Nils Karlsson describes himself on social media as the original vagabond and an ‘unwashed phenomenon’. Though he is larger than life and somewhat crumpled looking, in truth he’s a fascinating character: an ethics lecturer, a Green Party politician, and the Deputy Mayor of Malmö.
Though we’d missed each other via message and went on to have some inexplicable telephone issues while I sat drinking coffee in the fierce spring sun on Stortorget square, he made time in an incredibly frantic schedule of public engagements to meet with me in his office at the Stadhuset (City Hall), a municipal building at Augustpalms Plats on the busy Föreningsgatan.
Karlsson is a trained philosopher and before he became a full-time politician lectured at the University of Malmö on ethics and epistemology – the theory of knowledge and the distinction between justified belief and opinion. “It’s interesting,” he says, “because suddenly I leave the university and ‘what is truth’ is suddenly international politics on account of Trump.
“I leave the university and ‘what is truth’ is suddenly international politics on account of Trump”
On hiatus from teaching others, Karlsson is now a deputy mayor of Sweden’s large port city, responsible for democracy, gender equality and human rights. “Interestingly enough,” he adds, “also IT solutions for the city. Which really is a strange thing as it’s not part of the others but nobody wanted that so I took it. One of the things I’ve been working is getting the citizens of Malmö access to the internet by opening up the closed wifi across the city.” He sees access to the internet for all citizens as an essential part of effective democracy. “By amplifying the signals and letting it leak out you can get quite much wifi…I think it’s a nice thing to do.”
Karlsson was elected to the role in 2014 having been a part-time politician since 2006. As a member of the Green Party which rules in the city in coalition with the Social Democrats, he reflects on the previous partnership with the far-left, highlighting they still call themselves Marxist. “I know the Labour Party in England does that too, but just on the 1st of May,” he quips before moving on to his true passion, Malmö itself.
“There are actually more people working in Malmö now than when we were at the height of the industrial era”
“If I was going to try and sell Malmö to you, I would say it was a beautiful city, aesthetically. Over the past two hundred years, we have been very conscious in saving old architecture and interspacing it with new, so you can see how the city has changed through the ages just by looking, which I think is a nice feature.” It’s not hard to agree with him, the city being awash with a blend of styles everywhere you look. “What’s also nice is the transition from an industry town to a more creative industry or knowledge-based town, production wise. There are actually more people working in Malmö now than when we were at the height of the industrial era in the 60s, 70s, and early 1980s.” He doesn’t believe people miss the leading role of industry over creativity and recommends the Western districts to those wishing to move here.
It’s apparent that integration is a key part of the culture, with the old and new melding together, but Karlsson points out it is still a modern city, with the same problems faced around the world. “In some parts it is [integrated] but Malmö is like two cities, we have Eastern Malmö and Western Malmö. The Eastern part is where we have state-funded, massive, buildings of housing which were built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Huge apartment complexes with a bit of green in between. They were always intended to be cheap housing and have continued to be the cheapest housing in Malmö so the people who are the poorest continue to live there, which also means you have pushed some of the social problems which go hand-in-hand with poverty to the Eastern parts of Malmö.”
“The difference between the median income between the Eastern and Western parts of Malmö is more than SEK300,000 a year”
He highlights that the more focused interspacing of historic and modern architecture is found in the central or Western districts which he describes as “quite a bit more affluent.” “The difference between the median income between the Eastern and Western parts of Malmö is more than SEK300,000 a year, thirty thousand pounds roughly. There’s a big difference.”
Turning to the more provocative issue of crime and immigration, I ask bluntly if there is a link between the two, acknowledging my oversimplification of a complex topic. Karlsson surprises me with his candour on the highly emotive subject. “Whatever I say it will be a simplification of how things really are, but I do think yes, immigrants, in particular second-generation immigrants, are over-represented in violent crime and thefts, and those kinds of crimes. That is a fact. But it is also a fact that they grew up in an area where your mother and father don’t go to work and they live in poverty, so there is a strong correlation to the socio-economic level of your area and your family. “What we see,” he continues, “is when families get more income and move out of these areas they leave the city altogether – we have a big problem with housing so they often move out of Malmö and another poor person moves in.” He could be describing any poor area, any council estate, anywhere in the world, even where the population is wholly indigenous.
