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Sweden seems to forget 'the other' immigrants

Published: 22 May 2014 10:27 GMT+02:00

A report released this week revealed that an EU-high 91 percent of Swedes thought that “immigrants contribute a lot to Sweden”. That figure represented the highest score of all EU countries, where the average was 48 percent.

The news left Sweden’s Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag beaming.

“This is a positive result, fantastic actually,” he told The Local on Friday. “It means Sweden and Swedish people have become more used to immigration.” 

At first glance, this would seem to be very good news. It does, however, beg a question that I have wanted to address for some time now. What exactly is the Swedish definition of immigrant?

From what I have read and experienced in my Swedish wanderings, it seems that when discussing immigration in Sweden its meaning defaults directly to the newcomers who are granted asylum.  

What Sweden fails to recognize is that there are more immigrants in Sweden than the newest refugee population.

And while we do not flee conflict, we, "the others", do fall through the cracks in some important respects. Somehow, the notion that we "can always go back" home puts us in a different category, unjustly I believe, from refugees. We came by choice. We came for love, for work, or we trailed our spouses. We are expats, love-pats, foreign professionals. We are immigrants too, but sometimes I can't help but feel that we have been forgotten.

The integration minister pointed out in his interview with The Local that immigrants who are granted asylum get permanent residence (permanent uppehållstillstånd - Put). We don't.

"If you look back at history you can see that integration is tougher on temporary permits. If you’re not sure that you’ll stay in Sweden, it’s much harder to learn Swedish and to plan for your future,” he said.

He is of course right. The indefinite right to stay can determine one’s ability to succeed in this country.

I can certainly tell you that the majority of my expat and love-pat friends didn’t get a permanent residence permit. Our driver’s licenses became invalid after one year of residence. Our educations and prior professional backgrounds go unrecognized. We wanted jobs. We wanted to contribute. And yet so many of our skills, educations, and backgrounds have continued to be ignored.

The policy of permanent residence may be warranted for the refugees, many of whom have no other home to go to. But many of "the others”, who did not flee but still made sacrifices - sold homes, interrupted careers, left friends -  they remain unemployed after years of job searching, and they feel their voices are not heard.

For me, as a love-pat, if the relationship with my Swedish fiancé ends I have to return home. As far as integration goes, there’s nothing like learning that you are disposable to make you feel unwelcome in your new country.

So, what is meant by “getting used to immigration”?

- Are native Swedes interacting with immigrants at work?
- Is the government and the businesses working to ensure that ALL immigrants can find work and contribute to society?
- Do their children play together in the school yard?
- Will they invite an immigrant from Iran, Mexico, or South Africa to fika? 

Or are Swedes merely getting used to hearing about immigration or seeing immigrants on the bus on their way to separate neighbourhoods?

What is "getting used to immigration"? I have a strong feeling that the Swedish self-censure machine is at work here, because I feel that Swedish natives are, at this point, so trepidatious of saying something wrong, of voicing an opinion for fear of being seen as intolerant, or racist, or xenophobic that all they can say is something nice. I don't consider that democratic, I don't consider it freedom of speech.

I sincerely hope that the good news is that Sweden is “getting used to immigration”, but what exactly does that mean … and for whom?

Lisa Mikulski is a Gothenburg-based writer and photographer.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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