Sunday

29th Jan 2023

Sweden fights back as foreign leaders make up bad news

  • Sweden, a country known for ABBA songs, Volvo cars and Astrid Lindgren's children books, has become a target for populist criticism. (Photo: Olmen)

Donald Trump bashed Sweden over the weekend, but he wasn't the first foreign leader to promote his own restrictive migration policies by painting a dark picture of the Nordic state.

Speaking at a political rally on Saturday (18 February), the US president announced he would take further measures to prevent Muslim citizens from visiting the US and recalled events in some European capitals that have been struck by terror lately.

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  • "For many Republicans, Sweden is the favourite symbol of everything they think is wrong with Europe: openness to refugees, feminism, environmental conscience, or resistance to the Vietnam war in the 1970s." (Photo: Gary Skidmore)

"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."

Swedes were quick to reply that nothing special happened in their country on Friday, prompting a White House spokeswoman to clarify the US president was speaking about "rising crime and recent incidents in general".

Trump later tweeted he had watched a Fox News report, which claimed that rape and violence has "skyrocketed" as the nation of 10 million registered hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers.

In fact, Sweden has abandoned its once generous refugee policy. It only registered 30,000 people last year, down from 163,000 in 2015.

Trump's claim about rising criminality in the Nordic nation are also difficult to verify. Preliminary statistics show the number of crimes reported in 2016 was roughly the same as the year earlier.

Although the police does track ethnic origin of perpetrators, such figures aren't disseminated publicly, making it impossible to draw conclusions on the link between crime and immigration.

Two Swedish police officers featured in the Fox News report have said their statements had been manipulated by a "madman" journalist.

Sweden's embassy in Washington tweeted back at Trump, suggesting it was well-placed to inform the president of Swedish immigration and integration policies.

Sweden bashing

The weekend's incident, however, wasn't the first time that Sweden was portrayed as slipping into refugee chaos, nor was Donald Trump the first foreign leader to spread rumours about the country.

The Swedish government in June last year presented its embassies with guidelines, which were eventually leaked to the press, on how to react to disinformation spread by media and politicians in foreign countries.

The brief mentioned that an unnamed leader from another European country had repeatedly underlined that Sweden has the "most rapes per capita in the world" and that this would be due to immigration from Muslim countries.

According to the foreign ministry, Sweden has a high number of registered rape cases primarily because the Swedish judicial definition of rape is broader than in most countries.

The unnamed leader was in fact Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, whose government later argued that Sweden hosts no-go zones, areas where the police cannot enter.

The brief also referred to Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, who argued in 2015 that there were 54 areas in Sweden where Sharia law applies.

Kaczynski spoke during a parliamentary debate, where he made a case for cancelling Poland's pledge to receive refugees under the EU quota system.

Some speculated the figure came from a 2015 Swedish police report that identified over 50 "vulnerable areas", which needed more attention from the police.

It's difficult to know what impact Kaczynski's statement had.

"My feeling is it only convinced those who were already allies of Jaroslaw Kaczynski," said Gabriel Stille, a lecturer of Swedish language in Warsaw.

He said Poles considered Sweden a neighbouring country, to which many of them had personal links, and that the debate remains rather nuanced and varied.

"My students love Sweden, some people think it's a nanny state, others see it as a beacon of gender equality and yet others cannot understand Sweden's migration policies," Stille told this website.

The foreign ministry, in its brief, said Sweden's embassy in Warsaw had acted in an exemplary manner by quickly rebutting the claim, and clarified that only Swedish law applies in Sweden. This counter-statement was widely circulated in Polish media.

However, claims of no-go zones came back in January this year, when Norway's Siv Jensen, the leader of the populist Progress Party, vowed that her country wouldn't "end up like our closest neighbour".

Reacting to lies

Christian Christensen, an American professor of journalism at Stockholm University, told this website that the weekend's statement by Donald Trump should be taken seriously.

"It was already the second time the Trump administration has made up a terrorist attack to smear immigrants and justify its migration crackdown."

Christiansen also said it wasn't a coincidence that Sweden had been targeted.

"For many Republicans, Sweden is the favourite symbol of everything they think is wrong with Europe: openness to refugees, feminism, environmental conscience, or resistance to the Vietnam war in the 1970s."

A dark picture of Sweden is a recurring feature of anti-immigration media such as Breitbart, he added.

That also applies to some of the European media.

The Swedish embassy in London warned last February that a British tabloid, the Daily Mail, was pouring scorn on Sweden ahead of the UK referendum on EU membership.

"Daily Mail highlights Sweden as naive and a deterrent example of the consequences of a liberal migration policy can provide", the report said.

Sweden still seen in positive light

The foreign ministry said it may sometimes be necessary to correct false information to prevent it from spreading further.

Henrik Selin from the Swedish Institute, a government agency in charge of promoting Sweden abroad, told this website that Sweden's reputation remains largely positive.

"We are small but punch above our weight, even if the image of Sweden is sometimes dated," he said, adding that the country is still mostly seen through the prism of ABBA songs, Volvo cars and Astrid Lindgren's fairy tales.

But in the wake of the country's liberal migration policy, there has been an increase in negative coverage of Sweden in foreign media, Selin said.

"Some of the reporting was completely accurate. Sweden had taken very many people in a short lapse of time, and it was legitimate to ask what challenges that posed. But we also saw exaggerated stories, with made-up facts and claims that the authorities are covering up the truth," he said.

"We don't want our reputation to be misused in political debates," the official added.

Not all the false news about Sweden have been negative, though.

One of the most widely spread false claims alleged that Sweden had introduced a six-hour working day.

Another suggested that Sweden pays its citizens to fix their belongings, rather than to throw them out. In fact, the government last year reduced the service tax on repairs, which remain more expensive than in most other EU countries.

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