Sweden hits back at Trump, defends generous immigration policies

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden hit back on Thursday at criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump, defending its generous immigration policies and saying the diversity from thousands of asylum seekers would build a stronger society.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a "strategic initiatives" lunch at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 22, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Sweden’s image as a safe and stable society has come under close scrutiny in recent days after Trump appeared to refer to an attack there that had not happened and then tweeted that generous immigration policies were not working.

“The next time I hope the president, if he’s going to speak about Sweden, is better informed about what the conditions really are here,” Swedish Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson told Reuters in an interview.

Swedish unemployment figures continue to fall and public finances are in sound order, despite record number of immigrants, Johansson said.

This official view is not without its critics, however.

The leader of the nationalist Sweden Democrat party, vying for second place in the polls after seeing their support surge in recent years, wrote on Wednesday that far from overplaying the negative effects of immigration, Trump had understated them.

“Riots and social unrest have become a part of everyday life. Police officers, firefighters and ambulance personnel are regularly attacked,” Jimmie Akesson wrote in a Wall Street Journal article co-signed by Mattias Karlsson, the leader of the party’s parliamentary group. “Gang violence is booming.”

Akesson also said official crime statistics show a sharp rise in sexual attacks against women between 2014 and 2015.

This is true but the wider context is more complex, said Stina Holmberg of the Swedish Crime Prevention Council.

The council’s 2015 Crime Survey confirms that sexual crimes rose in that period, but only after trending downward from 2005 to 2012 before rising, she noted.

The figures do not show soaring crime of rising lawlessness among immigrants, she added.

“We have very, very few cases of any of them (asylum seekers) committing crimes,” Johansson said. “If you think that we have given protection to 143,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 you hardly ever see any of them in the crime statistics.”

Still, unemployment rates for foreign-born citizens are about three times higher than for those born in Sweden. Housing and social problems are rife in some areas that have taken in a large part of the refugees.

Johansson conceded there remained much to be done. “We have to work even harder with integration so that these people can be a part of society,” he said.

“If it is anything that we know as Europeans, with our history, is where you can end up if you’re playing different religious or ethnic groups against each other. It will never end well.”

Additional reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Tom Heneghan