The problem of misinformation is perhaps worse now than ever with the recent surge of fake news and misleading claims about everything from politicians to crime statistics. Human confirmation bias, isolated social media filter bubbles and search engine algorithms all contribute to a growing sense of polarization. The misinformation war that has plagues scientific skeptics and pro-science advocates when it comes to pseudoscience has now invaded politics and political policy issues. Dark forces are more willing than ever to lie and misrepresent statistics to provoke fear, anger and suspicion among people towards others.
Debunking Denialism has taken on several such cases of pseudoscientific bigotry, such as falsely comparing ethnic minorities to poisonous M&Ms, conspiracy theories about alleged white genocide, how anti-immigration activists abuse Swedish rape statistics or data on reported shootings in the Swedish city of Malmö. Now it is time to take on the widespread myth that Sweden supposedly has 55 no-go zones where criminals rule society and police are afraid or incapable of entering. This turns out to be a complete fabrication based on a journalist and his misreading of a police report and metaphorical use of language for exaggerated political discourse. Two police crucial police reports that investigate this issue never use the term and the properties they assign to vulnerable areas directly contradict the “no-go zone” narrative. There is a problem with criminal gangs fighting each other in Malmö, but that started in 2008, almost a decade before the refugee crisis in Europe. Let us take a closer look at the original police reports and relevant news articles on this issue.
What is a “no-go zone”?
Let us look at what the term “no-go zone” actually means. Not what it means on social media or among ideologues, but what the dictionary definition of the term is. The Free Dictionary provides the following definition (and many other dictionaries provide similar definitions):
1. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) a district in a town that is barricaded off, usually by a paramilitary organization, within which the police, army, etc, can only enter by force
2. an area that is barred to certain individuals, groups, etc
So for something to be a “no-go zone”, it must be blocked off by a paramilitary or insurgency group that prevents the police from entering or an area that is blocked off to certain people. Basically, the police or military has completely lost power or control over the area and the government cannot assert their sovereignty. Language evolves over time and definitions changes, but we must be clear with what the words we use actually mean.
The 2014 National Bureau of Investigation report contradicts the “no-go zone” myth
Many proponents of the Swedish “no-go zones” myth cites a 2014 report (cache) called ‘En nationell översikt av kriminella nätverk med stor påverkan i lokalsamhället’ (‘A national overview of criminal networks with great influence in the local community’) written by Rikskriminalpolisen (National Bureau of Investigation). However, this report never uses the terms “no-go zone” or “no-go area” and even contradict the far right narrative.
Here is the core message from the summary:
In Sweden, there are currently 55 geographical areas where local criminal networks are considered to have a negative effect on the local community. The areas are distributed over 22 cities – from large cities to smaller towns and are considered to be socioeconomically vulnerable. The large criminal impact on the local community appears to be tied to the social context in the area rather than a will among the criminals to take power and control over the local community. […] The development in the areas has made it difficult to investigate crime. The police has also in other respects had difficulty working in these areas, among other reasons because the surrounding reacts against the police during arrests or by attacking police vehicles.
So what is the issues they highlight in this report? They present a little over 50 geographical areas that are socioeconomically vulnerable and where local criminal gangs has a substantial negative effect. This makes it hard for the police to investigate crime, they are sometimes attacked when arresting people and sometimes their police vehicles are attacked by people that e. g. throw stones or smash windshields of police cars.
Does this sound like areas that are controlled by paramilitary or insurgency forces? Like areas that are blocked off and require the police or military to use force to be able to enter at all? No, not at all. Quite the contrary, as this report explicitly states that there is really no will among the criminal gangs to take control over the local area. Does difficulty in investigating crime or people sometimes react against police arrests mean that the police have completely lost control? Hardly.
Section 3.5.2 (p. 15) of the 2014 report discuss how the police view these areas in some detail:
The areas are judged to generally be difficult for the police to work in. As mentioned earlier, the police is often disturbed and hindered in their duties which may create disinclination to work in the area. It is also experienced that there are problems with solving crime in the areas. It is difficult to get people to take part in criminal investigations, but it is also difficult to act unnoticed and carry out reconnaissance in these areas where newcomers are quickly spotted. In some areas, guards are placed to monitor who are in the area to warn for police or criminal competitors. As previously mentioned, there are even vehicles checks that makes it more difficult to carry out concealed police activities.
