The consecutive crises that Scandinavia has recently faced, including the rise of security threats and crime in countries such as Sweden, has undermined the prevailing image of the region. Scandinavia has traditionally been seen as very stable and at the top of international social, security, and economic indices, especially in the fields of education, health, and gender equality. However, a 2015 UN study indicated that this tolerance and good will seems to have begun to fade as cases of discrimination, violence, and organized crime increase. These incidents have particularly targeted migrants and asylum seekers, and have generally been aimed at people of color and Muslims. For example, there have been numerous cases of Qur’an burnings in Sweden and Denmark, which could be an indication that these states are no longer the same models of stability and security in Europe. The fact that NATO now stretches closer to the Russian border could also create external threats for Scandinavian countries.
Signs of Decline
There are many signs of declining security and stability in Scandinavia, including the following indications:
1. Racism on the rise: In recent years, racist discourses have spread through many Western countries including northern Europe. A 2018 study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights entitled Being Black in the EU found that 63 percent of people of African origin in Finland had experienced racially-motivated harassment. This was true for 41 percent of the same groups in Denmark and Sweden, but only 30 percent in the EU as a whole, based on the 12 European countries included in the study.
Northern European countries have been accused of racist practices across various sectors. For example, the government of Denmark compiled a "ghetto list" of neighborhoods for around a decade. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed serious concern about the classification of these neighborhoods, and warned this would increase racism against migrants and exacerbate their isolation.
In Sweden, there has been an increase in incidents of hate speech including racist and xenophobic comments in recent years, particularly as the number of refugees and migrants has risen. Residents of Sweden from Syria, Romania, and Afghanistan said in interviews that they had faced intolerant behavior and comments from other Swedes. According to estimates from the Swedish branch of Save the Children, one in four children with an immigrant parent had been racially abused or attacked because of the color of their skin, their parent’s country of origin, or their religion.
2. Organized crime and violence: Sweden is the only European country that has experienced a significant increase in fatal shootings. Although it previously had the lowest rates of armed violence in Europe, over the last two decades it has now come to have some of the highest. The Sweden Democrats (a right-wing extremist party) blame immigrants for rising rates of armed violence and for the growing gap between rich and poor, despite Sweden’s strong economy.
According to statistics from the Swedish police, there were 360 shootings in the country during 2022, which took place various residences, companies, and other buildings, and resulted in 62 deaths. In addition, a report published by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention highlighted the differences between Sweden and other European countries. In 2017, there were 1.6 deaths per million from armed violence across Europe as a whole, whereas in Sweden there were about 4 deaths per million.
3. Tightening restrictions on migrants: Anti-migrant sentiments in Sweden and Denmark have found an audience in these countries. People are afraid that refugees will commit armed crimes or similar incidents of violence. Copenhagen has amended its migration policies a total of seventy times during 2015 to 2018. These amendments have had far-reaching impacts in trying to make Denmark an unattractive destination for asylum seekers. This was particularly true after conditions in Danish detention centers became more dire. Furthermore, aid for refugees was cut, while the government seized immigrants’ assets allegedly in order to cover intake costs.
Until recently, Sweden had maintained a relatively more open immigration policy, as one of the few European countries that gave asylum seekers the immediate right to work. However, things have also begun to change in Sweden, particularly after large numbers of Syrian immigrants came to country in 2015. Since that point in time, social welfare benefits have decreased and opportunities to obtain permanent residence have dwindled. The most important change in Sweden is that the proposal for a new Tidö agreement would limit family reunification rights and reduce set quotas for refugees entering Sweden from 5000 to only 900 slots. This would deal a major blow to efforts to resettle migrants worldwide, particularly given Sweden’s key role in this field.
4. Growing Islamophobia: There has recently been an escalation in tensions between Muslim countries and Denmark and Sweden after a right-wing group known as the Danish Patriots burned a Qur’an in front of the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen. Five members of the same radical organization carried out similar Qur’an burnings in front of the Egyptian embassy in Denmark last July.
Meanwhile, a Swedish extremist with Iraqi origins desecrated a Qur’an in front of the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm, after the Swedish police granted him a permit for the planned burning. In another incident during anti-Turkish protests in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, an extremist politician staged another Qur’an burning. This has reignited discussions about hate crime in the country. The issue has come to a head at a time when the international community is trying to confront terrorism at the global level.
5. Potential for war nearby: There is no doubt that Sweden and Finland joining NATO will also change the nature of the security structure of northern Europe. It means that the region could be targeted by Russian strikes in the case of a third world war, which has heightened long-term security concerns among Scandinavian populations. Sweden and Finland are keen to avoid provoking Russia if they can avoid it, and have also expressed reservations about nuclear weapons being brought into their countries. Similar concerns were voiced by Denmark and Norway when they joined NATO. These reservations are due to the fact that Moscow has threatened on several occasions that Swedish or Finnish membership in NATO would have negative implications for their security and the security of Europe. Moscow has vowed to restore the military balance in the region through strengthening its defenses in the Baltic Sea region, including through placing nuclear weapons in the Kola Peninsula, which borders Norwegian and Finnish territory.
6. Cyberattacks increase: According to the most recent statistics, Sweden is one of the most internet-connected countries in the world, with 93 percent of families able to access the internet. However, companies based in Sweden are aware of the need to protect their systems from cyberattacks of various kinds so that their business is not negatively affected by attacks that could lead to financial losses. Statistics demonstrate that cyberattacks against companies in Sweden increased threefold in 2021-2022 compared with 2019-2020, with total losses of more than 30 billion Swedish krona (equivalent to about 2.66 billion USD).
