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Sweden riots expose ugly side of 'Nordic model'

Firefighters extinguish a burning car, following riots in the Stockholm suburb of Kista late May 21, 2013, in this picture provided by Scanpix. 
REUTERS/Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix
Firefighters extinguish a burning car, following riots in the Stockholm suburb of Kista late May 21, 2013, in this picture provided by Scanpix. REUTERS/Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix

STOCKHOLM | Thu May 23, 2013 10:21am EDT

(Reuters) - The scene of Sweden's worst riots in years, Husby is on the surface at least a typically neat suburb of colorful playgrounds, manicured parks and low rise apartment buildings.

Conversations with residents of this immigrant neighborhood soon bring tales of fruitless job hunts, police harassment, racial taunts and a feeling of living at the margins that are at odds with Sweden's reputation for openness and tolerance.

Riots that began in Husby have spread across Stockholm over the last four nights in scenes reminiscent of London in 2011 and Paris in 2005 - outbursts with their roots in segregation, neglect and poverty. The Swedish model of welfare - such as its 480 days of parental leave for each child - hides another side.

Some 15 percent of the population is foreign born, the highest in the Nordic region. The rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party, which has called for a curfew in response to the violence, has polarized Swedes.

Metros and trains out of Stockholm center late at night are full of exhausted-looking Arabic or Spanish speaking immigrants returning home from menial jobs. Even second generation immigrants struggle to find white collar employment.

As one Asian diplomat puts it: "On the one hand Sweden has all these immigrants. On the other hand, where are they? It sometimes seems they are mostly selling hotdogs."

In a further illustration of two very different worlds, the first riot happened as many Swedes celebrated winning the world ice hockey championship. Most immigrants play football - it is a common refrain that ice hockey kits are too expensive.

"The worst vandalism is not what we've experienced in recent days," said community leader Arne Johansson at a protest rally in Husby. "It is the creeping, slow vandalism that this rightist government has exposed us to over the past seven years."

Seven years of center-right Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt - who has labeled the rioters hooligans - have lowered taxes and reduced state benefits. That has helped economic growth outpace most of Europe but Sweden also has the fastest growing inequality of any OECD nation.

Professor of criminology at Stockholm University Jerzy Sarnecki said society has become much more segregated, with a large, poor immigrant population living in areas of major cities where unemployment is dramatically higher than elsewhere.

Polls show a majority of Swedes still welcome immigration. Sweden has a reputation for treating new arrivals well - providing housing, Swedish lessons and allowing asylum seekers to live with relatives.

But the consensus is increasingly frayed.

"Those who, for whatever reason, don't have work have not taken part in the general rise in prosperity," said Ulf Bjereld, political science professor at Gothenburg University.

One recent government study showed up to a third of young people between 16-29 in some of the most deprived areas of Sweden's big cities neither study nor have a job.

Sweden received 43,900 asylum seekers in 2012, a nearly 50 percent jump from 2011 and the second highest on record. Nearly half were from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Many native Swedes worry welfare could become unaffordable if the trend continues.

Asylum seekers, in the short term, add a fiscal burden on the welfare state. OECD data show foreign-born unemployed rates, at 16 percent, compared with 6 percent for native Swedes. Sweden needs high employment levels to pay for its extensive welfare.

ANGRY, YOUNG MEN

The riots appeared organized. Cars were set alight near pedestrian bridges and youths hurled stones when police and emergency services arrived at the scene.

Witnesses said heavy handed policing made the situation worse. Locals in Husby said they were taunted by police who shouted "ape".

"In the beginning it was just a bit of fun," said one young man in his early 20s who did not wish to be named. He was one of a Husby group of 30-40 youths that battled with police.

"But then when I saw the police charging through here with batons, pushing women and children out of the way and swinging their batons, I got so damned angry."

Police, who have called the rioters youth gangs and criminals, said accusations against the police were being investigated.

In interviews with youths in Husby, most were unemployed or interns. Many said they were bounced around intern schemes, seldom being offered full-time work, fostering resentment.

Local youths believe their Husby address is in part to blame for their lack of success. If they are lucky enough to be called to a job interview, many say they come from neighboring Kista - an IT hub symbolizing Sweden's more modern, global image.

Many complained a conviction for a small amount of cannabis might stay on a teenager's record for ten years, ruining job chances.

Stockholm has suffered riots and burning of cars before in recent years, although most fizzle out after one night. Other cities in the Nordic country have also experienced unrest.

Five years ago in Malmo, which has one of Sweden's biggest immigrant populations, local youths threw home-made bombs and attacked emergency services to protest a police eviction.

In Husby, the shooting of a suspected machete wielding man by police earlier in the month was the spark. Local people - around 80 pct of whom have immigrant backgrounds - organized a peaceful protest for which more than 100 people turned up.

But their call for an inquiry into the death of the 69-year-old fell on deaf ears. Plugged in young locals complained about racist insults on Twitter, feeding anger.

"Young people wound each other up and started a small fire," said Nefel, a beautician in her 20s. "I saw how the police came and treated them. I was in shock."

"I was there and saw it happen. I wasn't struck, but I did have a dog come at me. A police dog isn't a nice little puppy."

On the streets, resentment shows no signs of ebbing.

"My daughter comes home from school and says the kids say they can't play with her because she's dark," said Maria Petersson, a 39 year old Ethiopan-born nurse. "I am both Ethiopian and Swedish but I will never be considered Swedish by the Swedes. To them, I am just another immigrant."

(Additional reporting by Johan Ahlander, Mia Shanley, Patrick Lannin and Simon Johnson; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Janet McBride)

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