Vanessa Barker, a sociology professor at Stockholm University who studies democracy, migrants, and crime, told me in an email that though these are serious and longstanding concerns, the debate surrounding them often misses key points. “In public debate, crime in immigrant neighborhoods tends to be conflated with failed integration, parallel societies, criminal gangs, and in the foreign press as a sign of Swedish Dystopia,” she wrote. But “to residents in these areas, higher crime and disorder (graffiti, loitering) are the result of police ineffectiveness and socioeconomic disadvantage.”
It’s tempting to peg the rise of the Sweden Democrats to 2015, when Sweden accepted 163,000 asylum-seekers—more per-capita than any other country in the world (the number has steadily declined since then). But support for the party had actually been building for some time. In the 2014 election, it received 12.8 percent of the vote, a significant jump from the 3 percent it took in 2006.
As the Sweden Democrats ascended, Sweden debated the status of asylum-seekers, immigrants, and, pointedly, Islam. While today’s migrants come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Syria, earlier ones came from Bosnia, Iran, Iraq, and Somalia. They, too, had trouble finding jobs and assimilating. “The earlier period coincided with global optimism about the future and all the promises of globalization—the end of the Cold War, the end of the nation-state, the rise of internationalized human rights, democratization around the world, the fruits of the IT revolution ahead, etc,” Barker wrote. “Now, in 2018, we’ve seen the effects of the global economic recession, endless war, massive displacement of people around the world, large-scale failures of governance and government, declining trust, weak defense of human rights and human security, resurgent nationalism, and unchecked xenophobia and racism. All of these factors sit on a broken foundation for social inclusion. Migrants have become ‘suitable enemies’—to use Nils Christie’s well-known formulation—for the ills and anxieties of our age.”
What is equally true, however, is that the Sweden Democrats’ showing in recent opinion polls coincided with a heated debate across the European Union over immigration and asylum-seekers, largely from Muslim countries. This debate has vaulted right-wing, euroskeptic, anti-immigration parties in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, to power, and elevated them in Italy, Austria, Denmark, Finland, and the Czech Republic. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party entered parliament for the first time last year. What they have in common, according to a Bloomberg analysis of their platforms, is a combination of “populist, nativist, and authoritarian strains.”
In Sweden, the immigration debate grew particularly heated in the fall of the 2015. The country was unprepared for the influx of asylum-seekers. Despite the fact that a section of the public welcomed many of the newcomers, opposition to the asylum policy was so hostile (much of it came during the Islamic State attack in Paris that November) that the government reversed course in 2016.