Firemen extinguish a burning car in Kista after riots around Stockholm on May 21. (AFP/Jonathan Nackstrand)

The violent youth riots that spread across Stockholm's suburbs this week seem at odds with the public perception of Sweden as one of the world's most liberal and tolerant countries.

But the racially charged riots, which have taken place largely in poor immigrant communities, actually expose deep social divisions that have threatened Sweden for years. There is, essentially, the Sweden of legend -- and then there are large, poor immigrant communities where unemployment is rampant, especially among young people, and political participation is down.

One key to understanding that community is grasping its size -- according to Reuters, roughly 15 percent of Swedish residents are now foreign-born. As Malmö University's Pieter Bevelander laid out in a 2010 paper, Sweden has always played host to a large immigrant population, largely from other Nordic countries. But immigration spiked in the early '00s after an influx of asylum-seekers, thousands from eastern Europe and Iraq.


Much of this massive immigrant population hasn't integrated into the Swedish mainstream, Bevelander argues. This chart, from Sweden's official statistics agency, indicates the 2009 employment rate for Swedish (dark grey) and foreign-born (light grey) residents in 2009. The rates are further divided by gender (man = men, kvinnor = women) and age group (16-24 years, 25-34 years, 35-54 years and 55-64 years).

For foreign-born women, the disparity is particularly striking -- their employment rates fall more than 20 percent less, in some age groups, than their native-born peers.


Further complicating this economic picture is Sweden's youth unemployment rate -- which, at three times the adult unemployment rate, is the OECD's worst youth-to-adult unemployment ratio. That problem is educational, not economic, the United Nations concluded in a recent report. As many as one in four Swedish youth don't graduate with the skills they'll need in the workforce.


Political participation among immigrants, a key sign of enfranchisement, is also down. While Sweden's immigrant voting rate was initially quite high, according to Bevelander -- aided by liberal citizenship policies and rules that let non-citizens vote in local elections -- it has fallen by more than 20 percentage points since the late '70s.


The result of all this is that many in Sweden feel they have been left behind. And according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development, the inequality gap is increasing: Sweden's income inequality is still low, versus other OECD members, but it has trended up for the past 20 years.


Whether the Swedish government will work to address that population remains to be seen. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has roundly condemned this week's riots as the work of "young angry men" and has said he will not visit the area.

But that seems like a risky social calculus -- especially since Sweden's statistics agency forecasts that the foreign-born population will only continue to grow in the future.