Rosengård – Beyond headlines and labels
Despite the neighbourhood´s beautiful name, which translates to Rose garden, the reputation of Rosengård does not so much evoke images of roses as headlines of crime and social challenges. This area of Malmö, the third-largest city in Sweden, has been struggling with its notorious image for years to the point that it is hard to distinguish facts from myths.
When national media writes about Rosengård, the topic of choice is most often crime, criminals or challenges in education, employment and housing. "The North´s toughest ghetto", "rebel ghetto", "The Swedish police fears the North´s toughest ghetto" and "war zone" are only a few of the unrestrained descriptions that have been in some international media outlets. Although the term "no-go-zone" has been rejected time and again by the Swedish police it has proved to be an especially difficult label to shake off. "No-go-zone is a gratifying term for those who look down on the neighbourhood. It's absolutely wrong," says Nils Norling, the police´s press informant. “It implies that the police and emergency services can not work in the area. That criminals run the area and ´regular people´ cannot move freely there. This is not the case with Rosengård,” says police officer Glen Sjögren who has been working in Malmö for over forty years and is currently working in Rosengård. "As an officer in uniform I can walk in Rosengård alone, you would definitely not be able to do that in a ´no go zone.´"
Although outright sensationalism is avoided by the Swedish police, they do rely on their own set of labels. Rosengård is on the national list of "especially vulnerable areas" which means that it has a low socioeconomic status and is plagued by criminal activity, or as the police puts it, has "a high concentration of criminals." This category is often erroneously translated into "no-go-zone" by international media outlets. According to the police´s definition, these are areas where parallel societal structures may exist in the form of for example Islamic fundamentalism and where the police finds it "hard or almost impossible" to fulfil their duty. Sjögren says that many years ago there were times when the emergency services wouldn't drive into Rosengård without police escort but that this is no longer the case. "I would have liked to change ´especially vulnerable areas´ to ´especially prioritized areas´ because that is what they are in reality. But the police authorities in Stockholm have decided to use this term and they can´t change it now." There are also two other defined categories; "vulnerable area" and "risk zone." Although the point of the national list is to safeguard the rights and safety of the population, critics argue that it may ostracize certain groups, primarily minorities.
Rosengård is part of a city which hosts people from 186 countries and where approximately one third of the inhabitants are foreign-born. This fact alone has proved to be an easy rhetorical punchline for right-wing media and politicians alike. Nigel Farrage, Donald Trump and others have used Sweden as an example of failed integration policies or referred to Malmö as a crime-infested city. Last year Jimmy Åkesson, the leader of the far-right party Sweden Democrats declared Rosengård to be a "terrifying example in all of the North" and a "symbol of the integration problem." The fact that Rosengård has a high concentration of people of foreign descent together with the notion that it has a "high concentration of criminals" and social problems, has created a precarious cocktail of facts, stereotypes and misinterpretations in much of the media portrayal. The perception of Rosengård as a dangerous neighbourhood and Malmö as an unsafe city has at times had a downright repelling effect. A few years back a school trip to Malmö had to be cancelled as the parents of Danish students feared for their children´s safety, citing Rosengård as a reason for their acute concern.
What lies beyond the labels and what are the long-lasting consequences of a fearful image?
When the borders of Rosengård are traced on a map of Malmö, coincidentally the shape of a clumsily drawn rosebud appears. Inside those lines, there are large blocks of flats, a shopping centre and playgrounds. The neighourhood is well-known for its football team FC Rosengård and also famous for being the old neighbourhood of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the celebrated football player. Although Ibrahimovic no longer resides there his impact is still sensed on the streets as his picture, silhouette and quotes can be found scattered around the neighbourhood. On top of a small underpass next to the new train station, which was officially opened last year, a quote of his greets cyclists and pedestrians as they make their way through: "You can take a guy out of Rosengård but you can´t take Rosengård out of a guy." On the other side of the bridge, a painted red heart serves as a full stop to the phrase: "Home is where your heart is."
For 24 000 people, Rosengård is home. The area was first developed in the 1960s, though within a decade of its conception many apartments became vacant primarily due to deindustrialisation. During this time a large number of refugees and immigrants coming from South America, the Middle East and parts of Europe were housed there. Today almost 90% of the population is of foreign descent. There is a stark socioeconomic contrast between the different areas in the city. Rosengård is poor compared to the affluent Western neighbourhoods, with the average income being almost half of the city´s. Employment rates are also significantly lower.
