Policemen extinguish burning cars after youths rioted in Husby, Sweden, on May 20, 2013. Youths in the immigrant-heavy Stockholm suburb torched cars and threw rocks at police, in riots believed to be linked to the deadly police shooting of a local resident. (FREDRIK SANDBERG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The sight of burning cars in a dozen suburbs of Stockholm on Tuesday night has shocked Sweden and shaken its image of tolerance and equality. But the rioting is also raising a simple, devastating question: Is Sweden facing its own Paris or London moment when it is forced to confront long-simmering questions about the integration of immigrants?

“This is a wake-up call for decision makers and Swedish society as a whole,” says Awad Hersi, a Stockholm city councillor from near where the riots started. But Hersi, of Somali origin, argues that the situation is not yet as serious as it was in London in 2011 or Paris in 2005. “There are differences with Stockholm: the scale, the methods are different. Stockholm still has a chance but it is a matter of time.”

Police on Wednesday were drafting in reinforcements to prepare for a potential fourth night of unrest. What started in the northwestern suburb of Husby had by Tuesday night spread to about a dozen different suburbs north and south of Stockholm. The rioters were reported to be mostly young immigrants of African and Middle Eastern origin.

There appeared little coordination between the outbreaks of unrest, which mostly involved torching cars or attacking buildings and stoning the emergency services. “We are grubby and totally shattered. It is burning everywhere,” one policeman told Swedish TV.

The unrest has provoked intense soul-searching in a country that prides itself for both its generous welfare state and open immigration policy. Sweden accepted 44,000 asylum-seekers in 2012, up by nearly a half from a year earlier. Among industrial countries, it has the second-largest amount of asylum-seekers relative to its population, according to U.N. figures. Sweden prides itself on treating them well, offering them benefits and housing as well as free Swedish lessons on arrival.

But now some are questioning whether that is enough. The big problem in a suburb such as Husby, where immigrants represent about 80 percent of the population, is unemployment, particularly among the young. Swedish youth unemployment stands at 25.1 percent, about triple the level of overall joblessness. And much of that youth unemployment is concentrated among immigrants from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria.

“Sweden isn’t that different to other countries when it comes to problems of integration in larger cities where we have these suburbs with a lot of unemployment,” says Per Adman, an associate professor at Uppsala university. He points out that the media often refers to “unemployed young men” without specifying that they are predominantly immigrants.

The riots may have reopened the debate, but Adman sees a society divided in its reaction to them. “Some people claim this is just criminals acting; others say it’s a result of segregation,” he says.

On the ground in Husby, there is no surprise that the response tends towards the latter. Hersi condemns the violence but says: “The violence we have seen is just a symptom, it is not a root cause. The root cause is that in this area the young men especially feel that they don’t have the same opportunities. Most of them, if you ask them, don’t want anything more than a job to go to in the morning.”

That discrepancy between opportunities for those born in Sweden and outside was also underlined by the OECD in its most recent report on the country. It found that the unemployment rate for Swedish-born people was about 6 percent against about 16 percent for those born abroad.

Immigration experts say the pattern of Swedish immigration has also changed. After the war, the country wanted low-skilled workers for its manufacturing plants, while now it faces an influx of asylum-seekers with little education who have difficulty finding a job.

This has coincided with a jump in inequality. Although Sweden is still one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, it has experienced the biggest rise in inequality in the past 15 years.

“Historically, Swedish society has been very homogenous. But over the past 10 years there has been a big shift, and some suburbs now are ‘world villages.’ The development has gone very fast and much of society hasn’t understood the nature of the situation,” Hersi says.

Worries over immigration have also changed the political mood. The third-largest party in the country is now the Swedish Democrats, an anti-immigrant party with its roots in the neo-Nazi movement. Perhaps as a result, the ruling centre-right coalition has toughened up its language. Tobias Billström, minister for migration, said in February: “Sweden is one of the countries that receives the most immigrants in the EU. That’s not sustainable. . . . Today, people are coming to households where the only income is support from the municipality. Is that reasonable?”

— Financial Times