Urban Dilemmas

Urban Dilemmas
Published: Jun 20, 2013
STOCKHOLM: Sustainable development expert Kaj Embrén discusses Sweden's recent riots and the surrounding context of social and economic inequality.

The Stockholm riots have come as a shock to many commentators. Riots, they say, happen in grossly unequal, racially divided cities like London or Los Angeles, not in the supposed social utopia of Stockholm. But tensions have been mounting in Sweden’s urban centres for years now. Anger on both sides sporadically spills over into violence, whether in the form of unrest in immigrant ghettos on the outskirts of Stockholm or as anti-immigrant murders in Malmo.

Riots and hate crimes show that Sweden is not as different to other countries as its international reputation suggests – or as many here would like to think. Such incidents are symptoms of a growing discord that is caused by conflicting socio-economic factors. Many immigrants are alienated socially, by being housed in communities on the fringes of society, or economically, by the fact that they are twice as likely to be unemployed than Swedish natives. Many Swedes, on the other hand, resent subsidising those who they see as welfare-freeloaders, or come to feel like foreigners in their own communities.

These are problems that governments across Europe have faced for decades now. If left unchecked, such conditions form fertile ground for extremism.  A grave recent example is the killing of a soldier by a British Muslim extremist in London, which in turn incited revenge attacks by far-right groups on mosques around the country. Such reprisals only escalate hatred and entrench division.

So how should we Swedes deal with this? Multifaceted problems require multifaceted solutions. All levels of society – national government and business through to local government and civil society – must do more to facilitate integration of immigrants who come to settle in Sweden. Integration is the key to overcoming the pernicious “us vs. them” mentality.


The Swedish response to socio-economic alienation must not be further exclusion, but more integration.

The government must start investing closer to home.  While international development funding and national infrastructure projects are essential, so too is social investment at the local level. Housing policy must avoid clustering immigrants in ghettos, while better assistance and training should be provided to those seeking jobs, to free them from welfare dependency.

As for civil society, there are countless grassroots examples, not only in Sweden, that could serve as a model for integration initiatives. These include: Megaphone,  The Flemish network – Netwerk Vlaanderen FairFin; The Big issue Foundation; the Kaospiloterna (Chaos Pilots) programme, which nurtures entrepreneurship to help disadvantaged young people succeed in business; Fryshuset in Stockholm City;  and the community centres, Boo People’s House (in Nacka) and Söråkers People’s House (near Sundsvall), which have been commended by the Hard Rain/Whole Earth project.

Sweden is clearly not immune to the divisions that blight the West, but as a Nordic country it is well placed to overcome them, both in terms of societal organisation and national values.

There are some in Sweden who are calling for restrictions on entry to refugees fleeing persecution or for restrictions on immigrant access to the welfare state. They would do well to remember the Norwegian Prime Minister’s words in the aftermath of the atrocities committed by Anders Breivik in 2011: “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.”

Following this admirable stance, I believe that the Swedish response to socio-economic alienation must not be further exclusion, but more integration. In this way we can start reclaiming our international reputation for fairness, prosperity and social justice.

Kaj Embrén has been involved with sustainable development for more than 30 years. He led the International Co-operative Green Campaign at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 1992, and was also involved in the start up of the Swedish Foundation – The Natural Step. In 2000, he co-established Respect with Gordon and Anita Roddick, and in 2003 was involved in the start of the Climate Group. Kaj lived in London for 10 years, but is now based in Stockholm, Sweden.

This article was originally published on Kaj's blog on 1st June 2013.

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