Security unrest in Scandinavia has been linked to a wide variety of factors beyond the changing composition of those societies. These factors include the following:
1. Widening social inequality: Scandinavian countries are among the richest in the world. However, inequality, including income inequality and relative income poverty, has grown at above average rates in Sweden, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, rose significantly in Sweden in 2021, reaching 0.333. This is the highest it has been since data collection began in 1975, and suggests a widening gap between Sweden’s rich and poor.
Meanwhile, a study conducted between 2006 and 2014 found that the prevalence of shooting incidents was five times higher in areas classified as socially disadvantaged. This is evidence of the fact that economic inequality leads to increased violence, crime, poverty, and health inequality. All of these factors can have an enduring impact across generations. Furthermore, a report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention indicated that the rise in murders using firearms was closely tied to criminal activity in socially disadvantaged areas.
2. Migrant flows and demographic change: Scandinavian countries have experienced significant growth in immigration in recent years, with a total of 3.6 million immigrants in 2019. This has led to pressure on public services and social welfare systems. It has also been met by antagonistic feelings from people already living in these countries, and could be linked to the increase in hate crimes and racist incidents against migrants. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian economy has experienced a slowdown in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukrainian crisis, as well as increasing difficulties funding social welfare programs.
It is usually thought that one of the main drivers behind this increased racism and discrimination is that northern European societies had long been homogeneous. Since the 1990s, these societies experienced rapid demographic change due to increased migration. Statistics indicate that the number of immigrants relative to the total population of northern European countries has continued to grow between 2012 and 2022. Immigrants made up 20 percent, 16 percent, 13 percent, and 8 percent of the populations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland respectively in 2022. By contrast, they comprised only 15 percent, 13 percent, 10 percent, and 5 percent of these four countries’ populations in 2012.
It is worth noting Sweden has recorded the highest number of immigrants relative to other Scandinavian countries between 2001 and 2021, followed by Norway, Denmark, and Finland, with the smallest number of immigrants coming to Iceland. This has been used to explain the rise in hate crimes, racism, and organized crime in Sweden and Denmark relative to other northern European countries. Problems with integration for migrants are also seen to have contributed to these challenges. The Swedish government claimed that violence by drug trafficking gangs was tied to a lack of integration of the large immigrant community in Sweden.
3. Political ascendance of far-right parties: Populist parties have made major gains in recent years in most European countries including Scandinavia. These parties usually oppose immigration programs and provision of social services for migrants. For example, major shifts have taken place in Copenhagen’s policy towards migrants since the 1970s and 1980s. Some in Denmark now claim that migrants are draining the country’s social services. The Danish People’s Party, which split from the Progress Party in 1995, is a far-right party that has successfully attracted growing numbers of voters by focusing on the threat of immigration. It has focused in particular on the alleged threat that Muslims pose to Danish cultural values and to the country’s security and social welfare system. This party became the second largest in the Danish parliament in 2015.
Sweden, which used to be seen as a tolerant country, has now become one of the most openly racist. The Swedish Democrats (a major right-wing coalition) have become increasingly popular and in the September 2022 election took 20.5 percent of the vote, while its members head four parliamentary committees. This is also true in Denmark where right-wing parties claim that migrants pose a threat to the country’s prosperity, drain public resources, and drive up crime rates.
4. Popular support for the far right: The ascendance of far-right wing parties in northern Europe is largely driven by significant popular support for their ideas. As social indices have declined, some people confuse the question of mass immigration with the deterioration of social services in their countries. They imagine that there is a causative link between the two. The recent Swedish elections therefore came as no surprise, since the main interests of voters (according to public opinion polls during the electoral campaigns) were: health care, law and order, education, immigration, energy, the climate, and the economy. Swedish electoral campaigns have historically been limited to social and economic issues such as employment, education, and health care. However, in 2014, with the rise of the Swedish Democrats, immigration, integration, and crime have become the key issues for voters, despite growing inflation and rising energy prices.
5. Lenient polices towards organized crime: Several factors have facilitated the leap in organized crime in Scandinavian countries. For example, the increased number of deaths from armed violence across Sweden can be partially attributed to lenient penalties for crime. For example, the maximum sentence for teenagers for murder using a firearm is only four years, according to police reports. The increase in armed violence has also been driven by increased flows of smuggled weapons from the western Balkans.
In conclusion, Scandinavian countries remain among the most prosperous and just in the world. However, the challenges discussed above could lead to the collapse of this regional legacy of stability and security. It will therefore be important for these countries to work to maintain high standards of living for their populations through enacting reform in social welfare programs. They must also invest in education and training initiatives and strengthen societal cohesion across sectors of society. This will enable them to better adhere to their international responsibilities and legal obligations towards asylum seekers and migrants, and to avoid further harm to their global reputation as they turn people away. The challenge will be to find politicians and leaders who can develop more courageous political discourses that strengthen tolerance and social cohesion to support these efforts.
There is no doubt that Scandinavian economies could be negatively affected if violent security unrest towards refugees and migrants continues. This is particularly true since migrants now comprise a significant part of northern European societies and contribute to the economic activity of these countries. There could also be a shift in the investment environment as things become less certain, which could lead to the flight of foreign investors from northern Europe. If that were to happen, it would reduce employment rates and diminish sources of funding for social programs.