“You can’t really say they are committing crimes because they are immigrants.”
What he’s getting at appears to be that environment is responsible for crime, rather than immigration. “You can’t really say they are committing crimes because they are immigrants. There is a theory that there is some structural discrimination against people with darker skin, but I don’t really buy that because when you look at the immigrants that come to Malmö, which is quite a lot – about 40% of the population is born outside of Sweden or has parents born outside of Sweden – twenty years ago it was people from the Balkans, then ten years ago South America.”
Only now is it mainly people from the Arabic states migrating to Sweden, which has generated a new problem when set against the change in the economic output of the city. “This is where it gets to be really complex. The people coming to Sweden now, most of them, do not have a degree of education that is matched with the labour market here now. If you came before 1990 there was always some industry looking for unskilled labour and you trained on the job and could have a good career making things. Since the decline of the manufacturing and textile industries, the wharf which was here, it’s gone and with that is the need for unskilled labour.” This is a clear issue which again is repeated worldwide but the Swedish view appears largely positive and pragmatic.
“I don’t recognise my city in the way it is described in the foreign media”
“They’re not uneducated, they don’t know the language of course but you can learn Swedish, that’s no problem. But you don’t have the education necessary for most of the jobs in Malmö and that is a new situation. It is solved within one generation though because the children growing up go through our school system. Fully qualified to get a degree, they can take the jobs here.” Karlsson doesn’t see these problems as permanent or insurmountable in any way. “Do we profit from immigration? I always wonder what the time perspective is. Refugees are not profitable in the national sense, not that I think they should be, people are people and should just do what they do.” The concept of people being seen as profit seemed to be tying in the concept of productivity output, rather than individual monetary value. Karlsson does, however, point out that, in terms of the Swedish economy, immigrant productivity at the fourth generation down the line is regarded as a simple win for the country as a whole.
The conversation followed an easy rhythm and we found ourselves discussing the original reason I made contact with Nils: Donald Trump’s “Last night in Sweden” comment made in Florida during a February rally. Something which was taken up by the Alt-Right and a number of right-wing figures, using their media platforms to paint a bleak picture of Malmö as a city where immigrant crime runs out of control and “No Go Zones” exist. Karlsson’s feelings on the matter are clear. “I don’t recognise my city in the way it is described in the foreign media. There is, or should I say was because many people have been arrested recently and the crimes have declined because of that, a murder wave. The murder rate was still much lower than the average American city rate but it was high for Malmö and for Sweden, a spike.”
There has been for a long time a trend of late in the summer people burning cars, which stops when school starts, and some people do feel unsafe by some of this. And yes, some crime is committed by people of a foreign background. Two summers ago there were some grenade attacks, which is highly unusual for Sweden and not many people were harmed by this but a few cars went up. So there was a surge in criminal activity but it is still much lower than in any random American town.”
“The only people who say they feel unsafe on the streets are the people from the Sweden Democrats right-wing political party.”
While the grenade attacks are out of what I consider ‘the ordinary’ – a topic I later pursued with a criminologist from Malmö University – there is no sense of fear on the streets, even being there only days after the Stockholm terror attack. Karlsson re-enforces this, saying “The only people who say they feel unsafe on the streets are the people from the Sweden Democrats right-wing political party. They say they don’t feel safe and the people they are talking to don’t feel safe, so perhaps it’s your point of view in this which affects what you feel.” I can’t help but draw immediate comparisons to Britain’s Brexit voters, the UKIP political party, and Marine Le Pen’s electioneering in France. The rhetoric also mirrored that pushed out by Alt-Right news outlets such as Breitbart in the wake of Trump’s comment.
