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Playgrounds & Parallel Societies: My Journey to Sweden’s Most Notorious ‘No-Go’ Zone in Malmö by Michael O’Shea

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Playgrounds & Parallel Societies:
My Journey to Sweden’s Most Notorious ‘No-Go’ Zone in Malmö

Malmö, located near Sweden’s southern extremity, is the country’s third-largest city. Along with most of modern-day Skåne, the southernmost region of Sweden, it was part of the Danish kingdom for centuries. Long an industrial and shipping city, it underwent a major transformation after the 2000 opening of the Öresund Bridge, which physically connected Sweden and Denmark, and—more importantly—Upper Scandinavia with the rest of the continent. It also features one of the mildest climates in often-frigid Sweden. Due to these economic and geographic features, Malmö has been a hub of mass immigration to Sweden for decades. A full half of the city’s population is now ethnically non-Swedish.

As a result of these same factors, Sweden—and particularly Malmö—has received a share of media attention that belies its relatively modest size. Former U.S. President Donald Trump even commented on the country’s current demographic difficulties at a rally. Irrespective of the former president’s knowledge of events in the country, he tapped into a topic that is widely known but only sometimes acknowledged—something is rotten in the state of Sweden.

Once one of the safest countries in Europe, Sweden reported a gun homicide rate of four per million in 2020, far higher than the European average of 1.6 per million. Gun-related deaths nearly tripled from 2012 to 2020. The country’s total homicide rate jumped to 12 per million, compared to a European average of under eight per million. No other European country has experienced comparable increases in these metrics during the 21st century. In 2019, almost 260 crimes in Sweden included explosives, a 60% increase from the previous year. “It’s not normal to see these kinds of explosions in a country without war,” said Linda Staaf, of the intelligence unit of the Swedish National Police. Official sources report that these crimes are heavily concentrated in “socially disadvantaged areas,” the preferred government term for immigrant neighborhoods. 

Long associated with women’s advancement, Sweden has also witnessed a dramatic increase in reported rapes, from 421 in 1975 to 6,620 in 2014 (an increase of over 1400%). By 2015, Sweden had the second-highest number of rapes per capita in the world, behind only Lesotho. At a 2014 music festival in Stockholm, dozens of girls, some as young as 14, suffered molestation and rape at the hands of mostly-Afghan immigrants. Similar rapes with migrant culprits occurred at music festivals in Stockholm, Malmö, and other cities throughout 2015. In that same year, a group of Somali men gang-raped a Swedish girl on a ferry leaving Stockholm; the press misrepresented the story by referring to the culprits as “Swedish men.” From 2013-2018, 58% of men convicted of rape or attempted rape in Sweden were foreign-born (a statistic that doesn’t include children or grandchildren of recent immigrants). According to an Expressen study in 2018, 40 of the 43 men convicted of gang rape in Sweden over the prior two years were foreign-born or had two parents born outside of Sweden. Clearly the country’s reputation as a place where women can thrive is sadly outdated.

Wanting to see for myself what is happening in once-peaceful Sweden, I met up with a Hungarian colleague who is studying in the country, with the hope of separating the truths from the falsehoods in Malmö, that increasingly notorious southern corner of Scandinavia’s largest country.

Central Malmö is beautiful. Tourists should include it in their Scandinavia itineraries, at the very least as a day trip from Copenhagen. The mix of colorful coastal buildings and modern-looking red brick ones produces an elegant effect. This part of the city reflects the country’s neutral status during the world wars and economic success over the last century. One would be hard-pressed to find something that looks questionable, even near the city’s main railway station. 

Yet, Central Malmö isn’t the place to see the societal changes that have occurred in Sweden. Naturally, we wanted to go to the infamous Rosengård district, a place that figures prominently in most discussions on mass-immigration in Sweden. Before the migrant crisis of 2015 began in earnest, the district school reported not a single student had used Swedish as a first language in 14 years. For at least a decade, fire and ambulatory services have refused to go there without police escorts, as attacks against emergency workers are common.

On our first evening in town, we questioned locals—mostly hotel employees, waiters, and pub owners—on whether parts of the city, especially Rosengård, were dangerous. The answer was a unanimous “No,” usually with a touch of scorn or pity that we would ask such a question. Follow-up questions followed a similar pattern: Of course women can safely walk there alone at night. Sure, there might be some gun violence among gangs, but you will never see those people. Maybe there are some limited problems, but it’s nothing you won’t find in London or Paris. Oh, and the playgrounds! A shocking number of Malmö residents mentioned how Rosengård has such wonderful playgrounds. 

It was almost as if the ethnic Swedish population of the city had learned a set of talking points from the same teacher who quizzed them every day. We couldn’t avoid the feeling that we were visiting one big, elaborate Potemkin village. 

