying, but he added: "We are more open than other countries. Long term, as a society, we win on this. It will lead to more people getting jobs. It will contribute to a more exciting and open society."

He urged citizens to come together to stop the violence, and on Wednesday night hundreds of Husby residents took to the streets to oppose the violence.