"Segregation is self-perpetuating"
"Malmö is a segregated city where socioeconomic segregation is strongly connected to ethnic segregation," says Tom Roodro, project leader for sustainable development in Malmö city office. Roodro is adamant about the relational nature of segregation with which he means that the affluent areas are also subject to segregation. Research shows that there is a correlation between ethnicity and income levels in Malmö. A recent study on segregation carried out by Malmö city office states: "The results make a strong case for region of birth place being linked to the economic conditions of a household and hence where in the city one has the possibility to live." Although the study states clearly that birth place (region of birth) does not necessarily indicate ethnicity it is nevertheless the variable most often used to measure segregation. Roodro emphasises the importance of housing and says that segregation "is fundamentally linked to where you can afford to ask for accommodation which in turn is linked to what the housing stock in an area looks like," and adds "it´s about access to capital to buy or rent accommodation in the area you want."
According to Save the Children, more than 50% of children in Rosengård live in poverty. Foreign-born children or children who have two foreign-born parents run a five times higher risk of living in a financially vulnerable household compared to youths who have two parents born in Sweden. "Segregation is linked to social problems such as criminality, unemployment, child poverty etc. - but all of this can be traced back to the basic conditions one has when one is growing up," Roodro points out. This is relevant in the realm of education and academic results. Students in Rosengård have worse academic results than their peers in other areas of the city. According to statistics from the Swedish Agency for Education, there are schools in Rosengård where almost 60% of students failed to reach the academic levels required to enter high school in the academic year 2017/2018. A few years back several schools had to close due to poor academic results and bad working conditions. As a consequence of this students had to be moved to other schools in the city which improved their academic results remarkably. "Segregation is self-perpetuating," Roodro says and adds that it is hard to improve the educational situation without having more diverse classrooms where students are from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The schools in question have since re-opened but the issue of poor academic results remains a concern because as Roodro asserts "education is a fundamental prerequisite to success later on in life." He highlights the importance of continual commitment to bridging the gap in particular concerning housing stock, while also making it clear that despite the efforts of the city office and others to address the issues, "progress is slow and it will take years before the results are visible."
The Devil is in the Details
"The idea of Rosengård being an unsafe area with a lot of crime is repeated time and again in the media," writes the Swedish Red Cross in a report released earlier this year. "The perception of media and politicians makes it harder to have a nuanced discussion as it gets stuck on whether it's safe or not," the report continues. Roodro does think that the media often presents a negative image of the area but believes that, with development, matters will improve naturally: "By having the best schools, pre-schools, home care service, cultural events and so on the image will also change." However, Mirlinda Abazaj who lives and works in the neighbourhood thinks that it is hard to change people´s ideas, "the media´s job is to report on what is going on and focus is unfortunately often on the negative things that happen. There are positive reports as well but that doesn´t stick in people´s minds quite as much." Abazaj who works for the community-based organization Tjejer i Förening states "people get a bad image of a particular area and it becomes very difficult to prove them wrong and show the positive."
Despite the evolving nature of segregation and the complexities that exist in its causes and consequences a direct link is most often drawn between the neighbourhood and crime. The 2019 report on segregation in Malmö released by the city office, states: "Malmö is often described as the capital city of segregation. As a city with two sides, but where the side that is seen the most in the media is the side which is described as a problem, where there is a lot of crime and where criminal gangs are described as running wild." Despite all the ideas that exist about crime in Rosengård, on a closer look that seemingly self-evident link that may exist in the public´s perception becomes far less straightforward than one might expect.
According to the Swedish Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ), violent crime rates are not significantly higher in the eastern district of Malmö, which includes Rosengård. This is true whether the point of focus is violent crime including aggravated assault, sexual offences, drug offences or theft and robbery. A crucial point is also that if one compares the numbers over three years (2015-2018), reported cases of violent crime have gone down. Rosengård police officer Sjögren says "we have seen a clear change in the rate of reported crime in the area, it has decreased significantly." According to the police and the emergency services, there has been a 56% decrease (comparing rates from 2009 with 2018). When asked about the unremarkable crime rates in Rosengård, Nils Norling, the national police´s press informant concurs that "crime statistics do not stand out in especially vulnerable areas." However Manne Gerell, lecturer in criminology at Malmö University, argues that crime statistics are not particularly relevant in deciding what is an "especially vulnerable area", though he adds "those parts of Rosengård that count as vulnerable have a considerably higher rate of violent crime than the more affluent residential areas." Gerell is not wrong but his statement is in dire need of context. The western and more affluent part of Malmö has the lowest violent crime rates in the city so it could be argued that all other areas have a higher rate in comparison. What Gerell seems to be conveying, however, is that there are other issues than crime rates at play in deciding how vulnerable an area is. He states that what is focused on is "poverty and a strong influence from criminals on the people who are in the area. It's about open drug sales, threats and pressure as well as violent crime," he says. Norling says that it is "also about fear of crime and public safety, parallel societal structures as well as an unwillingness among members of the community to cooperate with the police and the authorities."
