OSTERSUND, SWEDEN - In Swedish, they are called the “nattvandrare” or the “night walkers.”
Wearing orange vests and black skull caps, men and women march through the streets in groups of five or eight on Saturday night, eyes peeled for potential sexual assaults. In the past month, there have been at least eight.
The perpetrators are unknown, but reports that some assailants had “foreign accents” have prompted fears and media reports that say refugees or other migrants could be responsible.
On Saturday, cities across the world shut off lights for Earth Hour, a global environmental awareness campaign, but here in this remote city of about 45,000, steadily falling snow glistened in lit street lamps throughout the night. And while night walkers patrolled, small groups of party goers laughed as they slid between bars, restaurants and clubs until well after midnight.
Yet for some local women, civilian security patrols and bright lights are enough to make them feel safe.
“It feels horrible not to have control over the situation,” says Therese Johansson, a 19-year-old aspiring interior designer, out shopping Saturday afternoon. “It just came out of nowhere.”
For some Swedish people, the idea that desperate people who risked their lives to come to Sweden would turn on the population is hard to swallow. But some locals say if authorities do know who is responsible, they have not released the information.
“Many people say it's people that have come here from other countries,” says Emma Eurenius, a 19-year-old math student shopping for makeup on the city’s main street. “But I don’t want to believe that.”
However, other Ostersund residents say they do believe the violence is a result of the European refugee crisis, where more than 1 million people arrived in Europe last year alone.
“Many people come from many countries and we don’t know what they have in their luggage,” says Christer Jonsson, a member of the Sweden Democrats, a staunchly anti-immigration party that has been gaining support over the past year. “I think it’s a big problem in the future.
Patrols With a Message
As the night walkers patrol Ostersund, some groups have messages that reflect Sweden’s complex political shifts as the refugee crisis continues to grow.
On Friday night, a group wearing Red Cross jackets included refugees among the walkers, delivering the message that newcomers are equally concerned about safety. Additionally, they wanted to simply take the opportunity to be friendly.
“The refugees wanted to show that they are kindly and good,” says Irene Fregelin, a Red Cross volunteer who was on patrol. Before the attacks, she adds, anti-refugee sentiment was rarely expressed in Ostersund.
“Some people liked us and said ‘Hey, you are good people,’” explains 28-year old Ghais, who was a dentist before he fled Syria to avoid being forced to fight in the brutal civil war. “Some didn’t answer.”
The “Nordic Resistance,” a group that calls Hitler’s Mein Kampf a "best seller," also posted pictures of supporters in black coats patrolling the town in recent weeks. The group says despite the fact that the police say they don’t know who was behind the attacks, a report by British newspaper Daily Mail claims it was immigrants.
“The Swedish police have not communicated this because it would prompt an outcry in Swedish politically correct media, which is more concerned about mass immigration than Swedish women's security,” reads an article on its website about the patrols.
If the United States took in the same percent of its population of refugees in 2015, it would have accepted more than 5 million people.
Sweden accepted nearly 163,000 asylum applications in 2015, most in the last few months of the year. The country now spends six times what it did five years ago on caring for people fleeing wars and poverty mostly in the Middle East and Africa.
As is common in mass migration situations, right-wing anti-immigrant parties have grown increasingly popular in Sweden over the past year.
The Swedish government recently announced it will extend increased internal border controls until April 8, saying, "Europe has not managed to maintain its external borders. Until we see a joint European solution, Sweden will be forced to use short-term national measures.”
Late last week, the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey that it hopes will lessen the pressure by arranging to send refugees back to Turkey from Greece if they don’t apply for asylum or are rejected. In exchange, Turkey is expected to receive billions of dollars and political concessions.
The plan is fraught with challenges, like overcoming local corruption in Turkey, creating a new massive bureaucracy and persuading people who risked their lives and spent all of their money to get to Greece to simply go back.
Here in Ostersund, some locals say something needs to be done before fear-mongering politics grow stronger.
“Most people do not accept what they do,” says Fregelin, the Red Cross volunteer. “But they get bigger and bigger, and that makes us scared.”