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What President Trump gets wrong about immigrants and crime in Sweden

President Trump Addresses Annual CPAC Event In National Harbor, Maryland (Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Friday morning, President Donald Trump gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference — in which he took shots at, of all things, the nation of Sweden. The president warned that some dire stuff was happening there as a result of mass Muslim immigration:

Foreign terrorists will not be able to strike America if they cannot get into our country. And, by the way, take a look at what's happening in Europe, folks...Take a look at what happened in Sweden. I love Sweden. Great country, great people, I love Sweden. They understand I'm right. The people there understand I'm right. Take a look at what's happening in Sweden.

This first surfaced in a Trump speech last weekend, a result of the president watching Friday night’s episode of the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight. In the episode, filmmaker Ami Horowitz alleged that there was “an absolute surge in gun violence and rape in Sweden” as a result of mass Muslim immigration. As if to underscore the point, there was a riot on February 20 in a heavily immigrant suburb of Stockholm (it was limited, with only two injuries and no deaths).

This is the exception, though, not the rule. A cursory look at the data shows there is no immigrant-driven crime or terrorism wave in Sweden. There has been no “absolute surge” in rape. And Horowitz, the ultimate source of all this, is facing serious allegations of selectively editing footage of Swedish police officers to make it seem like they’re blaming crime on immigrants when they actually aren’t.

The American president is using the world’s largest megaphone to amplify a false panic about brown-skinned immigrants raping white women.

1) There is no immigrant crime wave in Sweden

In the past decade, there’s been a spike in immigration to Sweden. In 1990, 9.2 percent of Sweden’s population was foreign-born. That figure was 11.3 percent in 2000, and 15.4 percent in 2012.

Immigrant rates have grown even further in recent years, owing in large part to the global refugee crisis. In 2014, Sweden admitted more asylum seekers, per capita, than any other country on Earth. Many Swedish immigrants today hail from war-torn Muslim-majority countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Some people assumed this would produce a major uptick in the rates of violent crime in Sweden. Historically, immigrants to Sweden do commit crimes at higher rates than the native-born, though children of immigrants commit crimes at basically the same rate as children of native-born Swedes (controlling for income).

However, there’s no evidence of a massive crime wave. Here is an official Swedish government tally of the rates of six different types of crime directed at persons — fraud, assault, threats, harassment, sexual violence, and mugging. (Homicide is excluded because the rate is tiny; in 2014, there were 87 murders in the entire country of roughly 10 million.)

(Swedish Crime Survey)

As you can see, there is no significant uptick in any of the crime categories alongside the rise in immigration. The most recent official report available in English, covering 2015, is not incorporated into that chart — but it concludes that the rates of these crimes are at “approximately the same level as in 2005.” That’s a slight increase over the 2014 rate, but hardly evidence of a crime wave — let alone one committed by migrants or refugees.

Sweden does not publish official data on the race or ethnic identity of criminals, which is actually common among European countries. Anti-immigration publications like Breitbart have used this fact to accuse Swedish authorities of covering up the truth about immigrant crime.

It’s true that this lack of public data makes it hard to assess the precise impact of immigration on crime rates. It’s possible there’s a small one that doesn’t show up in the aggregate data.

But we can say, without a doubt, that the large numbers of immigrants entering Sweden do not appear to be affecting the overall crime rate in a major way, despite the large number of them entering the country. There is no Swedish crime wave.

2) There is no rape epidemic in Sweden

If you spend any time in the conservative media, particularly alt-right or anti-Islam sites, there’s a more specific narrative about Sweden than the one about crime in general. It’s about rape — specifically, that Muslim immigrants are raping Swedish women in unprecedented numbers.

Breitbart has published an enormous number of pieces in recent years on the alleged immigrant rape crisis in Sweden, focusing on cities like Malmö with large Muslim immigrant populations. Representative headlines include “Police warn of child rape epidemic in migrant-occupied Malmö” and “Migrants jailed after woman abducted at gun point, gang-raped in hookah bar basement.”

So to be fair to Trump, we need to look at rape rates specifically — to see if there’s any evidence that rape, specifically, has gone up as a result of immigration. So what do the official statistics say?

First, the rape rate in Sweden is baseline higher than in other European countries. This is mostly because of a change in Swedish law in 2005 that expanded the definition of rape (including having sex with someone while they’re sleeping) and started counting each instance of sexual violence as a separate attack. Klara Selin, a sociologist at Sweden’s National Council for Crime Prevention, explained what this means in a 2012 interview with the BBC:

So, for instance, when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record — one victim, one type of crime, one record.

This expanded definition, together with a growing feminist movement in the country aimed at holding perpetrators accountable, has led to an increase in reported rape after the law’s passage. But the underlying rate of attacks likely didn’t actually change much.

“The major explanation is partly that people go to the police more often, but also the fact that in 2005 there has been reform in the sex crime legislation, which made the legal definition of rape much wider than before,” Selin told the BBC.

So if there had been a huge surge in sexual assault, this would show up in the overall stats given the huge number of immigrants coming into the country and the relatively large number of Swedish women who report being abused. But that has not happened.

“What we’re hearing is a very, very extreme exaggeration based on a few isolated events, and the claim that it’s related to immigration is more or less not true at all,” Jerzy Sarnecki, a criminologist at Stockholm University, told the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders.

The publicly available data backs up Sarnecki. In 2014, there were 6,700 reported rapes. That figure declined to 5,920 in 2015 and then went back up to 6,560 in 2016 (according to preliminary Swedish government data).

So there’s been mass immigration in the past three years from Muslim-majority countries — but the number of reported rapes has remained steady and even declined slightly in 2015.

3) The way Trump got his information is very questionable

Accusations of a crime wave by dark-skinned migrants are, historically, deeply questionable. White people panicking about migrant criminality, particularly stemming from rape or drugs, is a common way that racial panic about immigrant manifests.

So when we’re dealing with accusations of rampant criminality by nonwhite immigrants, the burden of proof should be on the people making these accusations. Do they have good evidence that these immigrants are causing a massive crime wave?

The answer, judging by official statistics, is clearly no. This is supercharged in the case of Trump’s accusations. His source, Tucker Carlson’s guest Ami Horowitz, is in deep hot water over journalistic ethics.

Carlson’s segment begins with a clip from Horowitz’s most recent film, Stockholm Syndrome. In the clip, two Swedish police officers, Anders Göranzon and Jacob Ekström, sound what appear to be warnings about high levels of criminality by immigrants. But in fact, as the officers told the Swedish publication Dagens Nyheter, they were talking about crime in general, without any specific reference to crime by immigrants.

“We answered a different question. We don’t stand behind what he says. He is a madman,” Göranzon said on their behalf. “He has edited the answers. We were answering completely different questions in the interview.”

Horowitz denies this, telling the Guardian that “the officers are probably under a lot of pressure because of what they said.” He could be right; it’s hard to know who’s telling the truth here unless Horowitz releases the unedited footage.

But this controversy hammers home the bizarreness of Trump’s comments. The president of the United States said something clearly inaccurate, which turned out to be based on a Fox News segment filled with faulty references to statistics and a dubiously edited documentary clip.

This is one way the president of the United States gets his information today.

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