The next morning, we made our first of three trips to Rosengård. The Sweden Democrats we planned to meet had canceled. A national election is approaching in September, which likely offered at least a partial explanation. Though, as my colleague explained, their party engages in a constant quest for legitimacy in a political system that marginalizes it by default. Any interaction with a Hungarian delegation could represent too much risk and too little reward. We didn’t meet a Sweden Democrat during our entire visit.

Left to our own devices for our first visit, we set out to Rosengård via taxi. Our driver was a friendly Tunisian man. We enjoyed our conversation with him—and the feeling seemed to be mutual. He explained that he had been irreligious in Tunisia but learned about Islam and became devout after his arrival in Sweden. Upon our arrival, he removed an intricate Swedish-language Koran from the trunk and displayed it to us. He read us his favorite passage. Perhaps mistaking our curiosity for a desire to convert, he advised us to go to Egypt to learn the correct form of Islam. We parted and began our Rosengård journey on foot. 

Our first impressions matched our expectations. Everyone we encountered on the street was of Middle Eastern or African origin. Most were young, and many were school-aged children, despite it being a Tuesday. Virtually all signs (excluding street signs) were in Arabic and Swedish, or just Arabic. One Arabic-only sign depicting cartoon figures from various parts of the Muslim world advertised the Young Left party’s promise of welfare for all (I thought such a thing existed already, but both the language and the host country were foreign to me). Another sign proclaiming love for Jesus was ripped to shreds. Yet, we could have found all of this with a simple internet search. Needing to see more, we made our way to Rosengård Centrum, name of both a section of the district and its eponymous mall. 

It was Eid during our visit. The Islamic Union of Malmö had posted signs commemorating the holiday, as well as Islamic cultural symbols, at the mall entrance. Signs throughout the mall celebrated Ramadan and Eid. The Arabic and Swedish languages jockeyed for prevalence, and most shops sold Islamic food, clothing, or goods. Interestingly, a bookstore exhibited a ceiling lined with rainbow flags and a window-facing display case featuring LGBT-themed children’s books. The whole ensemble seemed a delightful depiction of the contradictions of modern Sweden. We stopped for a much-needed lunch at a food court that turned out to be a gathering point for the local Somali population. Neither English nor my colleague’s excellent Swedish proved sufficient to get a meal. After a long while, we decided to find food elsewhere. We seemingly were the only non-Somali people in the food court. 

After enjoying some kebab pizza, we prioritized various cultural centers in the area. We had a lively conversation with some union strikers—who reiterated the playground narrative—before entering a beautiful Macedonian Orthodox church. Small but extremely ornate, it would not have been out of place in Belgrade, Kiev, or (I imagine) Skopje. My colleague asked about relations with the local Muslim community, particularly since an enormous mosque stood in its backyard. The front-desk employee was visibly afraid to answer such a question. He said there had been problems in the past but that nothing serious had happened recently. Our visit to the exterior of the mosque didn’t yield any human interaction, and we feared our lack of Islamic religious knowledge would cause offense if we tried to enter. We noted the enormous parking lot, which far more closely resembled that of an American mall than the usual European sort. 

Next, we made our way through an industrial wasteland characterized by dilapidated, graffiti-covered walls, barbed-wire fences, tall, menacing, rusted street lights, and distribution centers for various Middle Eastern food products. The area reminded me of places I had seen in American Rust Belt locales like Toledo, Dearborn, and Erie. It was bright and open on a sunny May Tuesday, but a night visit clearly would have been reckless. 

We emerged in an area that was livelier but perhaps more detached from Europe than any place we had previously seen. Arabic was not just the predominant language, but the only language. A Middle Eastern food market, Iraqi café, auto repair shop (named, interestingly, Osama), and mosque characterized the area. 

After a short walk, we arrived at a small shopping center that appeared to be some sort of focal point of the neighborhood. It included a mix of shops selling Middle Eastern goods and—surprisingly—German electronic and kitchen products (clearly the reputation for German quality knows no cultural boundaries). Cold stares greeted us everywhere we went. Virtually everyone we encountered was a man. While we were spending time in one store, a young Arab man asked with a scowl what we wanted. He wasn’t an employee—just, apparently, a concerned citizen. We were grateful when our taxi arrived. Later we learned we had been in a neighborhood called Bennets Väg, a sort of no-go zone within the no-go zone. Later, a Swedish colleague who joined us informed us that he would not be willing to take us there. An internet image search of this neighborhood generally reveals crime scenes, police, and fires.

In the afternoon, we met Andreas, leader of the youth wing of the local Christian Democrats. He didn’t mind participating in our visit, and he offered a wealth of knowledge about both Malmö and Rosengård. We headed back to the latter, this time with our well-informed guide. 

Andreas developed a particular interest in both politics and immigration policy after an unfortunate event earlier in his life. As young students with meager funds, he and his brother lived in low-cost apartments in Rosengård. One evening they were robbed at gunpoint. The experience affected them differently. Andreas became acutely aware of the irreversible demographic changes that have occurred in Sweden and the disastrous effects they have had; his brother retreated to the far more common (and safer) stance among Swedes—these newcomers deserve sympathy, and the Swedes need to do more to help. 

