Manne Gerell is a father of four and juggles those daily responsibilities with his busy work as a Lecturer at the University of Malmö. As a criminologist, he specialises in research on the geography of crime, social disorganisation, and the principles of near repeats. He also works closely with the Polisen across Sweden, addressing issues of crime in the poorer neighbourhoods and districts.
We meet outside the Espresso House in Malmö’s Central Station and Manne is relaxed, sipping coffee while working on his laptop. As I’m finding, the Swedish welcome is warm and friendly and his English is embarrassingly good when compared to my Hej and Tack. We talk briefly about his background and I’m immediately reassured I’ve come to see the right person.
“I’m now a researcher at Malmö University,” he says, pausing to ask if we need to move when a spontaneous round of piano playing begins on the station’s open to use instrument. “I mainly study the geography of crime, why there’s more crime in some places than others. So, I’ve been doing shootings and I’m working on a project on crime around local bus stops. How many people are going on the bus rather than how many people live in the local area. It’s a mix of where it’s really dangerous and,” he indicates at the station around us. “The victims don’t live here, nor do the offenders. So using crime per resident doesn’t work.” The world over transit crime is a significant issue, from London to Mexico City, and it’s only relatively recently police forces have begun to tackle its transient nature in a meaningful way.
“Also I work with the police on a project. What the Swedish police call vulnerable or disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Basically, poorer or immigrant neighbourhoods with more than normal crime and, in particular, some types of crime.” Rather than being focused on solely the Eastern districts of Malmö, the areas highlighted to me by Nils Karlsson at the Stadhuset, Manne’s work covers the whole of Sweden. “I work with police nationally,” he says. “But those districts in Malmö are mainly in the East, the West of Malmö is a lot richer.”
“The police don’t actually say they are ‘no go zones’ but the ones they label as problem areas, or vulnerable areas, are the ones the media and international media label.”
“That work by the police, that’s where the whole ‘no go zones’ thing comes from. The police in Sweden actually issue a report to identify which neighbourhoods have criminal networks and that’s been distorted into this kind of ‘no go zone’ discussion.” Manne is adamant the term has resulted from nothing more than over-interpretation of the police reports. “The police don’t actually say they are ‘no go zones’ but the ones they label as problem areas, or vulnerable areas, are the ones the media and international media label.”
He’s worked in the field for seven years and has clear views on what sets crime and crime recording in Sweden apart from the rest of the world. “There’s tonnes of differences, but obviously the actual laws are different in many cases. When it comes to the actual crime recording I think what’s been highlighted is how we tend to record every incident, every instance of crime. Someone could come in and say they had been raped every day by their husband and that’s one hundred or two hundred crimes. That’s one of the peculiarities of Swedish crime statistics.”
I’m curious as to what impact this has on the crime figures in respect of peaks and troughs, in particular thinking about other countries such as the UK where increases in reported offences are often attributed to mass events, using terms like ‘the Savile effect’. “It depends on what crime. On average it shouldn’t have too much impact on the trends, but for a single year, in particular for crimes which are less common like rape, it could have a big impact on a single year if you have hundreds of rapes being reported by one person. But, for most crime types, it doesn’t really matter that much and would still be a minority of the crimes reported, like bicycle theft, for example.”
Manne highlights there have been no hard quantitative studies on the impact of spikes in sexual offences caused by multiple reports with one victim. “There are several which mention that for some years it has had a big impact, with maybe a single victim, or a few victims, making up five percent or even ten percent of the crimes recorded.” This analysis has only been done in certain years and Manne recognises the current impact is unquantifiable.
From my own research, I’d garnered evidence of a change over the last few years which broadly reflected an increase in the reporting of sexual offences in Sweden and put it to Manne. “There have been some studies over the last few years which indicate people are more willing to report sexual offences than they used to be. So that’s been discussed and brought out a lot, but it seems that the willingness hasn’t gone down or up.” There’s also been further change in the Swedish definitions of sexual offences, which now include internet-based crimes. “The figures don’t distinguish between what happened online and in the physical world, so we really can’t distinguish the increase. But its also possible that people are less bothered to report offences which happened online. Some laws changed, which had a big impact on the rape statistics in 2005 and 2013. In 2005 many of the crimes which were classified as coercion or forced acts became rape, and in 2013 they amended ‘helpless state’ to a definition which included other vulnerabilities.”
