Sweden's new Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson, has a formidable task ahead of her: Dealing with the ever-growing gang violence and shootings in Swedish cities. Sweden has the highest number of fatal shootings per million inhabitants in Europe. (Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Sweden's new Prime Minister, Social Democrat Magdalena Andersson, who previously served as finance minister, has a formidable task ahead of her: Dealing with the ever-growing gang violence and shootings in Swedish cities. Her predecessor, Stefan Löfven, notably failed even to contain the exponential growth in shootings during his seven-year tenure. Sweden's parliament narrowly elected Andersson as Löfven's successor in November, after Löfven announced his resignation in August.
"Sweden is a fantastic country, but we are facing a number of serious problems," Andersson said. "I plan to lift every stone to break segregation and push back the violent crime which is plaguing Sweden..."
Sweden is facing much more than a "serious problem". For years, Sweden has been breaking new criminal records, while refusing to talk openly about the link between migration and gang violence. This reticence may result from a combination of political correctness and Sweden's fear of failing its own declared ambition of being the world's "humanitarian superpower". Already in 2019, leader of the opposition party Moderaterna, Ulf Kristersson, called the situation, "extreme for a country that is not at war".
For many years, any public discussion of the connections between migration and the rising levels of crime and gang violence was considered taboo. The publication of statistics on the topic came to an abrupt end after the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) had published them twice -- in 1996 and 2005. In 2017, then Minister of Justice Morgan Johansson refused to publish statistics about the ethnic background of criminals in Sweden; he claimed they were irrelevant. A majority of members of parliament supported his opinion. Privately conducted research on the topic was simply ignored. Increasingly, however, as shootings became daily occurrences that increasingly maimed and killed innocent passers-by, the unmentionable has gradually become a topic of discussion.
"It is no longer a secret today that much of the problem of gang and organized crime with the shootings and explosions is linked to migration to Sweden in recent decades," police chief of Gothenburg, Erik Nord wrote in an op-ed in May.
"When, like me, you have the opportunity to follow matters at the individual level, you see that in principle everyone who shoots or is shot in gang conflicts originates from the Balkans, the Middle East, North or East Africa."
In August, in a complete about-face reflecting just how much sentiments have changed in Sweden since 2017, the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå), for the first time in 16 years, published a new report containing statistics on the ethnic background of registered criminal offenders, writing:
"The distribution of registered offending among persons of native and non-native background is often a topic of discussion. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) has previously published two research studies on this issue, but several years have passed since the publication of the most recent study (in 2005), which focused on registered crime during the period 1997–2001. Since 2001, immigration to Sweden has increased, and the composition of the non-native population has changed. The current study was initiated against this background, with the aim of updating and improving the knowledge base on offending among persons of native and non-native background."
The report stated:
"The risk of being registered as an offender is greatest among persons born in Sweden to two non-native parents, followed by persons born abroad... The risk of being registered as a crime suspect is 2.5 times as high among persons born abroad as it is among persons born in Sweden to two native-born parents. For persons born in Sweden to two non-native parents, the risk is just over 3 times as high."
Sweden has the highest number of fatal shootings per million inhabitants in Europe according to a comparative study of shootings in Europe by Brå released in May. Sweden, furthermore, is the only country in Europe in which fatal shootings have increased since the year 2005. In 2020, 47 people were killed and 117 wounded in 366 shootings. For the year 2021 up to November, 42 people had already been killed and there had been 290 shootings. According to Brå:
"The level of gun homicide in Sweden ranks very high in relation to other European countries, at approximately 4 deaths per million inhabitants per year. The average for Europe is approximately 1.6 deaths per million inhabitants. None of the other countries included in the study have experienced increases comparable to that noted in Sweden. Instead, continued decreases were observed in both total homicide rates and rates of gun homicide in the majority of these countries."
In 2019, the police estimated that the problem will continue for years to come. "We think this [shootings and extreme violence] might continue for five to ten years in the particularly vulnerable areas," National Police Commissioner Anders Thornberg said in 2019. "Drugs are established in society, and ordinary people buy them. There is a market that the gangs will continue to fight over".
"Research shows", according to Brå's report, "that the increase in lethal firearm violence in Sweden is strongly associated with criminal environments in vulnerable areas."
The Swedish police have drawn the same conclusion: "Vulnerable areas are a center for organized crime", Swedish police recently wrote. "Criminals in vulnerable areas are exporters of crime to other parts of the country".
Swedish police define "vulnerable areas" as "geographically limited areas that are characterized by low socio-economic status and where the criminals have an impact on the local community."
According to the most recent report on vulnerable areas, released on December 3 by the Swedish police, there are 61 such enclaves. Some of those areas, according to Swedish police, are categorized as "particularly vulnerable areas", which have even higher levels of problems. These are characterized by "systematic threats and acts of violence" especially against witnesses to crimes, almost impossible working conditions for the police and, "parallel societal structures, extremism, such as systematic violations of religious freedom or strong fundamentalist influence that restricts human rights and freedoms, persons traveling to take part in combat in conflict areas, [and] a high concentration of criminals."
In Sweden, which has a population of roughly 10 million people, 556,000 people live in the 61 vulnerable areas, accounting for 5.4% of Sweden's population, according to the report, "Facts for change – a report about Sweden's 61 vulnerable areas". Three out of four of the inhabitants in the vulnerable areas have foreign backgrounds; the most common countries of birth are Syria, Turkey, Somalia, Poland and Iraq. According to the report, how many inhabitants with foreign backgrounds live in a vulnerable area varies. In five of the country's vulnerable areas, the proportion of residents with a foreign background is 90% or higher: Rosengård in Malmö, Hovsjö in Södertälje, Fittja in Botkyrka, Rinkeby/Tensta in Stockholm and Hjällbo in Gothenburg. There are roughly 2.5 million people in Sweden with a foreign background; 16.2% of them, according to the report. live in vulnerable areas. In a recent press release, the Swedish police wrote:
"The main underlying reason for the development with shootings and explosions is the situation that prevails in vulnerable areas, where residents feel threatened by criminals, where there is open drug trafficking and where criminals in some places have created parallel social structures."
Sweden's new prime minister has announced that she is ready finally to impose more severe penalties to deter the gangs.
"Even more severe penalties will be imposed for gang-related offences," Anderson announced in her first statement on government policy on November 30.
"It should not be possible to threaten witnesses into silence; instead they should receive the support they need to safely fulfil their duty. It will be easier to detain people who are suspected of serious offences... Anyone who commits multiple offences should be punished more severely. Reduced sentences for young people aged 18–20 who commit serious offences will be abolished. Penalties should better reflect the severity of offences, even when the perpetrators are young."
Reduced sentences for young people have been a severe obstacle to dealing with the issues, because young people are among the predominant drivers of gang violence, which now even includes children.
In six out of seven police regions, gangs use 12-year-old children in the conduct of their criminal activities, including selling drugs and transporting weapons. In the cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg, police reportedly say that hundreds of children are involved in perpetrating criminal acts for gangs. According to Sweden's intelligence chiefs, the recruitment of children has increased in recent years and according to some experts, criminal gangs now recruit children as young as eight years old.
In August, police arrested three teenagers, around 15 years of age, for shooting and seriously injuring two men and a 60-year old woman -- who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time -- in the city of Kristianstad. "Unfortunately it has become routine", one woman who works in the area said. "If there have been shootings during the night then there are usually more shootings the next day... One worries about getting in the way."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.