A scandal over alleged sexual assaults by migrants puts Sweden—renowned for its gender equality and its liberality—in a difficult place
Even as Germany has grappled with a scandalover alleged sexual assaults involving migrants, Sweden has been embroiled in its own sexual assault controversy.
It erupted on Jan. 11 after the liberal newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported leaked police memos indicating that Swedish police had covered up reports of groping and the sexual harassment of young girls at a Swedish music festival last summer by refugee youths. The story implied that the police covered-up the reports in order to avoid anti-immigrant sentiment.
Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called the alleged cover-up a “double betrayal.” Björn Söder, an MP from the Sweden Democrats, a right-wing and anti-migrant party, called it “a scandal without equal”—though later in the week, a special prosecutor in Sweden announced that there would be no formal investigation because there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by the police.
Though the facts of what actually happened at the festival remain unclear, the controversy has raised questions in Sweden about whether the Scandinavian country’s liberal political values had stifled a more honest discussion about how to integrate migrants from the Islamic world who might not share those values—even as the response of right-wingers fed accusations of racism.
It is not the first time that Sweden has had to deal with the uncomfortable intersection of racism and sexual assault against women. After sexual assault allegations were made against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in Sweden in 2012, the country faced scrutiny over statistics that suggested it had one of the highest rape rates in the world. Right-wing organizations, such as the Gastestone Institute, have used this data as an indication of risk migrants pose to women. But Sweden’s National Council for Crime Prevention cautions against comparing crime data across countries, and attributes Sweden’s statistics to high rates of reporting rape, and a broadening of the definition of rape in 2005.
This kind of controversy is particularly sensitive in Sweden, which has taken in more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe. But the country’s welcoming nature started to shift at the end of the year, as support grew for the anti-migrant Swedish Democrats, who claimed 20% support according to a December Ipsos MORI poll commissioned byDagens Nyheter. At the end of last year, the government announced new policies designed to reduce migration to Sweden, such as expanding border controls, replacing permanent residence permits for asylum seekers with a temporary three-year residency permit, and putting stricter limits on family reunification.
The attention on these particular assaults has put many Swedish feminists in an uncomfortable place. They don’t want to play down the very real threat of sexual violence that all men potentially pose, but they don’t want that threat used as a political weapons against refugees. “It is very dangerous to racialize sexual harassment,” says Tiina Rosenberg, a founding member of Sweden’s feminist party, the Feminist Initiative, and a gender scholar and professor at Stockholm University. “There is a long post-colonial history of the white patriarchy trying to rescue the brown women from the brown men… There is a lot of [similar] racialized talk in the making today that is anti-migration, and we should be very careful about that. We should talk about all the harrassment against women. We should object and protest, but we should not make the distinction about people from another ethnic background that they are more violent than we are… because otherwise we find ourselves in a place of saying: ‘I’m not a racist, but…’”