The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump asked people to ‘look at what’s happening … in Sweden.’ Here’s what’s happening there.

Police officers and migrants stood on the end of a bridge between Sweden and Denmark in Malmo, Sweden, in November 2015. (Ake Jonsson/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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President Trump caused confusion during a Saturday rally in Florida when he said: “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?” Trump then mentioned the French cities of Nice and Paris and the Belgian capital, Brussels. The three European cities were attacked by terrorists over the past two years.

Although Trump did not explicitly say it, his remarks were widely perceived in the United States and abroad as suggesting that an attack had occurred Friday night in Sweden.

At a Florida rally on Feb. 18, President Trump listed several countries with large numbers of refugees that were recently struck by terror attacks. "You look at what's happening last night in Sweden," Trump said. Swedish authorities are not aware of any such incident that night. (Video: Reuters)

Trump attempted to clarify his remarks, tweeting Sunday: “My statement as to what's happening in Sweden was in reference to a story that was broadcast on @FoxNews concerning immigrants & Sweden.”

On Monday, Trump elaborated a bit with another tweet:

Trump probably was referring to an interview with filmmaker Ami Horowitz on Fox News Channel's “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which started circulating on social media shortly after Trump's speech in Florida. Horowitz has blamed refugees for what he says is a crime wave in Sweden. The filmmaker's claims have since come under scrutiny, as Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported Monday. Two Swedish police officers who were interviewed by Horowitz said that their comments had been taken out of context. One of them, Anders Göranzon, accused the filmmaker of being a “madman.”

Such claims by Horowitz and others have driven up Google search traffic for information on Swedish crime statistics in recent weeks. In fact, interest in the issue has never been higher over the past four years.

Trump's references to Sweden seemed to suggest that the country's welcoming approach to refugees and its alleged effects on crime rates should be a warning sign. But were the president's remarks justified?

“Absolutely not,” said Felipe Estrada, a criminology professor at Stockholm University. His response was echoed Monday by multiple other experts who are familiar with Swedish crime statistics.

Overall, Sweden's average crime rate has fallen in recent years, Estrada said. That drop has been observed for cases of lethal violence and for assaults, two of the most serious categories of crime.

Moreover, an analysis by Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, conducted between October 2015 and January 2016, came to the conclusion that refugees were responsible for only 1 percent of all incidents. Researchers caution, however, that segregation and long-term unemployment of refugees could have a negative effect on crime rates in Sweden in the future.

Germany, the other European country that took in similar numbers of refugees per capita in 2015, also has refuted claims that the influx led to an increase in crime. “Immigrants are not more criminal than Germans,” an interior ministry spokesman said in June. Overall, crime levels in Germany declined over the first quarter of 2016, officials said last year.

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Nevertheless, skepticism has persisted in Germany, Sweden and elsewhere. A Pew Research Center study conducted in early 2016 indicated that 46 percent of Swedes believed that “refugees in our country are more to blame for crime than other groups.”

Reports about alleged police coverups of refugee crimes might have contributed to distrust in official statistics. Criminologists also say that a handful of cases have received disproportionate public attention, creating a distorted perception among Swedes.

“What we’re hearing is a very, very extreme exaggeration based on a few isolated events,” Jerzy Sarnecki, a criminologist at Stockholm University, told the Globe and Mail newspaper in May, when coverage of refugee-related crimes reached a peak.

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There is one statistic in which Sweden does indeed lead international crime statistics, though: reported cases of rape. When three men raped a woman on Facebook Live, the incident made headlines worldwide. But criminologists say refugees are not the reason Sweden has such an extraordinarily high number of rape cases.

“The [definitions] of rape differ between countries,” Estrada said. “In Sweden, several changes in legislation have been made to include more cases of sexual crimes as rape cases.” Sweden's definition of what constitutes rape is now one of the world's most expansive. Varying figures, as well as other Swedish measures to facilitate rape complaints, might have affected statistics, as well.

Three men raped a woman in Sweden on Facebook Live

Swedish crime experts also do not agree that immigrants have created so-called no-go areas in Sweden — areas that allegedly are too dangerous for native Swedes to enter and are effectively run by criminals. “This perception is fabricated,” Estrada said. But he and others pointed out that the refugee influx poses challenges to Sweden, just not in the way it is being portrayed by some.

“Even [though] there are no 'no-go zones' as alleged in the propaganda, there are problems around crimes and disturbances in several suburbs of Swedish cities, where immigrant groups tend to be over-represented,” said Henrik Selin, director of intercultural dialogue at the Swedish Institute

“Sweden definitely, like other countries, [faces] challenges when it comes to integration of immigrants into Swedish society, with lower levels of employment, tendencies of exclusion and also crime-related problems,” Selin said. There is little evidence, however, that Sweden has turned into the lawless country it is at times being described as abroad.

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