In more general terms, in respect of Sweden’s world crime ranking, Manne says “it’s probably pretty average to be a western country in north Europe. On a global scale it’s very low because some countries have many more crimes than we do. But it depends on what crime type you look at. For instance, in western or north-western Europe crime isn’t that much lower than in the US but gun crime is much lower.” A quick search on the internet shows me there are about 32 guns per 100 Swedish citizens compared to the US where the figure is 113 per 100 inhabitants. Coming from the United Kingdom these possession figures both seem high, but Honduras had fewer guns per head than the UK and still ranked number one for shooting homicides back in 2010, so legal possession and death hold no real bearing. The key factor appears to be societal behaviour.
“we tend to record every incident, every instance of crime. Someone could come in and say they had been raped every day by their husband and that’s one hundred or two hundred crimes.”
Over the last few years there has been an increase in gun violence and explosions involving hand-grenades, Manne adds. “These are the trends where Sweden does stand out and, while there is no hard evidence linking it to immigration, it’s something that will come up in a discussion.”
I ask him about firearms possession rules and he tells me you either have to be a hunter to have rifles, or a competitive sportsman to have pistols or automatic weapons. “Very few of the gun crimes are committed with legal weapons, they’ve been smuggled in from the rest of the world.” I press him on where these illegal weapons are coming from. “There’s no solid evidence but it appears to come from the Balkans, from the surplus of the wars down there. But there’s also a fair share which comes from Slovakia. These are decommissioned or plugged and anyone can buy them without a licence, bring them to Sweden and reactivate them. They recently arrested a gunsmith here in Malmö who had done this with pistols and machine guns on a fairly large scale.”
He compares the gun homicide rate with the UK, correctly stating the figures used to be comparable but they’ve plummetted in England over the last ten years (increasing again only recently) while Sweden saw a steady rise. “Gun crime in Sweden was, by 2015, ten times higher than the UK so it’s diverging trends there. You can’t not notice it steadily going up year after year.”
The hand-grenades, being such an alien idea to me, are another area I pursue. They also appear to be coming from the Balkans but most of the cases aren’t clear according to Manne. “Most of the explosions are related to sending a message to someone, scaring. They haven’t been thrown at living people but empty stores or restauraunts and cars with noone in. They tend to explode either in the disadvantaged areas or around nightclubs in the city centres, where it could be suspected there is some link to gang criminals acting in revenge, or competing criminal groups in conflict over areas.”
Having spent a lot of time studying the Mafia and Russian criminals gangs, I can’t help but think of this as standard extortion and initimidation. Criminal turf war acts. “I shouldn’t say too much but a lot of people think it’s criminal gangs from the disadvantaged areas,” Manne says, “or the motorcyle gangs. But many of these cases aren’t solved.”
It isn’t only Balkan grenades, however. Home-made explosives of varying complexities often appear to be used in offences, again targeting empty premises and vehicles but, sometimes, people are killed and injured. “Up until three or four years ago we had a few cases a year but not a lot. In the last couple of years, there’s been twenty or thirty in a year, which is something different and very media friendly.”
“Honestly, we don’t know. It’s not that easy to disentangle the effect of immigration on crime and nobody’s even tried to do it, not even on the macro scale.”
I press on, asking a little bluntly what the link is between immigration and crime in Sweden. The answer surprises me.
“Honestly, we don’t know. It’s not that easy to disentangle the effect of immigration on crime and nobody’s even tried to do it, not even on the macro scale. That’s on immigration and crime. The related but different issue of immigrants and crime – how many more crimes does an immigrant commit rather than a native born – we have plenty of data on that.” This is the most candid conversation anyone is likely to have on such a sensitive topic and I’m intrigued. “Immigrants do tend to commit more crime so, in all likelihood, immigration has increased crime in Sweden,” Manne says, “but that would be not by a tonne. It would be a fairly small number. A few percent or something, but we don’t have an actual number.” There’s a headline here which could be easily adapted to political agenda but there’s also a clear complexity which needs exploring in detail.
“There’s a hypothesis which has been raised by a criminology professor in Sweden, who’s actually in the field of immigration and crime, and he suggests immigrants have become the new underclass. So, while they commit a lot more crimes, they are replacing native borns that otherwise would be down a class and committing more crimes. He’s arguing that immigration hasn’t increased crime, just led to other people committing the crimes.” The theory of a new underclass has been around for a long time, since 1970 in fact, when it was coined by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. He described a worldwide portion of population cut off from society – lacking the education and skills necessary to function successfully in the modern world – and this echoes with Nils Karlsson’s comments on the link between education and the new job market which replaced industry in Malmö.
“There’s a hypothesis…immigrants have become the new underclass. So, while they commit a lot more crimes, they are replacing native borns that otherwise would be down a class and committing more crimes.”
