Swedish authorities and criminologists say President Donald Trump is exaggerating crime in Sweden as a result of its liberal policy of accepting refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
Statistics show there has been an uptick in some crime categories since the country took in 160,000 asylum-seekers in 2015. But experts said there is no evidence of a major crime wave.
Trump started this latest controversy when he claimed at a rally in Melbourne, Florida, on Feb. 18 that European countries that have accepted large numbers of Syrian refugees, like Germany and Sweden, are having “problems.” Trump referred to some unspecified incident that he said had taken place the night before in Sweden as evidence.
“You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” Trump said. “Sweden, who would believe this. Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”
That brought swift rebuke and ridicule from Swedish officials, including former Prime Minister Carl Bildt, as well as from fact-checkers on both sides of the Atlantic, who reported very little of note on the crime front the previous night in Sweden.
Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking? Questions abound. https://t.co/XWgw8Fz7tj
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) February 19, 2017
Trump later said via Twitter that he was referring to a Fox News segment on Feb. 17 in which host Tucker Carlson interviewed filmmaker Ami Horowitz. Horowitz made a film in which he makes the case — as he put it to Carlson — that there has been “an absolute surge in both gun violence and rape in Sweden once they began this open door policy.”
Horowitz said the government “has gone out of its way to try to cover up some of these problems” and that the country now has “no-go zones” in areas populated by refugees “where the cops won’t even enter because it is too dangerous for them.”
Swedish experts called the allegations of so-called no-go zones wrong, and they say Horowitz’s claims of a surge in immigrant violence are grossly overblown.
The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published an interview with two police officers featured in a clip of Horowitz’s film shown in the Fox News segment, one of whom called Horowitz “a madman.” They said their comments were taken out of context and that they were talking about crime in high-risk areas, not about immigration.
”We don’t stand behind it,” one of the officers said of the film. “It shocked us. He has edited the answers. We were answering completely different questions in the interview. This is bad journalism.”
Immigration to Sweden
Sweden saw a dramatic increase in asylum applicants in 2015, with more than 162,000 people arriving in the country, according to the Swedish Migration Agency. Of those, more than 51,000 were from Syria, with another roughly 42,000 from Afghanistan and 21,000 from Iraq. All told, Sweden has taken in nearly 200,000 refugees and migrants in recent years, more than any other country per capita in Europe, the BBC reported.
That’s a big number for a country with a population just under 10 million. (By way of reference, a comparable number based on the population of the U.S. would come to about 5.2 million. President Barack Obama set the level of refugees the U.S. would accept in fiscal year 2017 at 110,000 before he left office, but Trump cut that number to no more than 50,000.)
Crime in Sweden
While there has been an uptick in some crime categories, government statistics from Sweden do not corroborate the claim of a major crime wave due to immigrants.
According to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå), lethal violence (murder, manslaughter and assault that results in death) totaled 112 victims in 2015. That’s up by 25 (a sizable increase) from 2014, but it’s about the same as the number in 2007, which was 111 victims.
“In a long-term perspective, ever since the 1990’s when Brå started the measurements, the trend shows that lethal violence is declining,” the website says.
The group’s latest Swedish Crime survey for 2016 found that 13.3 percent stated that during the course of 2015, they were exposed to offenses that included assault, threats, sexual offenses, robbery, fraud or harassment.
“This is an increase as compared with the preceding year (in 2014 the percentage was 11.3%), but is approximately the same level as in 2005,” the report states. “When compared with 2014, the increase was greatest for threats, sexual offences, and harassment. The results from coming years will show whether the increase for the most recent year is the beginning of a new trend, or a temporary deviation from an otherwise relatively stable level.”
There was also a slight increase in the perception of crime, as the percentage of people with “great concern about crime in society” increased from 22 percent in 2015 to 25 percent in 2016. That’s still down from 29 percent in 2006. The survey also found that the percentage of people “anxious about being a victim of an attack or assault has increased from 11 per cent in 2015 to 15 per cent in 2016, which is the same level as in 2006.”
A Pew Research Center survey in early 2016 also found that 46 percent of Swedes believe “refugees in our country are more to blame for crime than other groups.”