It is often claimed that people don´t report crime in Rosengård but Sjögren does not believe that to be true, "for most of the crimes we see the insurance companies demand a police report, otherwise one doesn´t get any compensation," and "it is not that people don´t report crime because they do actually. That's not where the problem lies," he says and explains that the issue is that "we have some serious crime cases with many witnesses (and) it is in such cases that people are afraid to give testimonies." Based on Sjögren´s account, it is the follow-through or rather the aftermath of reporting a crime which is the issue in serious criminal cases in the area. The officer states that gang-related crime and drug offences, of course, do happen but that "there has been a decrease in both phenomena," and "drug sales have gone down considerably since we put up cameras." The use of cameras is one of several preventative measures that the police and the emergency services have taken to battle crime in the area and also improve the relationship between the authorities and the local community. "Serious crime does still exist, but not more than in ´vulnerable areas.´ But Rosengård suffers from a sad history that the media doesn't seem to want to let go of," Sjögren concludes.
In other words, crime rates are not as high in Rosengård as many think and there has been a clear decrease in recent years. The positive trend is not only visible in Rosengård but Malmö as a whole. According to the city office, reported crime per capita in Malmö has been decreasing steadily in the past ten years. All crimes are of course not reported or registered which means that crime rates are not a completely accurate reflection of the total number of actual crimes in the city but nevertheless it is an indicator of how a city is developing. The police´s definition of an "especially vulnerable area" is a complex patchwork of socioeconomic and sociocultural factors intertwined with criminal activity in a way which is not solely reflected in reported crime rates. These labyrinthine complexities make the categorization of such areas fertile ground for misconceptions and misunderstandings. On top of this, the element of public safety and fear of crime are also, as Norling points out, material to the discussion.
Fear: Three dimensions of a flower
"I feel at home in Rosengård, it is not less safe in Rosengård than in other parts of Malmö or Sweden," says Abazaj who has lived in the neighbourhood since the age of three. "Rosengård has, like many other areas, its problems but it´s not just here that ´nonsense´ happens," she says, ́ "crime happens all over our country and it´s more about where you are and at what time you´re in that place." The most recent survey on public safety and fear of crime carried out by the Police shows that 83% of respondents in Rosengård state that they were not victims of any crime whatsoever in the past year but the same survey shows that inhabitants in the neighbourhood have a high rate of "concrete fear of crime" which is one of three categories of fear measured in the survey. Other recent surveys from Malmö University (2015) and the Swedish Council for Crime Prevention (2019) show a similar pattern. When survey participants in Rosengård were asked whether they feel safe alone outdoors late at night many said no. However when the focus shifts to whether or not respondents are afraid of being subjected to crime/victimized it becomes clear that they display a low level of "general fear of crime." Ulf Ljungberg who works at the department of analysis and sustainability in the city office, clarifies the relationship between the different types of fear and worry which are measured, "it might be that the concrete fear of crime is high because of shootings in the local community. If there are unusually high numbers of shootings which are focused on in the media a lot, then it may instill the sense that there is a high risk that anybody can become a victim of violence," he says adding "at the same time a general fear of crime may be low because fear of theft, vandalism and such don't have any link to violence." In other words how safe one believes an area to be is an important factor in how fearful one is of crime. Ljungberg is careful to point out that the different types of fear are not causal, "think of the three different dimensions of fear of crime as for example the colour of a flower, the size and the scent: All three dimensions describe the flower, but they are not each other´s cause," Ljungberg says. This is an important point because it shows that even though it may feel counter-intuitive, the actual relationship between crime and different types of fear is not simple. It also highlights how the media may affect certain aspects of fear of crime and public safety. Other factors play a role as well. According to research presented by Malmö University, fear of crime is generally higher among those born outside of Sweden compared to those born in Sweden. The age of the respondents is also of importance.