Although obviously problems that cannot be dismissed, this is not any indication at all that these areas are “no-go zones” that are controlled by insurgents or paramilitary groups. This report provides no evidence whatsoever that these 55 geographical areas are “no-go zones”.
So how did this report create the “55 no-go zones” myth? It was the result of a single Swedish journalist.
How the “no-go zone” was created by a far right journalist
On October 28 of the same year, the far right journalist Per Gudmundson wrote an editorial (cache) called ’55 “no go”-zoner i Sverige’ (’55 “no go”-zones in Sweden’) in the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. Here is what he wrote about “no-go zones” in the editorial itself (Gudmundson quotes from the 2014 report above):
The police does not use the term “no go”-zones. It is originally military slang for areas under rebel control. But the question is if there any clearer description of locations were “the public in many cases experience it as if it is the criminals that rule the areas” and where “police have not been able to fulfill its task”.
Gudmundson explicitly states that the police do not use the term “no-go zone”, but he still wants to shoehorn the term because he is unsure if there is any clearer description available. Behold the creation of a myth. Here is where it all starts. A few years later, it is considered an international truth that Sweden has “55 no-go areas where the police have completely lost control”. Most people who have bought into this myth do not realize that the term is used extremely deceptively and that the narrative is a complete fabrication.
The 2015 National Operations Department report contradicts the “no-go zone” myth
Due to a major reorganization that took place within the Swedish police organization at the start of 2015, Rikskriminalpolisen was renamed to Nationella Operativa Avdelningen (‘National Operations Department’, abbreviated NOA). They published an updated report (cache) called ‘Utsatta områden – sociala risker, kollektiv förmåga och oönskade händelser’ (‘Vulnerable areas – social risks, collective ability and unwanted events’) in late 2015.
In this new report, the number of vulnerable areas decreased from 55 to 53 and 15 of them were identified as particularly exposed. Here is the crucial part of the summary:
There are 53 areas in Sweden that are to different degrees vulnerable for both serious crime and socioeconomic factors. Out of these areas, 15 are considered especially exposed. The crime in the areas can manifest itself through violent acts, riots, sale of narcotics and other serious crime that affects the residents both directly and indirectly.
Many of the risk factors are beyond the control of the police, such as the state of the welfare system, unemployment, ethnic segregation, stigmatization or crowded housing. However, the police can act to reduce fear and increase trust, sense of community and the collective ability. If the police together with other parties can reach an increased confidence for the authorities and an increased ability of the local community to deal with problems that arise it is not unreasonable to suppose that vulnerable neighborhoods can decrease substantially.
At this point, the police was likely aware of the “no-go zones” myth, so they explicitly defined what they meant by both vulnerable and especially vulnerable area. A vulnerable area was defined as having two properties: (1) low socioeconomic status and (2) criminal impact on local community. They report concluded that these areas require police presence and efforts to fix existing problems. An especially vulnerable area, on the other hand, required concentrated efforts by several parts of society to fix existing problems. It was defined as having five features: (1) general reluctance to take part in the judicial process (i.e. take part in criminal investigations or act as witness during trial), (2) difficulties for the police to carry out their duties, (3) parallel societal structure, (4) violent religious extremism and (5) geographical proximity to other vulnerable areas.
Those 15 especially exposed areas have problems that require concerted efforts by many parts of society to fix. However, even in these especially exposed areas, there are no paramilitary or insurgency that force the police or military to use force to enter. The police has not “lost control” and they have actively developed improved methods to effectively work in these areas. This includes working in teams, using action cameras to record their work and anyone who tries to interfere, reinforced windshields against people throwing objects, and special protective glasses against people using green laser.
These are not “no-go zones”. There are probably hundreds of areas in the United States that are far, far worse and where people riot, where the police has been militarized and regularly use automatic weapons to do their jobs and where police are murdered. There are no areas in Sweden where all that happens.
Objection anticipated #1: What about “parallel societal structures”?
We have seen how the far right activists abuse the term “no go zone” to fearmonger about the current situation with immigration and refugees in Sweden. It was a myth invested by a journalist in a daily newspaper and neither of the two major police reports on the issue support this narrative. On the contrary, they both refute this notion because the facts do not match the requirement for an area to qualify as a “no-go zone”. Thus, the extreme anti-immigration activists have simply committed the fallacy of equivocation by confusing the real term with the term used in an exaggerated in political discourse. To be sure, these areas have problems that must be solved, but there are not “no-go” zones by any stretch of the imagination.