We traveled by bus this time. The distance from the center isn’t realistically navigable on foot, and this helps maintain the troubling status quo. Swedes and well-to-do people of all nationalities living closer to the center need not ever visit this district. It might as well be across the Öresund in Denmark. So much the better to sustain the ‘playground narrative.’ On the other hand, the distance grants Rosengård residents space to avoid Swedish cultural norms, such as women’s equality and western attire, as well as at least some of the prying eyes of the Swedish government. This place is, by any definition, a parallel society. 

Early in this visit we saw charred debris from some sort of local disturbance strewn along the sidewalk and side of the road. The road was stained. Andreas wasn’t surprised. Such debris is a common sight in Rosengård. 

Finally, we saw a playground. This playground, however, wasn’t the sort of playground most westerners would imagine. Instead, it was a series of mostly triangular-shaped metal bars that somehow reminded me of the gymnastics equipment one might see in footage of the Olympics from the 1920s and ’30s. We didn’t actively search for playgrounds during our visit, but if this one was any indication, the Swedes might have a particular talent for marketing or real estate sales. 

Back in the center, we regrouped over some darts and discussed what we had seen so far. Andreas explained that some Swedes were slowly changing their opinions on mass immigration, but most still had no interest in challenging the longtime status quo. Aspects of daily life in the country would have to become far more startling for the majority of Swedes to pay any attention.

My Hungarian colleague and I knew we had one more task before we could consider our journey complete—we had to go back to Rosengård at night. Andreas was unwilling to join us. We set out to put the Swedes’ narrative of safety and vibrancy to the ultimate test. 

We brought no phones for this expedition. I shoved a credit card deep into my shoe and carried a few kroner bills in my pocket. Dressed in an Adidas tracksuit and equipped with the phrase, “I am from Bosnia” in Swedish, I naïvely hoped I could pass for someone uninteresting, if not potentially local. My colleague wore a nondescript hoodie and, of course, didn’t need to fake his Swedish.

Two things are immediately striking about Rosengård at night. One is the eerie silence, and the other is the only sound that punctuates that silence—the cawing of seagulls. Most areas where we walked were dimly lit, which magnified the silence. Eventually we walked down a road with a car parked at the end. Upon closer inspection, we realized it was a police car. In front of the car was a line of police tape. We asked the officer what lay beyond the tape, and he responded with an angry, profanity-laced warning rather uncharacteristic of a Swede. He told us the police would not be able to protect us beyond that point and said we should get the hell out of the area.

Soon afterwards, while crossing a relatively wooded residential area of government-subsidized, high-rise 1960s monstrosities, toward a major thoroughfare, the Inre Ringvägen, we had our first nighttime encounter with the locals and the most worrying moment of our trip. Two young men (perhaps even teenagers) of Arab appearance approached us and asked for a cigarette light. Nothing about their tone suggested they were actually interested in the light. We noticed a third hiding in the bushes nearby. We politely said we didn’t have the light and continued on our way. Thankfully, that was our only interaction. My colleague is tall, and my stockier American build contrasted with theirs—maybe they didn’t like their odds; maybe they didn’t think we were worth the trouble; or maybe they were scouts preceding more dangerous colleagues. 

Whatever the case, we were spooked and decided we had seen enough of Rosengård. We hastened to a nearby McDonald’s. As we made our way toward relative safety, we noticed cars maneuvering nearby, some with doors opening and slamming shut. We noticed a number of men using their phones as makeshift lights in our periphery. By this point we were determined to get out of there, as the officer had demanded, as quickly as possible.

We finally reached the edge of the wooded residential area and climbed a set of stairs up an embankment to Thomsons väg and its promised land that was a McDonald’s in the no-go zone. We entered the building to catch our breath and wait for the next bus back to the city center. All of the employees were women, and they were wearing all-black gowns (perhaps khimars or chadors—I don’t claim to be knowledgeable), in contrast to the more casual hijabs we had frequently encountered to that point. Without context, one might easily see photographs from inside the restaurant and believe they were from Cairo or Baghdad. The women were far friendlier than any of the men we had encountered that night, and they didn’t seem to acknowledge outwardly our status as outsiders. Soon we boarded our bus for the safety of Central Malmö. 

In short, during our visit to Malmö, my colleague and I confirmed much of what we had previously envisioned. Rosengård is a parallel society, seemingly cut off from the rest of Sweden. It is most certainly an uncomfortable place by day and an unsafe one by night. I would not want any of my female family members or friends to go there, for any reason. I still feel anxiety over the thought that I might have caused my wife to rush to a hospital in Sweden—or worse. If my colleague and I can feel any certain sense of accomplishment from our expeditions, it is that we might have performed a small, humble service for the elevation of truth. It is that very truth that so many Swedes persistently deny, and it is that denial that has created a Sweden so regretfully damaged and unrecognizable to its preceding generations. May Europe notice and respond accordingly, when and where it is not too late.