As for the specific issue of rape, there was a 13 percent one-year increase in the number of reported rapes, which totaled 6,560 in 2016, according to preliminary numbers from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. But that total is slightly lower than reported rapes in 2014 and about the same as the number in 2011.
Over the past decade, the number of reported rapes has increased. The total was 4,208 in 2006, a year after the country passed a law expanding its definition of rape to include cases in which a victim is intoxicated or asleep. The yearly number gradually increased through 2011 and has fluctuated in recent years.
The issue of rape was heightened with international media attention on an alleged gang rape in January in Sweden by three men, two from Afghanistan, that was shown live on Facebook.
But some misconceptions and viral falsehoods about rape in Sweden also have circulated in recent years. Canada’s Globe and Mail wrote a May 2016 story about viral rumors linking immigration and refugees to a high rate of rape in the country. “What we’re hearing is a very, very extreme exaggeration based on a few isolated events, and the claim that it’s related to immigration is more or less not true at all,” Jerzy Sarnecki, a criminologist at Stockholm University, told the newspaper.
What is true is that Sweden has a high rate of reported rape compared with other countries, but that has been the case for several years and isn’t indicative of a less safe environment, the BBC explained in a 2012 article. The rate for reported rape in Sweden was the highest in Europe in 2010 and three times the rate of neighboring Norway, the BBC reported.
“On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place” than other countries, the BBC wrote. But, Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention, told the news organization that the difference could be attributed to the way Sweden documents rape – if a woman reports being raped multiple times by her husband that’s recorded as multiple rapes, for instance, not just one report – and the culture in the country, which encourages women to report such crimes. “[T]he major explanation is partly that people go to the police more often,” Selin told the BBC, and yet another factor was the broadening of the definition of rape in the 2005 legislation.
Henrik Selin, head of the Department for Intercultural Dialogue at the Swedish Institute, told us the surge of asylum seekers in 2015 has created challenges for Sweden, but he said reports from right-leaning media about a surge of immigrant crime have been “highly exaggerated.”
“So many things are being claimed,” Selin said. “If you look at the facts, there is nothing to support the claim that the crime rate took off after the 160,000 came in 2015.”
Crime has generally been trending down for the last decade, but there was a small uptick last year, he said. While it’s true that immigrants have been over-represented among those committing crimes — particularly in some suburban communities heavily populated by immigrants, he said — the issue of crime and immigration is complex. Upon closer examination, Selin said, researchers have found that the crime is more closely associated with factors like joblessness, poverty and exclusion from society. “It is not clear that immigrants are susceptible to committing such crimes,” he said.
Nor is it at all true, Selin said, that there are so-called no-go zones where police are afraid to patrol, or where locals have instituted sharia law, as Horowitz claimed. Selin’s refutation was echoed by Felipe Estrada Dörner, a criminology professor at Stockholm University, interviewed by the Washington Post.
But that is not to say there are not some “challenges in the short term … that we need to deal with,” Selin said.
Jerzy Sarnecki, a criminology professor at Stockholm University, said that claims about surging violence due to immigration are “lies.”
“But really good lies always have a little bit of truth in them,” Sarnecki told us in an email. “So also in this case.”
Sarnecki noted that Sweden has a “very broad legal definition of rape” and that “Swedish women are aware of their rights and have a high propensity to report sexual assaults, and we calculate crimes in a different manner than comparable countries.”
Sweden has a low rate of lethal violence compared with other countries, he said. But he allowed that there has been an uptick recently.
“The number of these cases [of lethal violence] have fallen sharply since 1990 but increased slightly in the past two years,” Sarnecki said. “This increase, however, has nothing to do with the recent large refugee wave.”
“Obviously,” he said, “the large reception of refugees in a short time causes various types of strains in a small country like Sweden, but these problems are exaggerated greatly by populist movements that are ideologically close to Mr. Trump.”
Trump stood by the claim with a tweet on Feb. 20:
Give the public a break – The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2017
Correction, Feb. 28, 2017: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Horowitz claimed alleged “no-go zones” in Sweden are ruled by sharia law. Horowitz stands by his comment that there are no-go zones where police are afraid to go, but he did not say that those areas are ruled by sharia law.