However, as a last-ditch case, these far right activists point to the 2015 report mentioning “parallel societal structures”? Is this not evidence that these areas are in big trouble? Let us see what the report in question has to say about it (section 4.3, pp. 19).
In several of these areas, there is their own societal structure separate from the democratic system. It can involve its own norms, economy and judicature. Internal judicature between criminals is not included in this criteria because that is the rule rather than the exception in criminal networks. What is of importance is if and to what extent there are judicature between criminals and non-criminals. There is today no area in Sweden where a parallel societal system exists in full, but the vulnerable areas have aspects of this and if the system is allowed to continue it might be expanded. For example, there are people in the area with a good reputation that deals with or mediates conflict between families and clans. Also, lending services exists between residents in the neighborhood. In a few cases there are criminal networks that sets aside money to a so called severance fund where, among others, the relatives to convicted criminals can turn to in order to get economic support during the time the sentence is being served.
The report continues to describe trade with smuggled alcohol and tobacco, trade with stolen items and illegal gambling and illegal party businesses connected to weddings. Some of the criminal networks can also arrange apartments or jobs to people who are here illegally.
To sum up, there are no areas that have a fully-fledged parallel societal structures. There are no areas that are ruled by Sharia and the term does not appear in the 2015 report.
Objection anticipated #2: What is going on with criminal gangs in Malmö?
International focus has recently fallen on the city of Malmö in Sweden. It is the third largest city in Sweden with a population of about ~350 000. The area currently has a problem with criminal gangs fighting each other and sometimes shooting and killing each other. This is a legitimate problem and more resources is needed to solve this problem. This includes more police officers working and improved ability to investigate murders between criminals (e. g. getting people to take part in police investigations and testify against criminals).
However, even Malmö has become a target for anti-immigration activists abusing statistics. Although some international media consider Malmö to experience an epidemic of gun violence, this is to a large degree an artifact of how reported shootings are defined and measured. It turns out that if you apply the same definitions as done in the two larger cities (the capital Stockholm and the second largest city Göteborg), 60% or more of reported shootings turn out to not be shootings at all. The confusion becomes from how Malmö uses a much broader definition of a shooting event than the other two cities. The two larger cities require (1) the discharge of a gunpowder-loaded projectile weapon and (2) corroborating forensic evidence or testimony. In Malmö, on the other hand, a lot of other things such as slingshots or airsoft weapons and even damages to windows that something thinks look like a bullet hole is enough for the police to record it as a shooting event. This extreme system was put into place when the Malmö police where hunting the far right serial shooter Peter Mangs during 2009/10.
Make no mistake, there is currently a considerable problem (by Swedish standards) with violence and shootings between criminal gangs in Malmö and serious effort is needed. The story of how these gang warfare started in Malmö is described in an excellent article (cache) called “Gängkriget i Malmö – en bakgrund” (“The Gang war in Malmö – a background”) written by journalists Joakim Palmkvist and Tobias Barkman in the newspaper Sydsvenskan.
Although smoldering for years, the conflict between the two factions (M and K) started with a large fight in a nightclub in 2008. It is never investigated by police and no witnesses are interviewed. This triggers a long series of retaliatory attacks (including the use of hand grenades) and murders with many perpetrators getting convicted and going to prison. Because 2008 was almost a decade before the refugee crisis, this cannot be blamed on the recent influx of immigrants.
There are no “no-go” zones in Sweden. It is a myth fabricated by the far right in a news editorial to fearmonger about immigrants and refugees. There are vulnerable areas (low socioeconomic status and criminal impact on the local community) and especially vulnerable areas (general reluctance to take part in the judicial process, difficulty for the police to carry out their duties etc.), but none of these fulfill the definition of a no-go zone. There are no paramilitary or insurgents and the police does not need to use force to enter the area. Two reports written by the Swedish police that anti-immigration extremists cite do not use the term and describes the areas in a way that contradicts the definition of a no-go zone.
There are no areas in Sweden where there are fully-fledged parallel societal structures. The number of reported shooting events in Malmö is an artifact because they do not require clearly evidence that a shooting has taken place. It is enough that someone used a slingshot or someone observed a hole in a window that might look like a bullet hole. This was done to capture a serial shooter that was active during 2009-2010.
There are problems with violence between criminal gangs in Malmö and more resources are needed to solve that problem. However, that exploded in 2008 and thus almost a decade before the refugee crisis and thus cannot be blamed on it.