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The Blame Game After Riots: It's Not All About Inequality, Unemployment and Integration

29/05/2013 17:29 BST | Updated 29/07/2013 10:12 BST

As Stockholm returns to normal after fires raged for nearly one week across suburbs of the capital, commenters have expressed shock that riots could take place in Sweden of all places. Sweden, the 'people's home', known for its generous welfare state, high rates of happiness, and yes - its tolerant and open-minded approach to migration and diversity. 'If instability can happen here, what might unfold elsewhere?', one journalist writes.

Those seeking rationale and reason for the riots have turned to rising levels of wealth inequality, a lack of integration of migrant youth, and the segregation of these communities in 'ghettos.' Amid the shock and awe, there are two key points that have yet to be discussed. The first is that there has been a broad tendency, within and outside Sweden, to praise Swedish policies which have not actually yielded their intended outcomes. The second is the long swept-under-the-carpet issue of racism in Sweden.

As commenters discuss the failures of integration in Sweden, the instinct has been to shirk responsibility with claims that 'they have not integrated.' Minds immediately turn to Sweden's renowned open-door, liberal immigration policies. Indeed, according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index, which ranks integration policies according to best practices and European standards, Sweden's integration policies rank the highest of 29 European countries. Their policies have been lauded internationally for their human rights compliance and generosity. By this logic, if the government is getting it right, then of course migrants are to blame for failing to achieve integration. After all, they live in one of the most egalitarian countries in the world. But though we may be able to laud Sweden for its policy design, we often gloss over the actual outcomes that have resulted from these policies. It's like judging a book by its cover.

Sweden has seen some of the lowest employment rates for migrant communities in Europe with 81% employment for those born in Sweden compared to 65% for the foreign born. This is despite the fact that Sweden's integration strategy has been run through the Ministry of Employment, with the overall emphasis of the government's approach to increase the supply and demand of labour, and to create equality in schools. Despite this, inequalities between foreign-born and Swedish-born workers remain rife. But this isn't just about lower qualifications of migrants. Around 60 percent of foreign-born persons who study for two years at tertiary level have a skilled job. The corresponding figure for persons born in Sweden is 90 percent. These outcomes should be the first sign that something has gone wrong. Just because the goals are well set, does not mean outcomes will follow. And if outcomes are not achieved, then the methods need to be changed.

Secondly, both integration and the reason for these riots go far beyond unemployment. What we have been seeing in Stockholm over the last week is fundamentally a race relations issue. It would be a myth to say that Sweden has not suffered racial tensions and resulting violence in the last decade. Malmo was the scene of riots in December 2008, following the closure of an Islamic centre, and was again the scene of a racially-motivated shooting spree targeting minorities in 2010. Nor is this the first time that the public imagination of Sweden as a bastion of tolerance in Northern Europe has been shaken. Indeed, the coverage of the riots brings to mind media coverage three years ago, when the anti-immigrant far right party the Sweden Democrats entered Parliament for the first time, with the election results 'undermining the image of Sweden as a tolerant and open-minded country.'

Anyone who has spent time in Sweden knows that Swedes are averse to talking about racism. It is often brushed off as an 'un-Swedish' phenomenon, as Mona Sahlin, former leader of the Social Democrats, once said of the Sweden Democrats and their 'racist politics.' The reality is racism is neither foreign nor a small problem in today's Sweden. Measured participation in the Swedish neo-Nazi scene is numerically much larger than in Denmark and Norway, and large in a European comparison. Data indicates that Swedish voters are just as opposed to immigrants and immigration as voters in other Western European countries, and today, 20% of Swedes claim that the Sweden Democrats have the best immigration policy.

And then there is the critical issue of police brutality and racial profiling. Research has shown high levels of bigoted speech and unprofessional conduct by the police in neighbourhoods like Rosengard in Malmo, with a particularly high density of minority communities. According to the Equality Ombudsman, the majority of complaints filed against the police regard discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. In 2009, the Swedish government implemented the REVA programme, which aimed to identify undocumented migrants through street checks, and resulted in extensive racial profiling of residents guilty of nothing except not looking Swedish. Earlier this year, Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri published an honest and emotional letter to the Justice Minister Beatrice Ask, which asks her to step into his skin as he narrates personal experiences of racial profiling, starting at age six. He writes it on behalf of 'all of us who are guilty until proved innocent. We Swedes who do not fit the outdated blond, blue-eyed stereotype of what a true Swede should look like.'

Sweden has much to learn from Britain's history when dealing with these issues. The year 2001 saw a series of riots across the UK, with cities including Oldham, Bradford, and Leeds hit by violent confrontation between ethnic groups. It was in the wake of these riots that the concept of community cohesion gained traction as a term encompassing the work that was being done to build stronger social relations and healthier diverse communities in Britain. Sweden should take a leaf out of Britain's history here, but the first step is to confront racism head on, to acknowledge its prevalence and the experiences of those who have been victim to it. Integration is not only about tackling unemployment rates and wealth disparities; it is also about building relationships and a sense of belonging. It is also about ensuring communities can trust that equality is protected by the police and state institutions.

It's time to face the reality that governments, law enforcement, and yes - majority communities must also claim responsibility for the events that have taken place over the last week. It's also time to talk honestly about white privilege and how it often skews the name, blame, and shame game when it comes to social unrest in diverse societies.