Last Updated Apr 14, 2019 9:05 PM EDT
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For decades, Sweden opened its door to refugees, but now far-right populists are gaining power and pushing back, challenging the nation's reputation for tolerance and generosity.
The number of people displaced worldwide by conflict has reached a record high, according United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In recent years, as far-right, anti-immigrant groups seized headlines and challenged the political status quo across Europe, Sweden set itself apart, rolling out the welcome mat for refugees.
"My Europe takes in people fleeing from war, my Europe does not build walls," Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced to a crowd in Stockholm in 2015. Sweden had taken refugees for decades, but in 2015 it accepted more refugees per capita than any other country. Nearly 163,000 people, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, applied for asylum in Sweden that year.
To help newcomers assimilate, Sweden offers publicly funded integration programs. Migrants get Swedish language lessons and learn about the culture. In Ronneby, a small industrial town in the south of Sweden, there's even a 10-week physical fitness program to help encourage healthy habits and accustom new arrivals to the Swedish devotion to fitness.
"We need a strong welfare state, a network for everyone, so they can feel included," said Henrik Lövgren, who launched the Ronneby program.
But not everyone supports these efforts, and political parties with platforms calling for stricter immigration policies are on the rise. Support for the Sweden Democrats, a far-right political party with neo-Nazi roots, increased from 5.7 percent of the vote in 2010 to 17.5 percent in the September 2018 elections. Fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment, the party is promoting slogans like "Keep Sweden Swedish."
Under party leader Jimmie Åkesson since 2005, the Sweden Democratsand neo-Nazis views, while like-minded gained traction across Europe.
Its views are amplified by alternative news sites like Nyheter Idag ("News Today"), which regularly features stories linking newly arrived immigrants to crime.
"If the guy who did a crime is an immigrant, we write it," said editor-in-chief Chang Frick, who also has links to the Sweden Democrats.
According to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, overall reported crimes increased by 2 percent in 2018, with much of the uptick due to fraud cases. The number of reported rapes rose by 8 percent, while sexual abuse declined 3 percent. Though statistics don't point to a clear trend, many share a perception that crime is concentrated in ethnic enclaves where many recent immigrants have settled.
Chang argues that mainstream news sites refuse to make a connection between crime and immigration. "Mainstream media is covering a lot of the immigrant issues, but with a view on immigrants (like) we have to take care of them, like they're small kids, they're always the victim," he said. "A kid can't be the bad guy."
In some of Sweden's smaller towns that have taken in significant numbers of refugees, the message of the alternative media and political right wing is resonating. Ronneby, with a population of just 13,000, has taken in 2,400 refugees. Some locals say the new immigrants make them feel uneasy.
"This is not the same Ronneby, this is not the same country as it was once before," says Nicolas Westrup, leader of the Sweden Democrats' Ronneby chapter. "I feel that we are closely or slowly changing the population of Ronneby."
Westrup, who was born in Majorca, Spain, and moved to Sweden as a teenager, insists he doesn't mind taking in immigrants as long as their culture mirrors Swedish culture.
"Many years ago we had people coming in from Yugoslavia and they had the same culture as we have in Scandinavia, or Europe. But the people from Africa, they don't have the same culture," he said, adding, "If you want a job here, take off your hijab."
But others in Ronneby see the talk of blaming immigrants for rising crime as political maneuvering, and view Westrup himself with suspicion. Westrup acknowledges his father was a Nazi — but says that has nothing to do with him or his views on what's good for Ronneby.
Critics accuse those on the far right of stoking fear to advance their political objectives.
Malin Norfall of the Social Democrats, the nation's oldest and largest political party, whose platform opposes the stances of the Sweden Democrats, had harsh words for Westrup.
"You have told them to be afraid. You have stand out on the square and telling them that they should be afraid and what they should be afraid of," Norfall said. "As a politician, you have a responsibility to … go on facts. But you're not."
Other countries have seen more extreme nationalist and nativist uprisings than Sweden, and a harsher anti-immigrant backlash. But when a growing minority in such a welcoming and tolerant society taps into an undercurrent of resentment and fear, it can signal a tectonic shift with lasting and unpredictable consequences.
In Frick's view, Sweden is a nation of extremes that's ripe for a sharp rightward turn. "If it was very politically correct here, it will go to the other extreme," he said. "Sweden still is always like extremes. Now everyone will become super nationalistic."