This year's May 23rd marked the beginning of a rather surprising event: immigrant riots in the Stockholm suburb of Husby. The riots lasted for almost a week and erupted after the death of an elderly man by the hands of the police, for allegedly having a machete inside his house.
The riots took by surprise not just the Swedes themselves, but the rest
of the world as well. It was not long ago that "the Economist" suggested that the Scandinavian, and especially the Swedish system should be a
role model for the rest of Europe. If immigrants do not feel happy in a
role model society, then what hope is left to the rest of us to achieve a successful immigration policy that would result in an ideal multicultural society?
A few years back, similar troubles occurred in Paris and some other French cities. Then came the turn for Britain. Even in my hometown of Thessaloniki, we have witnessed small scale riots by Nigerian immigrants. Naturally, the immediate conclusion is that the riots are caused by the inequality and discrimination of which the immigrants are too often victims.
But in the Swedish case there was no such thing. Husby was built in the 1970s as part of the "Million Programme" that aimed to give affordable housing to all Swedes. The estate is one of dozens of similar ones on Stockholm's outskirts: they now house mainly immigrant populations, including large numbers from Somalia, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, comparisons to the Paris "banlieues", or the riot-hit Tottenham or Salford are limited. Between the rows of clean-looking housing blocks are well-tended flowerbeds and neatly kept public gardens. There are bars, shops, and a smart cafe-bakery that would not look too out of place in an IKEA catalogue. In the shopping precinct an ornamental fountain still bubbles away. Husby's joblessness rate, at 8%, might be three times the Swedish average, but is only slightly higher than that in the UK (according to the Telegraph).
Some answers can be given by Stockholm's immigrant community. Mohammed Abdu, 27, whose family came from Eritrea to Sweden when he was three, now works as a security guard. While he condemns the violence as "hooliganism", he claims that many Husby residents still suffer from discrimination from employers and the police.
Besides, he adds, living in such a prosperous,
advanced country offers no real satisfaction for those so conspicuously at
the bottom of the heap. "It is true that the welfare system here is an example to the rest of the
world, so if you fall here you do not fall all the way to the bottom,"
he said. "But people do not like being dependent on social welfare, and
there is hidden racism."(from the Telegraph)
In other words, even a very successful society like Sweden has not managed to beat racism and discrimination or integrate totally its immigrant communities. The far Right is gaining ground in Sweden and is challenging the policies of tolerance that the country has held so dear for decades. Right-wing enthusiasts now amount up to 10% of the vote and this may increase in the coming years until the elections.
Immigrant riots will certainly not help to restore the public's confidence in multiculturalism. It was in Norway, Sweden's neighbour, that the far Right fanatic Anders Breivik committed his atrocities. In Finland, the rise of the True Finns party does not exclude Scandinavia from the regions of Europe that see an increase in nationalism.
The events that occupy us bring up once again the question of the future of Europe's policies on immigration. Is multiculturalism a failed idea and a model of society? Perhaps we are naive to expect that totally different people from different backgrounds and religions can just get along and live side by side.
If so, how can we at least stop the violent outbursts that occur,
either as riots by immigrants in Sweden or the violence against the immigrants themselves that happen in Greece?
Is it the immigrants' background that sparks the race-based clashes? Is it their religion? Or is it simply social inequality? Perhaps the events are linked to a wider clash of civilizations that is taking place in our world, making Europe and the West in general the immediate hate figure of certain immigrant communities. Because of our involvement in military campaigns in Muslim countries, some immigrants get radicalized not by the inequality that exists with in our countries but because of our involvement in external campaigns.
They might also be linked to greater social inequality and injustice issue that affects immigrants the most. Are they always treated fairly and are all policies meant to help them? Perhaps we have created 'second class citizens' in our countries, by exploiting the immigrants and taking their work for granted.
Another important matter is: do they really want to be integrated in our communities, or are they simply forced to seek a better future there because of the
situation back in their own countries? Possibly, they have no real plans to integrate
themselves in their new 'home' and accept our culture as theirs. So why do
we keep allowing immigrants in our countries?
Should we reconsider some of our policies and have a debate on what Europeans want, how they see their countries in the future? Perhaps the Swedish past governments took their model's success for granted and actually never bothered to do a health check on how the different communities were getting along.
These clashes come as Godsend to those who have always opposed
multiculturalism, and they will use them in their argumentation. In times
of financial crisis and general political, economic, and ideological
upheaval, it is very dangerous to allow certain groups to use similar incidents to promote their agenda. Social unrest might also be incited
by these groups in order to achieve their goal and change Europe's political culture (that has encouraged multiculturalism until now).
We mustn't ignore these events or bypass them as irrelevant. If we cannot integrate immigrants from certain ethnic groups, then perhaps we should focus on attracting immigrants from cultures that are closer to ours, like Latin America for example. Understanding and acceptance go both ways, but can be gained only through dialogue. A dialogue both among the different communities and between the state and its citizens.
And none of the above has ever happened successfully in Europe, in fear of being branded as racist, xenophobic, or backward countries. There are certain human rights groups who are blocking any real debate on the issue with their narrow mindedness. This doesn't help.
Being a progressive country is not "in" or the new "must." It happens
gradually and with a lot of effort. Sweden has had years of political
stability and peace, since it was lucky enough not to get involved in the two
wars that ripped the rest of the continent apart. So they were able to
create the social model that most of the rest of Europe envies.
But its leaders were naive (or optimistic) enough to think that their country can be unaffected by what is going on in the rest of the continent or the World. If there is a general dissatisfaction with multiculturalism, or certain political and economic norms in Europe, Sweden is influenced by them as a part of it. Either they actively participate in them or not. And perhaps the real cause of these riots has nothing to do with a Swedish "failure", but rather is an echo of a broader European and global transformation.