Are Migrants Really Raping Swedish Women?

The allegations are horrifying, but Sweden’s number of rapes has remained stable since the refugee influx, and police have had to retract accusations.

Izabelle Nordfjell/AP

PARIS—The reports circulating in the Swedish and international press are disturbing. On the weekend of July 2, gangs of "foreign youth" are reported to have sexually assaulted dozens of women and girls at two music festivals in Sweden. The incidents reportedly occurred at the Bråvalla Festival in Norrköping, and at Karlstad's free annual Putte i Parken (Party in the Park), where the groups of men reportedly raped five teens and young women and groped some 40 others, the youngest victim just 12 years old.

"'It was creepy," one 17-year-old victim told the Daily Mail. "Someone stood around me and groped me and I had no idea who it was. It was sick."

"They were probably immigrants," she added. "I hate to say it. But it is the truth."

These incidents came in the aftermath of a major scandal about "immigrant" groping and sex assaults in Germany at the new year, and earlier incidents in Sweden as well. Indeed, the extent of the sex assaults in Germany, according to a police document leaked to the German press, may be even more stunning than originally thought, with as many as 2,000 young men involved in the aggression. But in both countries the balance between blinding political correctness and outright race-baiting has proved a difficult line for authorities to walk.

Shortly after the Putte i Parken assaults, police also attributed the crimes to "foreign youths" in a statement posted on the Värmland regional police website. “There is no doubt,” the statement read, “about who takes these liberties."

The perpetrators are then named as "a gang of seven to eight boys belonging to the group of unaccompanied children," referring to the young male refugees who have arrived in the country without a parent or guardian.

However, the statement was quickly removed from the site after police admitted that of the seven men arrested, only two were young men who resided in the type of home for troubled youth that often houses young refugees without parents.

"The wording was unfortunate and we will take that to heart," the head of Värmland police, Lars Wirén, told teborgs-posten. "We should not generalize and point at a group like this. We should handle it on a case-to-case basis."

The incident arrives on the heels of another sexual assault scandal back in January, when police came under fire for withholding information regarding nearly four-dozen complaints in 2014 and 2015 during a popular Stockholm music festival. In that instance, officials were accused of failing to publicly release crucial details surrounding the assaults, namely that the majority of those behind the attacks were believed to be young Afghan refugees. However, Reuters reported that the police documents the news agency reviewed did not, in fact, mention the perpetrators' ethnicity.

The Swedish prosecutor's office ultimately decided not to open an investigation into the alleged cover-up, but the story created a firestorm in the media, and contributed to a debate as to whether identifying details about those accused of crimes should be made public in Sweden, where an alleged criminal's ethnic background is not typically released during police investigations or reported by the press.

Responding to the January incident in an editorial published by the Swedish magazine Mänsklig Säkerhet, Martina Lindberg, a former lecturer on women, peace, and security matters at Stockholm's Swedish Defense University, notes a skewed gender imbalance among asylum seekers in Sweden, with an estimated two-thirds of refugees being male. However, she argues that while the Swedish government should acknowledge this imbalance and adapt appropriate integration measures, it should not allow individual sex crimes to form what she calls "the basis for a simplified approach to the asylum-seeking man."

"Violence against women in the public sphere has been more or less constant in recent years," she wrote. "It seems as if the debate today depends more on who is assumed to be the perpetrator."

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Indeed, according to official statistics on file with The Swedish Crime Survey, the sexual violence rate in Sweden has remained about the same between 2005 and 2014. In fact, it actually decreased by .3 percent between 2013 and 2014. That said, the country has the highest rate of rape in Europe, a statistic that has been partially attributed to both Swedish law, wherein rape is given a wider definition than in other countries, as well as a higher tendency among women to report the crimes to the police.

"It is much more complicated than the way the media are normally presenting it," Jerzy Sarnecki, a professor of criminology at Stockholm University, told The Daily Beast. "According to studies which I have done on general crime, most of the differences in recorded crimes between immigrants and Swedes are explained by socioeconomic factors. It doesn't mean of course, that one, a few, or several other incidents of that kind [sexual assaults perpetuated by immigrants] didn't happen. "

The xenophobic fear of the "other" is not limited to Sweden, certainly. In the United States, presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump made headlines around the world after describing Mexican immigrants as "rapists."