“Just a comment about the Sweden Democrats,” Karlsson adds. “One of their full-time politicians, because we pay even the opposition to have full-time positions, went on one of the English news channels and said that we need to let the military go into Malmö and let them put things to rest. It was really quite a dramatic statement.” The city’s administration felt this was “really weird” and Karlsson fluidly addresses a concern impacting the whole of the Western world “The thing about these Alt-Righters is they get a lot of mileage out of their view because it gets spread like wildfire across the internet.”
Turning to sexual offences specifically, Karlsson highlights Malmö hasn’t recorded a recent drop in this type of crime. “The goal for any politician should be to lower it and it had been the case for a long time in Sweden that it actually had gone down,” but recent changes in the law in 2005 and again in 2013 increased what must be recorded by the police. The truth is, the offending rates have remained largely static over the last few years, with only marginal movements. “One explanation is that we make more and more actions against the law,” Karlsson adds, following up with confirmation that Sweden records one offence for every incident – so a victim can be a victim multiple times with different crimes recorded – and that crimes are never ‘downgraded’ or reclassified afterwards, as they are elsewhere
“if you think rape is only committed by immigrants you can’t work with the things which prevent rape in the long term”
“Even in the sexual crimes there is over-representation by immigrants but I can’t supply a great criminologist’s explanation for that. I’ve spoken to some police officers who say that there have been groups, men who drugged girls in nightclubs. But the instances of rape are so few that any offence like that would be noticed.” I can’t help but think of Rotherham.
Karlsson’s view on sexual offences is, on the whole, incredibly progressive and enlightened. He finishes by saying “the danger in this is that if you think rape is only committed by immigrants you can’t work with the things which prevent rape in the long term, which I think is working with the view of ‘what is a man’. You should work with boys early on to prevent rape later on.”
This approach is one the whole world could stand to learn a lot from, with long-term preventative work focused on gender rather than race. “I don’t think you can say it is foreigners per se. No country in the world is based on rape and murder because it wouldn’t be before long that the society would fall apart.”
As we drew close on time, Karlsson checking his watch, I ask what his response would be to the world be in the wake of Trump’s comments and the subsequent coverage? He takes a deep breath and smiles. “Come and find out for yourself! And, of course, check your sources. Don’t take all of your information from Fox News or Alt-Right sites. Check just one other site, or two perhaps if you have enough time.”
But does Karlsson think this is part of a broader problem in the world? “Oh yes. We should be able…we are in a situation where more information than ever is available to more people than ever and yet we choose our information before we read it. This should like the crowning moment of the human race, where all knowledge is available to everybody. But, instead, we misuse this marvellous opportunity we have to seek out information that just confirms what we already think. And that is a total disaster for our…I think it can lead to the destruction of the human race actually.”
“This should like the crowning moment of the human race, where all
knowledge is available to everybody. But, instead, we misuse this
marvellous opportunity we have to seek out information that just
confirms what we already think. And that is a total disaster for our…I
think it can lead to the destruction of the human race actually”
I’m staggered at hearing this but find myself agreeing, mainly as it’s the first time I’d heard the thought outside of my own head. The deputy mayor drives the point home with a pertinent example. “The biggest challenge for us globally are the climate changes and if the ones that actually can do something about it are ignoring the problems because they are not reached by news…we are making decisions based on false facts.”
Karlsson’s response, delivered with his academic credentials, was fascinating and timely, defining a period in history as eloquently as I’m ever likely to hear it said. His words stay with me as I wander down the steps of the Stadhuset, looking over yet another one of the city’s memorials to those killed and injured in Stockholm.
Speaking to people like Nils, it’s easy to believe Sweden is a progressive and caring society, dedicated to democracy and politically active in improving things for all those who live there. But Nils is just one voice of the many I need to hear and my next appointment has just messaged me to say they’re already at the Central Station, waiting with a coffee…