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Stockholm Terrorist Attack Requires New Outlines for Swedish Policies on Migration and Security

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Sorrow and strength have emerged in Stockholm after the terrorist attack in the city on April 7th, 2017. It happened just a few days after terror attacks in London and Saint Petersburg. The result is 4 dead on Drottningsgatan (The Queen’s Street), of whom Swedish citizens, 1 British and 1 Belgian national, as well as 10 severely injured and hospitalized. The Swedish response a day after the attack was a massive love pageant, which gathered thousands near he square of Sergel (Sergels torg). While the emotions are still strong and pictures vivid, a few pragmatic questions are awaiting a response: will Sweden remain united in its diversity and how will national politics tackle the spreading of hatred in Swedish society? Some numbers outline major tendencies.

What happened on April 7th, 2017?

Police got a SOS alarm at 14.53. According Swedish National Television, 15 people were injured, of which 9 severely. Police told Swedish Radio and Television that they are working on a suspected terrorist attack. Later in the evening, the police confirmed that, as a result of the tragic incident, 4 people were reported dead. The entire public transport was suspended and later in the night, in the northern part of Stockholm, a man was detained. SÄPO (Swedish Security Police) introduced security checks at all departure points from Sweden; the police in the city of Gothenburg received orders to trigger a special security mode; however, the national security level has not been raised and stayed at level 3, out of 5. The quick and effective co-operation between the different Swedish authorities in running the operation after the terrorist attack received good coverage in Swedish media with an overall positive response by society.

First political reactions

 “Sweden has been attacked. Everything indicates that it is a terrorist act. Our thoughts are with the victims, their families and the injured", said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in a statement. The opposition and Moderate Party leader Anna Kinberg Batra told Swedish Radio’s program ”The Echo” that Sweden needs to show that the country is united and will not separate politicians and policies. Later, the Center Party leader Annie Lööf told Swedish Radio that the authorities should work on preventing such events with the added awareness that this is not always possible. She also spoke about potential amendments to the current legislation dealing with memberships in different organizations and communities. Surprisingly, the leader of the far right party Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, was not cited in the media.

Moreover, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, who is acting as Head of State, gave a press conference the day after: “I and the entire Royal Family have gotten with sorrow some of the information about the afternoon's attack in Stockholm. The background and the extent of the incident is not yet known. We follow the development and our thoughts are with the victims and their families”.

Hard times for the national politics

The attack occurred in very challenging times for the Social Democratic Party, coinciding with its congress which took place on April 7th-12th. Although the congress tackled and discussed major internal political issues, Löfven raised the issue of a possible re-introduction of the obligatory military service and broadened up the focus during his final political speech by praising democracy as the only possible tool to fight against terrorism. However, the prime minister has the very tough task to lead Sweden out of the petty and slimy political game. The Social Democrats have been in power for the last three years, after getting out of a political deadlock and coming perilously close to losing. According to latest opinion polls [in Swedish], the bloc Left-Green–Social Democratic party only gets a combined 40% of the vote, while the combined center-right group leads by 41%. There are two major questions before the forthcoming elections: will Sweden have a minority government and will some of the political blocs cooperate with the far right party Sweden Democrats. The latter is, however, intensively gaining percentage points as the nationalist political rhetoric is spreading enormously throughout Europe.  

What do the numbers reveal?

The latest developments in Stockholm raise questions, which are not completely new to major EU countries, struggling to handle and integrate huge migrant flows. According to the UN, the number of international migrants (residing in a country different than their home country) has reached 244 million in 2015, which is a 41% increase in comparison with 2000.

Taking a glance at the Swedish numbers, the Swedish Migration board reveals that 163 000 people have applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, which is the highest number of applications registered so far. The number of applications decreased in 2016, reaching 28 939. By far, the Swedish Migration Board granted asylum to 111 979 people. However, more than 70 000 people haven’t received their decision yet. “The goal is to proceed further with the decisions for those who have been waiting for too long. Our preliminary goal is for this to happen in the summer 2017”, says Acting Director-General Mikael Ribbenvik.

Among these numbers, one could find the case of the Uzbekistani citizen Rakhmat Akilov, who has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Stockholm. According to Swedish police, he was known to the authorities from before and applied for asylum in 2014; the Migration Board rejected his application at the end of 2016, giving him 4 weeks to leave the country. Afterwards, the decision was left to the police and since February 24th Akilov was wanted by the police. 

Sweden - what is next?

The terror attack in Stockholm follows a series of blasts in the last few years in big European cities, where dozens of people died. The attack is the second largest in Scandinavia in times after the Norway Attacks from 2011 on Utøya island, when around 70 people were shot dead. The big question is how will Sweden and the other EU countries find the balance in standing together fighting terrorism with common counter measures, assisting humanitarian aid and responding adequately to the rising amount of asylum applications.

In terms of internal politics, Sweden faces a challenging task to handle these applications and to providing social integration to the newcomers with the latter being among the biggest challenges for Swedish politics since the early 1970s. According to a 2012 OECD report, Sweden ranks 10th as a share of migrants in its population, with a steadily growing percentage of 14% of foreign-born of the overall population. The greatest number of migrants in Sweden is from countries such as Finland, Poland and Iraq, a report of Statistics Sweden reveals. Furthermore, during the last year the percentage of British nationals, granted Swedish citizenship, increased considerably, which is a possible reaction to the Brexit referendum.

The increasing diversity in Sweden could be interpreted as a logical and natural reaction to global developments in the last 50 years: with the constant migration of EU labor force, social insecurities, wars and conflict zones. An adequate reaction and an open public discussion will facilitate integration and would minimize social side effects of growing segregation in some suburbs in major cities like Stockholm and Malmö. Constant media coverage of crime, committed in dangerous segregated areas, such as Husby, Rinkeby, Rosengård, and the lack of adequate political agenda create an image of modern Sweden that  none of the Swedish would like to identify with. The distinction “us-them” can only deepen the already exiting problems and raise the popularity of the right wing party Sweden Democrats at the next national elections.

Failure in tackling the critical issues of immigration and integration in Sweden will have a ‘knock-on’ effect on further EU migration and asylum policies. From a ‘human rights’ perspective Swedish politicians must abandon the very Swedish ‘fear of conflict’ mindset and draw a clear line between a person’s nationality and their likelihood to commit a crime in Sweden.

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