Stockholm’s integration problem

Stockholm streets
Even your favourite cities have their blind spots (Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash)

I love Stockholm. I’ve lived there, worked there and been charmed since my first visit by a lifestyle that seemed to me the world’s best-kept secret. Why, oh why, did no one ever tell me about this place?

We always see the weaknesses in the things we love. Places we’ve never been can be mocked with cliché, but a place known is revealed, and it came as no surprise when I read Monocle’s Annual Quality of Life survey this month — in which Stockholm always appears — and it sounded a note of caution.

Among the 25 cities selected for the best quality of life on the planet, Stockholm came in a respectable 11th, with the caveat that:

“segregation remains a serious issue that no one seems to have a solution for”.

I lived there way back in 2001, in that distant pre-9/11 world, yet in my short time among Swedes in the city, I was struck by the integration problem. I was also confused. How could a country world-renowned for its liberalism and equality have such difficulties with the migrants in its midst?

I lived among affluent, liberal, young Swedes. Their instincts were impeccable. They were warm, open-minded and thoroughly right-on. But they had a blind spot: Islam. They were tolerant of anything but that, by the simple logic that it appeared to them to be intolerant and oppressive.

By an ironic twist of fate, the vast majority of migrants to Sweden at the time were from Muslim countries in the Middle East and South Asia. There is a suburb in Stockholm called Rinkeby and its name was a byword for the undesirable, the unwanted and the best avoided.

It revealed a wider issue that perhaps permeates the relatively small and cohesive populations of Scandinavia generally — that if you weren’t ‘white’ or ‘native’ or ‘Swedish’ Swedish (whatever you want to call it), you could never be truly Swedish.

This was true for me, of course, as an Englishman, yet I was aware that I was already more integrated (as a white European) than many non-white Swedes who had lived there much longer than me. It is sad to see that it is still being flagged as a serious issue in 2018.

Disclaimer: Living in Brexit Britain, as I now do, this perspective is not offered from the comfort of superiority. I know Britain even better than I know Sweden, and as a result, know its weaknesses even more deeply.