"One of the ghosts of all kinds of racial prejudices is allegations of sexual crimes against women," Sarnecki said, noting that in the 19th and 20th centuries many African-American men were executed based on (often unproven) allegations of raping white women. "It's an old, very well-used argument against immigrants."

"Young men coming from the Middle East confronting the much more open way of behavior of Swedish women may have, from time to time, committed acts which are criminal," he added. "But then the whole discussion is extremely exaggerated because of the political dimension of it."

In recent years, the Nordic nation of less than 10 million people has taken in thousands of asylum seekers, many fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria. More than 163,000 applications for asylum were received in 2015 alone – double the amount submitted during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. With the influx of refugees, concerns have mounted regarding whether the country possesses the social resources to absorb so many newcomers.

"It has been a very difficult autumn where our ability to handle the task has been tested to the absolute limit," the Swedish Migration Agency's Director-General Anders Danielsson said in a statement on the agency's website earlier this year.

As Sweden has grappled with ways to successfully integrate the thousands of new immigrants, the country has seen a surge in support for the far-right Sweden Democrats party, which has called on leaders to keep refugees out.

"Border controls are a step in the right direction but we want to see border closures,” the party’s spokesman for migration and citizenship, Markus Wiechel, told The Guardian back in November shortly after the terror attacks in Paris.

As anti-immigrant sentiment has spread in the country, crimes targeting refugees have likewise increased. Dozens of asylum centers have been torched in arson attacks in recent months, and in late January around 100 masked demonstrators marched into downtown Stockholm, where they distributed leaflets that read: "It’s enough now" and threatening to punish the "north African street children who are roaming around."

The recent rise in support for the onetime fringe party and its hostile stance on immigration is a factor in why the police and the press were quick to jump to conclusions following the music festival attacks, Michael Williams, a founding member and vice-chairman of FARR, a non-profit network of refugee support groups told The Daily Beast.

"I think a number of people have been influenced by the kind of lunge in Sweden over the last three or four years to an anti-immigrant party," Williams said, referring to the Sweden Democrats. "And people's prejudices can sometimes affect their professional judgment."

The news of the festival assaults has provoked outrage in Sweden, and the British rock group Mumford and Sons, who performed at Bråvalla, took to Facebook to say that they planned to boycott the event.

"We won't play at this festival again until we've had assurances from the police and organizers that they're doing something to combat what appears to be a disgustingly high rate of reported sexual violence," the group wrote.

In the meantime, Swedish Prime Minister Prime Stefan Lofven announced on Tuesday that the government will review the country's current sex assault laws and look into tightening them.

Sarnecki said that sexual assault is often a crime of opportunity, and both he and Williams cite music festivals themselves, with their vast, tightly packed crowds and free-flowing booze, as places where sexual predators can operate with a lower risk of getting caught. Indeed, some of the victims in this instance were unable to identify their attackers, and, in such an environment, it’s not difficult for an assailant to grope his victim and then quickly melt away into the throngs of revelers.

"There is a complex discussion emerging from this incorrect assignation [to refugees] about the frequency of sexual assaults in public places," Williams said. "I've heard middle-aged women saying that when they were in their teens this kind of behavior did take place, but at that time it wasn't openly mentioned."

Susanna Udvardi, the director of the Southeast Skåne Women’s Shelter, who heads up a volunteer group that assists refugees with integration in Sweden, told The Daily Beast that men need to be educated to respect women from a young age, regardless of cultural background. Only then will incidences of sexual assault in the country, and elsewhere, diminish.

She also pointed out that the "refugee-as-rapist" emphasis in certain press outlets also obscures the larger issue of sexual violence against women, whereby the victims themselves are forgotten and the pervasive global issue of sexual assault is minimized.

"The focus in the media is wrong," Udvardi said. "The focus is not on the victim."

She added: "There are idiots who rape women in every culture, not just refugees."

There are. And if incidents of sexual violence are approached with the taint of pre-conceived prejudices rather than objective facts, the damage can be long lasting, not least of all to victims, who won't see justice if police nab the wrong guys. As for the ethnic communities of those accused, suspicions and fear of "the other" can linger even after the truth has come out.

"When the policemen in Karlstad went out and said that these were unaccompanied minors, it was accepted as a proven fact for a number of days," Williams said. "And it's always the first headlines that people remember. They don't remember the corrected version."