STOCKHOLM – Hundreds of youths set fire to cars and attacked police and rescue services in suburbs of Stockholm Tuesday night in Sweden’s worst disorder in years.
A police station in the Jakobsberg area in the northwest of the city was attacked, two schools were damaged and an arts and crafts center was set ablaze, despite a call for calm from Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
It was the third night of unrest, mainly in suburbs where many immigrants live.
The riots, in one of Europe’s richest capitals, have shocked a country that prides itself on a reputation for social justice, and fuelled a debate about how Sweden is coping with both youth unemployment and an influx of immigrants.
“We’ve had around 30 cars set on fire last night, fires that we connect to youth gangs and criminals,” Kjell Lindgren, spokesman for Stockholm police, said on Wednesday.
He said eight people had been arrested on Tuesday night, but there were no reports of injuries.
The riots appear to have been sparked by the police killing of a 69-year-old man wielding a machete in the suburb of Husby this month, which prompted accusations of police brutality.
“Everyone must pitch in to restore calm – parents, adults,” Reinfeldt told reporters on Tuesday.
After decades of practicing the “Swedish model” of generous welfare benefits, Sweden has been reducing the role of the state since the 1990s, spurring the fastest growth in inequality of any advanced OECD economy.
While average living standards are still among the highest in Europe, governments have failed to substantially reduce long-term youth unemployment and poverty, which have affected immigrant communities worst.
The left-leaning tabloid Aftonbladet said the riots represented a “gigantic failure” of government policies, which had underpinned the rise of ghettos in the suburbs.
“We have failed to give many of the people in the suburbs a hope for the future,” Anna-Margrethe Livh of the opposition Left Party wrote in the daily Svenska Dagbladet.
An anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, has risen to third in polls ahead of a general election due next year, reflecting unease about immigrants among many voters.
Some 15 percent of the population is foreign-born, the highest proportion in the Nordic region. Unemployment among those born outside Sweden stands at 16 percent, compared with 6 percent for native Swedes, according to OECD data.
Among 44 industrialized countries, Sweden ranked fourth in the absolute number of asylum seekers, and second relative to its population, according to U.N. figures.