What caused the Swedish riots?

Sweden is a famously welcoming and generous home to migrants. But last week the capital was hit by seven days of rioting. What went wrong? Simon Wilson investigates.

What's happened?

Last week Sweden was hit by seven nights of rioting involving young male immigrants. The trouble began in Husby, a poor suburb of Stockholm, before spreading to a dozen parts of the capital. Teenagers and young men set cars ablaze about 100 were torched on the worst night of violence and some public buildings, including schools. Compared with the major riots in Paris, which spread across France in 2005, or the riots in London and other English cities in 2011, the unrest was minor. In England five people died, 3,000 were arrested, and there was mass arson and looting. In Sweden, police say a few hundred people were involved, there were few reported injuries, and only a few dozen people have been arrested.

Is this kind of unrest new?

No. According to Klas Nilsson, a security consultant, "smaller riots have been frequent for years in the suburbs of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo. The modus operandi is setting a car on fire and waiting for the fire department to arrive. They then throw stones at the fire trucks and police vehicles. I think these riots started as nasty pranks by bored juvenile delinquents and then have developed into some kind of bizarre sport." Nevertheless, last week's unrest was the first outbreak of sustained trouble on a major scale. It shocked many in Sweden, a country with a reputation for generosity towards incomers and high social welfare spending. And it has also focused international attention on what the fracturing of the Swedish model might tell us about inequality and immigration.

Isn't Sweden a famously equal society?

Yes, and by most international standards it still is. Economists and social scientists use the Gini coefficient to measure economic inequality. A score of 0 represents perfect equality of income, and 1 represents a notional society where all the income goes to one person. Rich developed nations are far more equal than developing countries (though a notable exception is India, which is more equal than America, and the same as Britain). South Africa (0.6) is one of the world's most unequal societies, with Brazil scoring just over 0.5 and China over 0.4. Small differences in the figure represent big differences in equality. The club of OECD (rich) nations average about 0.3, with Britain a little above that. But Sweden, and the other Nordic nations, are among the most equal nations on earth, with a Gini coefficient of around 0.25.

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So what's going on?

Some Swedes, it seems, are more equal than others. As in the London riots, many local commentators have emphasised the violence's opportunistic nature bored youths from poor backgrounds letting off steam and underplayed the structural causes. No doubt there was a similar element to Stockholm's riots. But, albeit from a low base, Sweden has become a more unequal society: a recent OECD survey found that inequality grew faster there between 1985 and 2010 than in any other member nation. It has become less successful at integrating its fast-growing immigrant communities, or at least those from outside Scandinavia; the biggest group of Swedish migrants is the Finns.

In what ways has it become less successful?

Sweden maintains its open attitude towards asylum-seekers and other immigrants: foreign-born residents and the Swedish-born children of immigrants make up about 15% of the population, and last year it doubled the number of asylum-seekers it took in (to 44,000) and became Europe's primary destination for Syrian refugees fleeing the war. Crucially, Sweden sits at the top of one OECD table: it has the widest gap in employment rates between natives and foreign-born residents. Journalists sent to Husby and Rinkeby were struck by how pleasant it is compared to some Paris or London suburbs and how the community (up to 90% non-white) is well served by leisure centres, schools, social workers and transport. But many people lack jobs.

Is unemployment to blame?

Immigrants are three times more likely to be out of work than native-born Swedes, and account for 35% of unemployment. Youth unemployment in Husby is officially 23%. That compares to 3.3% in Stockholm and probably understates the true picture: the proportion of adults not in work or education is 40%. Swedish commentators note that whereas 1960s immigrants integrated well by filling manufacturing jobs, those in the 1990s and 2000s have been mostly asylum-seekers arriving in a country where most low-skilled jobs have disappeared. As yet ethnic tensions remain low, and support for the only significant anti-immigration party, Sweden Democrats, is modest at 10%.

What is to be done?

Paradoxically, the biggest hindrance to assimilating foreigners in Sweden has been the country's "dogged attempts to maintain absolute economic equality at very high rates" of pay, says Fredrik Segerfeldt of Migro, a pro-immigration Swedish think-tank, in The Wall Street Journal. Rigid sector-wide union agreements mean Sweden has higher de facto minimum wages, as well as higher taxes, than its peers, and has "fewer low-wage entry-level jobs than any other EU member".

As a result, says an editorial in the same paper, overly keen egalitarianism has "cut off the bottom rungs" of the income ladder, forcing incomers into either welfare or the black economy. If Sweden can start tackling this issue, it will make a big start on facing up to the causes of its recent unrest.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.