Manne takes the theory into account but holds his own view. “To me, that hypothesis is not entirely implausible. It seems likely that, seeing as immigrants do commit more crime than native-borns, immigration should lead to some more crimes but, of course, we’re mixing levels of analysis here. Individuals and countries. But, in my opinion, I wouldn’t be surprised if immigration has increased crime but not doubling or anything. Five percent or something, and it’s different for different crime types.” I put Karlsson’s comments on the table and we discuss the issue of the link between vulnerability, geography, and criminality in the context of immigration and the housing options for immigrants. We touch on the socio-economic factors of unemployment, non-skilled workers in a competitive job market, and the affordable housing in Malmö’s eastern districts. I want to know if these factors are reflected in the crime figures to support either the underclass – or Manne’s – hypothesis.
“It kind of depends on how you count. The highest crime areas in Malmö or anywhere in Sweden is this type of place”. He nods around us at the busy central station again. “Central station, the main square, the nightlife district, that is where most crimes are committed. And that’s true for most types of crime: theft, robbery, pickpocketing, assaults. But if you take these places aside and look at residential areas there’s a lot more crime in the vulnerable neighbourhoods.” But it isn’t all types of crime which are higher in the financially challenged districts.
“It’s the kind of crimes which are discussed a lot. So you have burning cars, arsons, shootings, explosives, hand grenades, open-air drug markets. Those types of crime are very much associated with these vulnerable neighbourhoods where people are a lot poorer, most of them are immigrants. There are a lot more problems”. The socio-economic impact on the environment, Manne agrees, is almost inseparable. “It’s really difficult to disentangle all that, unemployment, social assistance and welfare, crowding and multi-occupancy. All of these issues crowd together in the same neighbourhoods and it’s not surprising we see lots of social problems arise there, including crimes.”
“unemployment, social assistance and welfare, crowding and multi-occupancy. All of these issues crowd together in the same neighbourhoods and it’s not surprising we see lots of social problems”
Once again, the wider portrayal of events becomes a clear influence on the perceived impact of crime. “You see the burning cars in the media, it gets a lot of attention. Also shootings. You hear it, hear the guns. It’s different from most crimes, which you don’t see. Unless you’re the one burglarized, you’re not going to notice, not see it, not going to know it happened. But you can hear gunshots, see a burning car, see the burned out wreck. It adds to the whole discussion that the types of crime which have the strongest level in these neighbourhoods are much more visible. Much more media friendly. Which drives the whole debate and discussion.”
In recent years there had been a reduction in crime on the whole in Sweden, with property offences trending downwards, car theft and bike theft being the high volume. But these decreases are being “eaten up” as Manne says by increases in fraud, which is now a common trend across the western world. “There’s a similar thing in assaults,” Manne says. “Where they had been decreasing there’s now an increase in people reporting less serious offences where there’s no mark, nothing visible or anything. And also with bystanders reporting crimes, when it only used to be the victims reporting. When a crime is reported it’s still counted in the statistics, even if it’s proven nothing happened.” This is interesting, and Manne follows up with the information I wanted without being asked.
“the victimisation survey, shows crime going down and this is also shown in the hospital visits due to violence by another person. It was actually a record low last year”
“Despite this, the crime survey, the victimisation survey, shows crime going down and this is also shown in the hospital visits due to violence by another person. It was actually a record low last year for hospital visits from violence since they started summarising the statistics ten years ago. So I think we can say violence is actually going down in Sweden.”
This underlines the balance needed between the accurate recording of crime by the police and the requirement to verify trends against data beyond one recording authority. Interestingly, Manne continues by describing the social demographic of assaults (which is again an indicator of reducing violent crime). “In the highest group open to violent victimisation, men aged 15-24, the hospital rate is down to half of what it was in 2007. That’s quite a dramatic improvement and hospital visits are a good external measurement of serious violence.”
There’s something we haven’t touched on yet, the status of immigrants as victims of crime, rather than offenders, and I want to find out what statistics there are on this. “We have the crime survey,” Manne explains, “and it shows immigrants are a bit more likely to be victimised, but the over-representation isn’t as high as in the offending.” I’m curious, having heard the term over-representation with Karlsson too, to get to the bottom of its true meaning.
“It has many connotations and is used in many ways but, basically, the word was chosen by the National Council of Crime Prevention because they wanted to emphasise that most crimes are committed by native Swedes. Not that they commit more crimes, but relative to their share of population, immigrants commit more crime than would be expected. Crude estimates, native born compared to immigrants, show a difference that is quite big.”