The perception of crime and safety becomes even more intricate and bewildering if one observes how general crime trends are viewed. A survey from this year released by the Swedish Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ) shows that the absolute majority of respondents in Malmö think that there has been a rise in crime in Sweden in the past three years. In reality, crime rates in the city have been dropping and national crime rates have not gone up in a significant way. On national level there has been a steady increase of reported crime in the past three years but if one compares statistics from early 2018 with statistics from the same period in early 2019 the increase has been 1%. In other words, there have not been any dramatic changes towards the negative in the country and the city in which the respondents live, has even been experiencing a positive trend. Yet almost 80% of respondents believe that there has been a slight to significant increase. The discrepancy between actual trends and the public's perception of crime and safety is noteworthy.
Fear does not only shape our understanding of how safe we are in our own neighbourhoods but also has a role to play in how we perceive others. "I think that segregation in itself decreases the trust between different residents in Malmö. In their respective neighbourhoods trust between residents may be high, but when one goes to other neighbourhoods one trusts others less," Roodro says. With regard to the media´s role in creating a fearful image of neighbourhoods like Rosengård he says that he believes that the media presents "a picture of reality, but they can´t reflect all of reality. So they often choose what stands out, and that is often what´s negative." According to the police´s latest fear of crime and public safety report, 75,4% of respondents in Malmö say that they were not subjected to any crime in the past 12 month which is the lowest number in twenty years. Increased numbers reported feeling safe and also a higher number of respondents say they trust the police. Yet, the third largest newspaper in Sweden which is based in Malmö led with the headline "Open drug deals, fights and joyrides make many feel unsafe." The media´s half empty glass of water that's probably going to kill you approach to reporting crime and public safety issues in the city has affected areas like Rosengård where focus on the long term developments are important.
That integration is a crucial part of positive change, is something that the organization Drömmarnas Hus is more aware of than most. This cultural centre has been active in Rosengård for thirty years, during which time they have provided children with creative activities free of charge. In an interview answered collectively by their team they mention how the aim is largely to bring different communities together, "we want to encourage youths from other parts of Malmö to participate in our activities and as such contribute to Malmö´s overall integration." One of the challenges they face is prejudice, "children and youth outside of Rosengård sometimes have difficulties coming to us because of their parents´ prejudices about Rosengård." The organization works to remove the stigma attached to Rosengård and the team says that one of the things they like best about working there is that they can "spread a positive perception of Rosengård in different contexts (friends, work and social media), an image full of commitment, empathy and a sense of safety. It is incredibly rewarding to work with children in Rosengård." Drömmarnas Hus and Tjejer i Förening are two organizations among several in the area that work to improve conditions and to give youths a safe and creative outlet or as the team puts it "there are so many children who need to be seen, to be allowed to tell a story, to use their imagination, to play and to invent," and it is important to "show that all participants have potential and a possibility to affect and form themselves and their immediate environment." There were years of unrest in the area the team says but "nowadays Rosengård feels like a calm neighbourhood. A lot of positive things have happened in recent years, where many organizations, associations, the police and companies have been working together for a better future." Although "the social situation has not changed radically," they recognize that "there are small changes for the better every year."
A rose by any other name
If a fearful notion is repeated enough times it impresses upon the reader or viewer a perception which may be hard to disprove. Yes, Rosengård has a very large number of residents of foreign descent. Yes, it is poor and faces real problems in improving education and employment rates and yes, it has a series of other social and crime related challenges which are necessary to address. However, these mentioned challenges do not also automatically render the population villainous and its streets dangerous for the general public. Prejudice blurs the facts and long term trends that are behind every hair-raising headline, label and description. Officer Sjögren is all too familiar with the relentless effort it takes to dispel myths, "I can tell you that, every month, sometimes every week, journalists come here from all over the world to dangerous Rosengård," he says, the word "dangerous" tinted with irony, "I tell them about Rosengård and show them around the area. After an hour's walk in the neighbourhood, they usually thank me and say that they have nothing to write about anymore. Rosengård is not a no-go-zone."
In an era when media in all its forms governs much of our understanding of the world and the human condition at a mind-boggling pace, a rose by any other name may not smell as sweet. Although the streets of Rosengård are not more perilous than any other street in Malmö the perception of them being so contributes to the creation of a divisive narrative which is counterproductive to the efforts that are, in fact, being made to narrow the divide of segregation and broaden the idea of community to not only encompass one neighbourhood but a whole city.