Wasting time at the Migration Board

Ronnie Gilchrist spends a trying afternoon at the offices of the Migration Board with an MBA student who urgently needs the agency to rectify a bureaucratic error.

Jenny sits patiently in the Swedish Migration Board’s grey-tiled, symmetrically decorated waiting room in Solna on the outskirts of Stockholm.

She is here because of a mistake made by the Swedish Migration Board. For the fourth time since she got here, she answers her phone.

“I will be there at three,” she tells the person on the other end of the line.

To me she says: “I have a group meeting at three for the Ericsson project and, well, you know, the way this is going I just don’t know”.

She hunches her shoulders and sinks back into the chair.

Jennifer is an exchange student from the United States. She has been studying for an MBA at Handelshögskolan (Stockholm School of Economics) since August. She graduates in July.

But Jenny has a problem: during her application process the Swedish Migration Board made a mistake. They only permitted her a student visa until June 31st.

Time passes. Our conversation has run dry and the coffee machine is out of order. We have been waiting at the Migration Board since one o’clock. It is now three and Jenny has missed her meeting.

We sit and wait. What else can we do? Outside the sun is shining but inside the dim light is reminiscent of an operating ward. The people waiting come from all over the world. Jenny and I manage to discern snatches of conversations in Turkish, Russian and Chinese.

In the corner there are kids sliding on the rails intended to help the women transport their baby carts up and down the stairs. I observe the children’s ability to turn even the most irritating of situations into an adventure.

Above us is a digital screen with bleeping queue numbers. The bleeps have temporarily become the pacemaker by which we mark time.

Finally we hear the bleep we have been waiting for, as the number printed on our note and stained in our minds appears on the screen. We hurry to the booth, walk into the tight cubicle, close the curtain behind ourselves and stare at a bulletproof window with nobody sitting behind it.

“It was booth 14?” Jenny asks.

I get up to check the digital sign and see that it still flashing the number 14. I go back to the booth, confirm my findings to Jenny, and we continue admiring the pane of glass before us. We watch attentively for another 15 minutes but the movie does not improve.

Eventually, a young woman comes to our aid and asks Jenny in Swedish what the problem is. Jenny replies in English but it seems Sweden’s second language is not spoken at the Migration Board. Clearly they are not leaving it solely to the language institutes to preserve Sweden’s native tongue.

After three or four sentences, the woman ceases her efforts at teaching Swedish and switches instead to flawless English.

Jenny explains her situation and hands over documentation from her school and her health insurance, the only two requirements for obtaining a student visa. The woman looks through them before reading from a computer screen:

“Your visa was permitted for the time that you have health insurance.”

“But my health insurance is good until the 12th of August,” says Jenny, while gesticulating at the form that accompanied her original visa application.

The woman looks first at the computer screen, then at Jenny’s bewildered expression. She walks away without explanation.

The woman returns: “You have to go to Norrköping, they take care of all student visa applications,” she says.

“Can’t we call?” Jenny enquires.

“There is a pay phone in the lobby, but it only takes cards,” is the answer given.

Jenny is quickly running out of patience. This whole process is starting to tear at her nerves. She suggests to the woman that she should call her colleagues in Norrköping and find out what is going on.

“No,” says the woman.

“But it’s your mistake, why should I have to waste another day to sort this out?” Jenny wonders.

“You can apply for a new visa. It will most likely be granted. Here is the application form,” the woman says, and hands Jenny an application form in Swedish.

Jenny finally thinks we are getting somewhere but it seems that, to add insult to injury, this new application is going to cost her 1,000 kronor ($164). Jenny brushes the slightly damp hair from her forehead and takes a deep breath.

The girl behind the bulletproof glass explains that it was up to Jenny to appeal the original decision within 30 days of receiving the confirmation letter.

After another 15 minutes of debating the legalities and irregularities of the situation, we come to the conclusion that the woman has no authority and can’t help Jenny in any way. It has become clear to us that another sabbatical will be needed.

We leave the booth with wet backs and dry throats. We are tired and angry as we discuss the idiocy of the whole situation. Nobody is left in the lobby; the Migration Board closes at 3 o’clock.

We leave the building without a visa and without the assignment that Jenny should have been writing. All we have is a wasted day.


INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”