“relative to their share of population, immigrants commit more crime than would be expected”
This is interesting and Manne gets straight to the obvious point before I ask. “There are many more males who are immigrants and, also, because more young people are immigrants compared to native borns, so when you start adjusting for factors like that the representation goes down. Some studies have taken socioeconomic differences into account on top of this more thoroughly, looking at family situation and the neighbourhood where you grow up. Then you can actually explain away most of the over-representation.”
Even taking these factors into account, Manne says there is an over-representation of immigrants in the crime statistics of between 20-70% depending on which crimes you look at.
“We’re not sure why but maybe, in part, it could be because of some implicit bias.”
“Over-representation is bigger if you look at convictions compared to arrests,” he says. “We’re not sure why but maybe, in part, it could be because of some implicit bias.” This gets straight to the heart of an issue which faces most societies now. “They’ll be more likely to be charged or spotted to begin with, then convicted. They then have fewer resources to draw on for the defence. There’s tonnes of potential biases which could explain how this increases.” Manne points me towards a study in the British Journal of Criminology from 2013 which explored the links to immigration, socio-economic status, and over-representation.
We turn to Donald Trump, and his ‘last night in Sweden’ comment, the reason I ended up in Malmö in the first place. “I think Carl Bildt, the previous Prime Minister of Sweden, was right when he said ‘what has he been smoking?’ on Twitter,” Manne says with a smile. “Eventually he [Trump] kind of cleared it up that he meant the whole piece on Fox news about immigration and crime and there is some fire behind the smoke. It’s not entirely wrong but, because it’s been distorted, it is entirely wrong.” I understand the contradiction.
“It’s not entirely wrong but, because it’s been distorted, it is entirely wrong.”
In respect of whether it was justified as a throw away comment about terror attacks, Manne is clear. “No, I don’t think it was justified. There are problems but it’s not like society is going down or something.”
What I really want to know is do people feel safe in Sweden, and Manne is the expert. “There was a reduction last year in perceived safety. Fear of crime increased in the survey quite a bit but that’s just one year of measurement and it still tells us that seventy-five percent of the population feel safe and are not scared. So it’s too early to say that we are doomed.”
The world climate has shifted significantly in the year leading to my trip, with an increase in hard political leanings more commonly being expressed in the media, and I ask Manne for his view. “It’s complicated and difficult to disentangle all these things but media and media reporting can have an impact on perceptions of safety and fear of crime”.
“media reporting can have an impact on perceptions of safety and fear of crime”
“The whole public discourse and media climate changed dramatically a year and a half ago with a big influx of refugees coming. Literally, in one week our prime minister was at a refugee demonstration saying ‘in my Europe we don’t build any walls’ and a coupe of months later they put up border controls to stop the refugees coming here.”
Manne describes the change in approach as “huge”, an almost complete U-turn. “That was the Social Democrats in government with the Greens, who are traditionally pro-immigrant, but they are now supporting these measures where Sweden completely turned its policy around. That influences everything, the discussion, how people see the issues of crime and immigration.” So how does such a change happen?
“What happened was everyone saw our nice policy and when they came here we couldn’t handle it so they had to clamp down and now we are at the minimum level of the European Union, having really strict rules on everything.”
“Sweden completely turned its policy around. That influences everything, the discussion, how people see the issues of crime and immigration.”
I’d been reading the Sapö intelligence service reports on the huge reductions in people being tracked travelling from Sweden to war zones such as Syria and wanted to cross check my understanding that these numbers had also reduced significantly. “It’s not really my area of expertise, but there’s lots of discussion on it,” Manne replies. “Similar trends, maybe not as strong and dramatic, but similar trends have been seen elsewhere in Europe. Likely it has things to do with tighter border controls with Turkey and our local controls. Mainly, probably, it’s to do with the war in Syria and how the Islamic State is faring in the conflict. It’s not going so well anymore, so it’s not as attractive to go down there.”
“Most people were expecting it to happen eventually. We don’t consider ourselves invulnerable”
Somberly, before it’s time for me to move on, I ask Manne for his view on the horrifying Stockholm attack which occurred only days before I travelled to Sweden. “It’s unusual. We’ve only had one failed Islamic terror attack before so obviously…he only killed himself. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s extremely surprising in a way. Most people were expecting it to happen eventually. We don’t consider ourselves invulnerable so when this stuff happens elsewhere it’s not unlikely to come to Sweden as well.”
Wandering out of the station I feel conflicted. There’s a lot of hypothesis around crime and immigration but no concrete data and some of what does exist is contradictory. The only thing I can say with certainty is areas with less money and status are more likely to be the places where media friendly, visual crimes happen. That’s no different to London, or Derby, or anywhere else.
The only thing to do, I decide, is go and see for myself…